The XX Factor

The Feminism of Penicillin

When we talk about barriers to the entrance of women in the American workforce in the 20th century, the story we tell is largely cultural and economic. Married women with career aspirations had to contend with wage discrimination, marriage bars , and the perception that a working woman was ipso facto a degenerate wife and mother. A neat new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that we often understate the role of basic medical advances when talking about that sudden, collective jump from home to workplace. It’s easy to forget how dangerous childbirth used to be; complications associated with sepsis, toxaemia and obstructed labor could ravage a body well into middle age. “Many maternal conditions had very long lasting or chronic effects on health,” the researchers report, “hindering women’s ability to work beyond their childbearing years.”

Using historical data to quantify the effects of various maternal conditions, economists Stefania Albanesi and Claudia Olivetti find that medical advances like the introduction of antibiotics, the standardization of obstetric practice, and the hospitalization of childbirth were absolutely critical to the rise of married women’s participation in the labor market over the last century. They also find a very large effect for the introduction of formula as a mainstream alternative to breastfeeding in the 1930s. A typical woman in 1920 between the ages of 23 and 33 would be nursing for something like 40 percent of her potential working time. As Hanna has so forcefully illustrated , our cost/benefit calculations change when we start to consider the possibility that a mother’s time might have some kind of value .