The 1940 Census Put Working Wives Under Fire
March 25th, 2012 by Jessica

The 1940 Census brought forward sensitive issues with topics such as employment of women, unemployment in general and mass migration. Many articles were printed throughout the country with editorials on the questions asked of the citizens during the 16th decennial census.

The article below was published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Louisiana on April 1, 1940. The article was (thankfully) buried on page 31. Prior to sharing my insights, I shall present the article so you can formulate your own opinions.

Working Wives Under Fire

Working Wives Under Fire

Working Wives Under Fire, Babson Warns Legislation May Attempt an Answer

Three to Four Million Married Women in Jobs

By Roger W. Babson

Babson Park, Fla., March 31 – The biggest research job ever undertaken by any nation in any time begins on Monday when the 1940 Census starts. Each decade this vast nose-counting project gets bigger, the blanks longer, the questions more personal. However, as long as people want to turn to Uncle Sam for help when they are in trouble they must expect to furnish the information which the government needs in order intelligently to provide such help.

Nonwithstanding all the hullabaloo about “your income,” most anxiously awaited reply will be the question, “Are you employed?” I fear the nation will be shocked when the answers to this query are added, tabulated, established. However, it will be impossible to compare this figure with any previous totals. Our national ideas on unemployment have changed drastically in the last 10 years. We went “unemployment-conscious” during the [?]. Ten years ago a jobless family of four was content to consider that one person – usually the father – was unemployed. Today, that family would report there are four out of work.

Millions of Working Wives

During the last decade, business has been unable to absorb the trek of women into industry and find new jobs for the displaced males. It is estimated that there are 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 married women holding jobs. Of course, in many cases these wives are the sole support of their own family, of their aged parents, or of some other family. My hat is off to any wife with guts enough to support the family if her husband cannot or will not do so. But many people believe something must be done about those cases where both husband and wife are holding down good jobs.

Under normal conditions I would feel that nothing need be done legislatively about the problem of working wives and husbands. Today’s conditions, however, are not normal. There are millions of men out of work, the government is supporting upwards of 20,000,000 people, federal expenses have soared to an all-time peak. At least one-quarter of this money goes directly for relief and another 25 per cent for recover “aids.” In addition, nearly every town and city runs Community Chests.

Adding to the Tax Burden

Yet, from one end of the country to the other there are glaring examples of wives holding down good jobs while their husbands are doing likewise. These cases cover public jobs as well as private employment. So long as we have to hand over one-quarter of our income every year to meet government bills (which have been pushed up to record highs to support the jobless) then some type of formal action to stop this practice is bound to come.

A storm of controversy has raged around this subject for years. Protectors of the home have thumped the tub against working wives on the basis that the place for the wife is in the home. They insist that if we wish to continue with our present system of the family as the unit of society, we must confine the wife to her real role of mother and homemaker. I think a lot of words are wasted in arguing this line. If the family as the unit of society is going out the window, then we cannot stem the tide simply by putting a new law on the books. Only a spiritual family awakening will solve the problem properly.

Real Objections Are Economic

My only objection to married women working is based on cold economic grounds. Working wives take many part-time jobs, they work at lower pay scales than single women, they create a surplus of labor, they fill jobs that unemployed men could handle. The tide of resentment against the practice is rising steadily throughout the nation. I understand that two state Legislatures have already adopted laws designed to force married women out of industry. Twenty-eight other Legislatures have considered the subject.

Yet if legislation is to be adopted, I hope it will be practical, sensible, not too restrictive. There are hundreds of cases that must be made exempt – cases where the wife must help support her own family, an unemployed brother’s family, an aged mother or father. If any legislation is adopted, it should not automatically purge married women from industry. It should merely prohibit both husband and wife from holding certain types of jobs, especially government jobs. In many a family the wife makes a far better breadwinner than the husband. If the wife has the business ability, then why shouldn’t she hold the family job while the husband stays at home and changes the baby’s diapers?

Should Recognize Trend

Working wives can make out a splendid case for themselves. Yet I believe they would be smarter if they recognized the rising tide of national resentment against both husbands and wives working where there is no need for both to work. They would do far better to resign their jobs now and prevent restrictive legislation – legislation which it may take years to appeal. We already have too many regulations shackling employers and employees. But if wives insist on working when their husbands have good jobs, then they must face the day of reckoning.

As a business leader with a Master’s Degree, a government IT employee, a woman who is the wife of a man who is also a government IT employee, this article is very intriguing to me.

The editorial writer, Mr. Babson, makes a strong argument for why women shouldn’t be employed when their husbands are also employed. The issue I have with his argument is that many [insert minority person here] are better at their jobs than some men would be.

In order to have a strong economy, we should have the best person for the job employed in doing that job. Hiring men for the job just because they are men makes for a mediocre workforce at best. The same could be said for a good employee from any minority group. If a person does a good job, we should support him or her, make allowances and put forth expectations to pay appropriate taxes and contribute to our economy.

Are you interested in learning if your grandmother was a working wife in the 1940 Census? 

Head on over to and learn how to become a volunteer indexer.  Together, we can help each other find out sooner than ever before.  It only takes a little bit of time from a whole lot of people. 

Soon, we’ll be searching the indexes and easily locating our strong female ancestors holding down jobs and supporting their families after the Great Depression.

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© 2013 Jessica M. Green