NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Women Progressed Without Affirmative Action

April 9, 2003

Women made much economic and social progress prior to the 1960s, says economist Thomas Sowell. But tracing statistics on pay and promotion back only to the 1960s makes it appear that affirmative action laws and policies were responsible.

In fact, women had achieved a higher representation in higher education and in many professions in earlier decades of the 20th century than they had when the feminist movement became prominent in the 1960s.

The earlier trend had more to do with demographics than politics.

  • The percentage of master's degrees and doctoral degrees that went to women was never as great in any year of the 1950s or 1960s as in 1930.
  • The percentage of women who were listed in "Who's Who in America" was twice as high in 1902 as in 1958.
  • Women received 34 percent of the bachelor's degrees in 1920 but only 24 percent in 1950.
  • In mathematics, women's share of doctorates declined from 15 percent to 5 percent over a span of decades, and in economics from 10 percent to 2 percent.

What really happened was that, as the birth rate fell from the late 19th century into the 1930s, women rose in the professions and in postgraduate education. Then, as women began marrying younger and having more children during the post-World War II Baby Boom, their representation in both professions and in higher education fell. More recently, as women began having fewer children, they rose in higher education and in the professions.

The role of motherhood explains male-female differences far more readily than changes in public policy. For example, data from more than 30 years ago show that women who remained unmarried and worked continuously from high school into their 30s earned higher incomes than men of the same description.

Source: Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution), "Another grand fraud," Washington Times, April 5, 2003.


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