The Secret History of the Minimum Wage

Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution, Oct. 25

It’s no surprise that progressives at the turn of the twentieth century supported minimum wages and restrictions on working hours and conditions. Isn’t this what it means to be a progressive? Indeed, but what is more surprising is why the progressives advocated these laws. A first clue is that many advocated labor legislation “for women and for women only.”

Progressives, including Richard Ely, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, the Webbs in England etc., were interested not in protecting women but in protecting men and the race. Their goal was to get women back into the home, where they belonged, instead of abandoning their eugenic duties and competing with men for work.

Unlike today’s progressives, the originals understood that minimum wages for women would put women out of work—that was the point and the more unemployment of women the better!

Much more on the secret history of the minimum wage in Thomas Leonard‘s paper, Protecting Family and Race: The Progressive Case for Regulating Women’s Work.

Abstract of “Protecting Family and Race” (Thomas C. Leonard, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2005):

American economics came of age during the Progressive Era, a time when biological approaches to economic reform were at their high-water mark. Reform-minded economists argued that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers—whom they labeled “unemployables,” “parasites,” and the “industrial residuum”—so as to uplift superior, deserving workers. Women were also frequently classified as unemployable. Leading progressives, including women at the forefront of labor reform, justified exclusionary labor legislation for women on grounds that it would (1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.” What united these heterogeneous rationales was the reformers’ aim of discouraging women’s labor-force participation.

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