In the early part of the 20th century, women sought and gained many legal rights, including the right to vote as part of the 19th Amendment. Their entry into the workforce, into occupations previously reserved for men, and into the social and political life of the nation should be celebrated. The biggest remaining challenge is how to reconcile women’s new roles in the workforce with their continuing role in the family. Resolving this tension has implications not just for gender equity, but also for middle-class incomes and for the overall well-being of American families.

Middle-class incomes have risen only modestly in recent decades, and most of any gains in their incomes are the result of more women going to work and earning higher wages. But now that most women are employed, that source of income growth is drying up. Although women’s labor force participation has rebounded after falling during the last recession, its long-term growth appears to have stalled. Without new policies and practices that involve greater sharing of the burdens of unpaid work in the home, more support for time-squeezed working families, and higher pay for both men and women, whatever growth we have seen in middle-class incomes may disappear entirely.

We define the middle class as the middle 60 percent of households, and look at the most recent CBO figures on income after taxes and transfers. Growth in middle-class incomes from 1979 to 2016 was 47 percent, or 1.3 percent per year. That’s a very modest rise considering that we’re looking at a nearly four-decade period. It’s also a slower rate of growth than that experienced by the top 20 percent or the bottom 20 percent over this same period.

We now come to the interesting part of the story about women and middle-class incomes. Without women’s contributions, these gains would have been small to nonexistent. By our estimates, based on a method initially proposed by Heather Boushey at the Center for Equitable Growth and using pre-tax money income in the Current Population Survey, average middle-class household income grew from $57,420 in 1979 to $69,559 in 2018.

Read the full article about the impact of women's work by Isabel V. Sawhill and Katherine Guyot at Brookings.