The Journal of Economic History


The Wage Gains of African-American Women in the 1940s

a1 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Fellow, University of Michigan, School of Public Health, 109 Observatory Street, SPH-II, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-2029; and Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. E-mail:
a2 Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Box 351819-B, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37235, and Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. E-mail:


The 1940s marked a turning point in the labor market outcomes of African-American women. They experienced large wage gains relative to white women, sharp declines in agricultural and domestic service work, and significant increases in formal sector employment. Using a semiparametric decomposition technique, we assess the influence of changes in productive and personal characteristics, in workers' distribution across occupations and locations, and in the wage structure on both black women's absolute wage gains and those relative to white women's. We argue that the pattern of changes is most consistent with increasing demand for their labor in the formal sector.