Collaborative Research: Motherhood and Medicine: An Historical Perspective on Health, Fertility and Women's Work and Earnings

National Science Foundation, SES-0820127
Principal Investigator: Stefania Albanesi



The substantial swings in fertility and the dramatic rise in the labor force participation of women are among the most notable economic phenomena of the 20th century. This project seeks to evaluate the impact of medical progress on these developments. The research project comprises two components. The empirical analysis evaluates the effect of medical progress on women's fertility, human capital investment and labor force participation. This project uses the decline in maternal mortality between 1935 and 1955 as a summary measure of medical progress. It exploits geographical variation in the timing and intensity of this decline to gauge its impact on different cohorts of women at varying points of the life-cycle. The project then develops a theoretical model where improvements in maternal health determine a decline in the cost of having children and reduce the comparative advantage of women in home activities. Medical progress has two opposite effects on fertility: a positive direct effect that arises from the reduction in the cost of children and a negative indirect effect stemming from the rise in women's incentive to invest in market skills. The model endogenously generates the rise in fertility and women's participation starting in the late 1930s, as well as the decline in fertility and the continued rise in participation from the 1970s on. The analysis requires an extensive data collection effort. This project needs disaggregated historical time series on maternal, fetal and neonatal mortality, on fertility, education, labor force participation, as well as demographic and economic variables. The data will be used in the empirical analysis and for the purpose of calibrating the theoretical model.

This project is the first in economics to analyze the impact of improvements in maternal health on the joint historical evolution of fertility and women's labor market outcomes in the US. The point of departure is that the maternal role of women was associated with a substantial health risks until the early decades of the 20th century. Maternal mortality and morbidity significantly hindered women's ability to work and weakened their incentives to invest in human capital. Since then medical progress greatly reduced the cost of having children. The proposed research seeks to analyze the role of medical progress on fertility and the economic outcomes of women.

Broader Impacts: This research links maternal health to women's fertility, human capital investment and work decisions. The results will potentially be of interest to a broad range of researchers in economics, history, demography and sociology. The analysis can also aid the evaluation of public health initiatives by providing a framework to quantitatively assess their impact on education, work and earnings of women. The research will also be integrated with the teaching of the investigators, especially at the graduate level. Graduate and undergraduate research assistants will be introduced to important skills and potential research topics to develop on their own. The extensive data collection effort will result in a historical dataset that will be made available to other researchers.


Working Papers and Publications


Stefania Albanesi & Claudia Olivetti, 2010. "Maternal Health and the Baby Boom," NBER Working Papers 16146, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
NBER Working Paper 16146:

Stefania Albanesi & Claudia Olivetti, 2009. "Gender Roles and Medical Progress," NBER Working Papers 14873, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
NBER Working Paper 14873:

Stephania Albanesi & Claudia Olivetti, 2005. "Home Production, Market Production and the Gender Wage Gap: Incentives and Expectations," Review of Economic Dynamics 12, 1 (January 2009): 80-107.
NBER Working Paper 12212: