Have you completed the U.S. Census? October 31 is the last day you can do so at https://my2020census.gov/.
Women have been counted since the first Census in 1790, but the kind of information recorded about them has changed, as have the roles they have played carrying out the census. In honor of the 2020 Census, we’re taking a look at how women figure into the story of the American Census.
Why do we count everyone?
Originally established at the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Census determines how many representatives each state is allocated in Congress, and also determines the taxes owed by a state to the federal government. We use Census data to redraw congressional districts, and to inform federal funding formulas for programs from Medicaid and SNAP to arts education. Having the census every 10 years is meant to acknowledge population shifts and reapportion political power.
The 1790 Census had six questions, took 18 months to complete and counted 3.9 million people. As scholars Margo Anderson and Stephen E. Fienberg have written, each subsequent Census added new questions and included new forms of categorization. In 1850, the Census began to look at individuals as opposed to households and the Census Office also began to collect, tabulate, and publish statistics on population, manufacturing, agriculture, and mortality.
In the 20th century, Census records have produced huge amounts of data used by statisticians, government agencies, and academics to better understand the changing role of women, analyze the needs of different demographic groups, and to measure the impact of social programs. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies began calling for Census data to measure unemployment and the nation’s socioeconomic status, and also to allocate funds to states and localities for federal programs. By the 1960s, federal programs from highway building to urban renewal used census data, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs relied on Census data to fund local programs.
And the Census has impacted the pursuit of civil rights. The 1965 Voting Rights Act stated that if a state’s use of literacy tests resulted in less than 50% of the voting-age population casting a ballot, it violated the 15th Amendment, and federal election observers and federal registrars might be sent by the Justice Department to monitor the election. How could that be determined? Through the Census.
Who is counted?
The modern Census counts everybody: adults, children, citizens, and non-citizens alike. However, historically the way that the Census has counted and categorized inhabitants reveals the complicated nature of the U.S. racial system. At the Constitutional convention, the framers took a more expansive view of who would be counted in the census than they did of who would receive the right to vote. Women, children, and the poor, all of whom could not vote, were counted. However, the first six cCensuses only recorded the name of the household head (typically male) and the number of people within the household rather than each person’s name.
Enslaved people were originally counted in the Census as 3/5ths of a person. And until 1900, the Census only counted those indigenous people living in United States territory who renounced their tribal citizenship.
Racial and ethnic categories have changed over time, as have determinations on who counts as White. The 1930 Census included “Mexican” as a racial category distinct from “colored” and “white,” and also abandoned the use of “mulatto” (classifying all people with black and white lineage as “colored”). “Hispanic” first became used in 1970, following pressure from Mexican American organizations. Starting in the 2000 Census, people could select one or more race or ethnicity.
Women have made up the force of Census enumerators—people who go door to door to fill out Census questionnaires—since the late 19th century. In the photograph below, a woman enumerator for the 1920 Census interviews another woman outside her home. The 1920 Census was the first one in which the majority of Census completers lived in urban rather than rural areas.
In 1960, low national unemployment rates led to the recruitment of housewives as census enumerators. Starting in 1970, the Census Bureau relied on mail out Census forms, and used enumerators to follow up on non-responding households. Increased distrust of government by poor Black and Hispanic Americans in New York led to their refusal to answer questions, or open the door to Census takers. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, elected just two years before, acted as a Census taker to help the Brooklyn communities she represented get counted.
A notable enumerator
A 1910 Census Bureau guideline called for African American enumerators in areas that were at least 2/5ths Black. Approximately 1,600 African American enumerators nationwide worked for the 1910 Census count. Gertrude Durden Rush, who became the first African American woman to pass the Iowa state bar in 1918, worked as a Census enumerator in 1910. An active participant in her community and in causes important to her, she belonged to numerous organizations including the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club, the YWCA, and the NAACP, and served as state president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She took over her husband’s legal practice after his death in 1921, focusing on women’s legal rights in estate cases. And in 1925, she would co-found the National Bar Association after she and four other black male lawyers were denied acceptance into the American Bar Association.
Women add it up
Women have worked for the Census since 1880 when the office began hiring enumerators instead of relying on U.S. Marshals. Adoption of a mechanical tabulating machine in 1890 led to the hiring of women as keypunch operators. As more women moved into civil service positions in the early 20th century, many joined the newly formed permanent Census Bureau, and by 1909, half of the Bureau’s permanent employees were women. Female clerks tabulated and coded records, operated counting machines, and in 1920, the first women supervisors and division chiefs were appointed. The women of the Census Bureau saw themselves as professionals and demanded to be treated as such. A brief 1912 New York Times article “Spurn Ice Cream Gift: 1,200 Women Clerks in Census Bureau Able to Buy Own, They Say” described the clerks rejecting 50 gallons of ice cream sent to them by the Women’s Welfare Department of the National Civil Federation.
What does the Census tell us about women?
Historians love the Census! Historical Census records reveal information both about individual women, women in certain communities or demographics, and about women’s roles in society.
But there are always gaps. Early 20th century Censuses give an incomplete sense of the population of working women. In the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, women were recorded as either “married” or “not married;” however, “not married” encompassed single women, divorced women, widowers, and women whose husbands had deserted them. As women tended to move in and out of the workforce to supplement the family income when required, the decennial census does not always capture the fluid nature of their employment. And Census enumerators often overlooked women’s work. Work done within the home including piecework, small-scale manufacturing, and services like laundry and cleaning done for neighbors generally went unrecorded. Women who took in boarders, cooking and cleaning for them, also went unnoticed by enumerators, as historian Ileen DeVault has shown.
Until 1980, the Census asked for a designated Head of Household, but only offered “wife of head” as a relationship choice for other adults in the household, not “husband of head.” Under pressure from feminist groups, they began offering a “husband” or “wife” option. Similar changes occurred to include options for non-married partners and married same-sex couples in 2010.
Why get counted this year?
This year’s Census has faced many challenges. The pandemic has prevented the usual kinds of outreach to traditionally undercounted groups. The courts struck down a sustained attempt by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to add a Census question on citizenship for the first time since 1950. Ross pursued adding the question despite Census Bureau concerns that it would result in a lower response rate by undercounting of Latinos and other minorities. In the summer of 2020, the Secretary ordered that the census complete its count a month ahead of schedule (by September 30). Just last week, a federal district judge in California reversed this order to allow the count to occur until the original October 31 deadline in light of the pandemic and their concerns that the results might seem politically manipulated.
Although imperfect, census records tell the story of the nation, document the nation’s progress, and ensure our communities receive the government grants and services we need.
Help your community by completing the Census today: https://my2020census.gov/.
Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History