Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:
Judith Barrett’s case for nationalized child care is full of flaws, not the least of which is her claim that “Mr. Reagan’s policies marked the beginning of the economy that required both partners in a couple to have to go to work – it was no longer optional” (Letters , Jan. 27).
In fact, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce increased steadily throughout all of the 20th century, starting at around 18 percent in 1901 and rising to around 47 percent one-hundred years later. And the steepest rise in workforce participation by women occurred, not in the 1980s, but between the years 1936 and 1950. Indeed, if there is any detectable change during the 1980s in the rate of women entering the workforce it is that that rate fell slightly starting around 1985 and then fell even further in the mid-1990s.*
In short, there’s no evidence that Reagan-era changes in the U.S. economy compelled more women to enter the workforce.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030
* See this figure  found at the bottom of page 3 of this May 2006 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics .
UPDATE: Coincidentally, Jim Rose (over at Utopia – You Are Standing In It) posted today this related chart , one showing the percent of married women in the paid labor force, 1900-2002.