Activity 8: Women and Work in American History – The Opportunity Cost of Staying Home

Lesson Overview:

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Of the many profound changes in American society during the 20th century, those in the roles of women have had far-reaching effects and generated both public and private consternation.  Critics lay blame for the explosion of day-care, latch-key children, falling education achievement, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse on the “economic necessity” that “forces” the working mother from her home and children.  Advocates for women’s rights decry the history of oppression that they believe supports a “glass ceiling” and unjustly denies women economic power.

Despite all the rhetoric about “economic reality,” there tends to be precious little economic reasoning in the discussion of the impact of the “feminization” of the U.S. labor force that characterized the latter half of the 20th century and continues into the 21st.  The concept of opportunity cost is key to unlocking this post-WWII phenomenon.  Economic analysis suggests that what is often portrayed as women being “forced to work,” is better understood as the exercise of individual choice in the face of changing opportunity costs.  Opportunity cost analysis helps us to replace rhetoric with reasoning and to understand the nature of the alternatives and the incentives that women face in choosing whether to work outside their homes.

In this activity, students assume the roles of married women in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.  As they play their roles, they confront and learn to identify the opportunity costs involved in choosing whether to stay home or go to work.  Successive rounds of the activity incorporate changing societal values and wage rates, both of which alter the benefits of the alternatives women face and thus influence their choices about whether or not to enter the labor force and take jobs outside their homes.

Video Demonstration:

Content Standards:

History Standards (from National Standards for History by the National Center for History in the Schools)

Era 8:  The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)

Standard 3:  The causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs.

  • 3C:  The student understands the effects of World War II at home.
  • Analyze the effects of World War II on gender roles and the American family.

Era 9:  Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

Standard 4:  The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

  • 4B:  The student understands the women’s movement for civil rights and equal opportunities.
  • Identify the major social, economic, and political issues affecting women and explain the conflicts these issues engendered.

Economics Standards (from Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics)

Standard 1:  Productive resources are limited.  Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

  • Choices involve trading off the expected value of one opportunity against the expected value of its best alternative.
  • The evaluation of choices and opportunity costs is subjective; such evaluations differ across individuals and societies.

Standard 4:  People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.

  • Responses to incentives are predictable because people usually pursue their self-interest.
  • Changes in incentives cause people to change their behavior in predictable ways.
  • Incentives can be monetary or non-monetary.

Standard 13:  Income for people is determined by the market value of the productive resources they sell.  What workers earn depends, primarily, on the market value of what they produce and how productive they are.

  • In a labor market, in the absence of other changes, if wage or salary payments increase, workers will increase the quantity of labor they supply and firms will decrease the quantity of labor they demand. 

 Activity Guide


1 – 2 class periods


Opportunity cost



  • One overhead transparency of Visuals #1 – #4 , pp. 20-23
  • Employer packets for 5 employers, pp. 9-11 (See set up instructions below)
  • Household Spouse Roll Cards, p. 12 – 19  (See set up instructions below)
  • Family Description Roll Cards, p. 20 (See set up instructions below.)
  • Household Spouse Work Record, p. 22  (See set up instructions below.)
  • Bag of candy to “sell” at end of game
  • Candy bar or other prize for employer with most profit.

Lesson Description:

In this 3 round role play, most students are Household Spouses whose goal is to acquire Satisfaction Points.  Additionally, 5 students (or 5 pairs of students) are cast as employers, whose goal is to make as much profit as they can through judicious hiring of workers. The employers will face different economic conditions in each round of the activity.

Household Spouses acquire Satisfaction Points in two ways:

  1. By staying at home and performing household tasks such as housekeeping, laundry and cleaning, meal preparation, child care, volunteer work, personal recreation, children’s activities, etc., or
  2. Purchasing Satisfaction Points with money earned by working for one of the employers. (For example, suppose that a family derives 5 satisfaction points per round from the mother’s housecleaning efforts.  Hiring a weekly cleaning service could also provide those 5 points.)

As the game progresses through the 3 rounds, personal values (as indicated on the Household Spouse role cards) and economic circumstances change.  Throughout, players pursue their goal of amassing satisfaction points as Household Spouses or profit as Employers. Employers and Household Spouses who are better off at the end of the activity than they were at the beginning are rewarded with candy or other prizes.

Set-up Instructions:

  1. Make 5 copies of each of the Employer Cards on white paper. (pp. 9-11).  Staple together a packet containing one form for each of Rounds 1, 2, and 3 for each employer.  (If laminated, provide an overhead marker for each employer.)
  2. Position the “employment offices” (student desks facing toward the classroom) along 2 sides of the room so that there is room for potential employees to approach employers, but close enough together that there is some competition among employers in terms of wages offered.
  3. Roll cards:  Make enough copies of the Household Spouse roll cards for all of the Non-employer students.  There are A, B, and C cards for rounds 1 (pp. 12-14) and 3 (pp. 15-17) representing different family circumstances.  Students will maintain their A, B, or C roles throughout the activity, so to simplify distribution, you may wish to copy roles on 3 different colors of paper, as follows, for a class of 30 students:
    • A role cards – 9, yellow paper
    • B role cards – 8, pink paper
    • C role cards – 8, blue paper
    • D and E role cards – 2 each, green paper
    • (Note that there are duplicate role cards on each page for ease of copying. Cut apart. Laminate to create an activity kit for reuse.)
    • Plan to give about 1/3 of the spouses A cards, 1/3 B cards, and 1/3 C cards. The only exception is if you choose to use the optional D and E roles in Round 3.   Directions for the D and E cards (2 each) are explained in the procedures for Round 3, below.
  4. Family Descriptions:  Make 1 copy of the Family Descriptions (page 20) and cut the strips apart.  These may also be laminated to include in an activity kit.
    • Alternative:  Make enough copies of p. 20 to provide 1 Family Description strip for each household spouse.  See Alternate direction #4, p. 7.)
  5. Household Spouse Work Record: Copy and cut in half. Make 1 per household spouse, 20 or 25 for a class of 30 students, depending on whether employers are teams of 2 or single students.


  1. Distribute Round 1 Employer role cards to 5 students and Round 1 Household Spouse role cards to the rest of the class.  (Option:  Select employer teams of 2 students.  Adjust numbers of employers and household spouses to fit class size.)
    • Direct employers to move into the “offices” you’ve positioned around the edge of the classroom.
    • On their office desks, they will find role cards that indicate how many workers they should hire and what they may want to pay each worker in order to maximize their profits.
    • Explain that the employers are competitors who want to make profit.  The employer who makes the most profit over the 3 rounds will win a prize.
    • Instruct employers to study the hiring information while you are giving directions to the Household Spouses.
    • Tell employers that when they hire a worker, they are to enter and initial the wage on the worker’s role card for that round.
  2. Engage students in a discussion about what Satisfaction Points represent and how they are created in different families.
    • Explain that the goal of Household Spouses is to provide Satisfaction Points for their families. Their role cards specify the number of Satisfaction Points that the spouse wouldn’t be able to provide if she/he took a job outside the home.
    • Emphasize to students that Satisfaction Points do NOT equate to income, and that role cards with higher points do NOT necessarily indicate wealthier families. Although the points may reflect how wealthy a family is, there is no direct correlation between satisfaction points and wealth.  Family size, numbers and age of children, the working spouse’s job qualities and income, family values and even people’s individual personalities can affect the level of satisfaction.  Do not equate satisfaction with income.
      • Select several “Household Spouses” to draw Family Description cards and read them aloud.  Discuss:
        • What are the most important things this spouse does to create Satisfaction Points for this family?
        • Could these Satisfaction Points be provided for the family in another way?  (Accept a variety of answers. Child care could be provided by a nanny, baby-sitter, older children.  Housecleaning could be provided by hiring a housecleaner – or even by accepting that the house won’t be quite so clean!  Store-purchased bread could substitute for home-baked. Students should notice that not all substitutes are perfect substitutes.  In some cases the family may get more satisfaction from the substitute, and in some cases less. Also point out to students that “doing without” IS a substitute – even if not a very satisfactory one.
      • Finally, assure students that the number of Satisfaction Points noted on the role card does not affect individual students’ ability to be successful – that is, to “win,” – in this classroom activity.  It’s just a way for us to look at some of the differences among families.
  3. Remind students that families try in many ways to improve their lives.  The object of this activity is for the Household Spouse to have more Satisfaction Points at the end of the game than at the beginning.  The extra points represent a variety of different “improvements” in their families’ lives.   Improvements might be anything from being able to buy better food and nicer clothes to saving money to send children to college, to happiness from having an enjoyable and rewarding job, or happiness from staying home and not going to work.
    • In our game, extra Satisfaction Points may be used to purchase candy (or other prizes) at the end of the activity.  Extra points are those beyond the amounts on the role cards.  There are 3 rounds to the game, so if a Household spouse started each round with 20 Satisfaction Points, she/he must make 60 points in the game to break even.  Any points beyond 60 may be spent on candy at the end of the game.  More points means more candy.
    • Reminder:  Household Spouses may accumulate Satisfaction Points in two ways:
      1. They may stay home and perform household tasks such as cleaning, meal preparation, child care, gardening, volunteer work, etc.,
      2. They may purchase “Satisfaction Points” with money earned by working for one of the employers.  “Satisfaction Points,” and the goods and services they represent, sell for $1 each.
  4. Before starting Round 1, be sure that ALL students – spouses and employers – understand their roles.  Begin by discussing  the Household Spouse roles.
    • Ask students to read their role cards to themselves.
    • Select a student to draw a family description card.  Ask the student to tell the class how many Satisfaction Points he/she creates for the family (from the role card).  Then ask the student to share the information from the Family Description card and to tell what kinds of things he/she does to create those satisfaction points.  For example, a student might say, “I’m a great cook and my meals create 10 satisfaction points for my family, but I’m not such a great housekeeper – I create only 1 satisfaction point for that.”  (Note:  Any of the Family Descriptions can be paired with any of the role cards. To bring home the point that the role cards need not indicate wealth or poverty, have the first  student hand the family description slip to another spouse with a different role card point value.  Ask the second student the same question:  What do you do to create satisfaction points for your family?)
      • (Alternative:  Make enough copies of the Family Descriptions for 1/student.  Distribute randomly.  With this method, you may have, for example, a Wilson family with 15 satisfaction points, a Wilson family with 20 satisfaction points, and several Wilson families with 25 satisfaction points.  Use the ensuing discussion to point out that the satisfaction points may be, but need not be a reflection of income.
    • Repeat this process with 2 or 3 students until it becomes clear that the Role Card Points are not indicative of relative wealth.
  5. Next, briefly explain the employer role.  Begin by walking students through the process of filling in the blanks in Visual #2.  Discuss:
    • What will determine whether or not an employer wants to hire a worker?
      • The employer will hire a worker if he thinks that the worker will help him make more profit.
    • What will determine how much an employer will pay a worker?
      • The marginal productivity of the worker (that is, the additional revenue minus additional cost associated with hiring a worker) will determine how much the employer will pay.  If students haven’t studied marginal revenue product, it is sufficient here to note that employers hire workers as long as the workers bring in more money than it costs the employer to hire them.
    • Teacher Note:  Marginal Revenue Product is an important concept, but do not try to teach it in this lesson.  For a good activity to teach Marginal Revenue Product, see FTE’s “The Job Jungle.”
    • How can earning money provide satisfaction points for the Household Spouse and his/her family?
      • The Household Spouse can use money to purchase things she used to produce herself.  For example, she might hire a babysitter to watch her children.  She might purchase clothing from a store rather than sew clothes herself or purchase bakery bread rather than bake bread herself.  She might also be able to purchase things that are better than she could make herself or that reduce the time it takes her to make things.
  6. Announce that Round 1 will last 7 minutes.
    • In that time, Household Spouses must find out from Employers how much they will pay for workers and then decide whether or not to go to work.  Caution students that not all employers will pay the same wages.
    • Employers must hire the workers they need to reach their profit goals.  Caution employers that not all spouses will accept the same wages.
  7. Call an end to Round 1.
    • Direct employers to calculate their profits and record them on Round 1 of their scorecards.
    • Direct Spouses to record their Satisfaction Points on their score cards for Round 1.  (Remind them that they may have an entry in either the “Staying Home” category or the “Going to Work” category, but not both.)
    • Record on the board or overhead projector the number of Spouses who chose to work and the number who chose to stay home.
  8. Discuss:
    • Who chose to stay home?  Why?  (Solicit answers from a few students.  Anticipate a variety of responses, including: 
      • “I couldn’t find a job that paid me enough to earn the satisfaction points I could produce by staying home.”
      • “I didn’t like the hassle of the job search and working when I could create the same amount of satisfaction by staying home and avoiding the hassle.”
    • What was the opportunity cost of your decision to stay home?
      • The satisfaction points I could have purchased by working  (which were fewer than the number from staying home).
    • Who chose to work outside the home?  Why?  (Solicit answers from a few students.  Anticipate a variety of responses, including:
      • “With the money I earned working, I could purchase more satisfaction than I could create by staying home.”
      • “I like working, so I was willing to accept fewer satisfaction points from other things in exchange for the satisfaction points from working.”
    • What is the opportunity cost of your decision to work?
      • The satisfaction points I could have gotten by staying home (which are fewer than the number I’m getting from working).
  9. Prepare for Round 2 by distributing Round 2 Employer Role Cards and giving employers a moment to read them.  Household spouses will keep the same role descriptions that they had in round 1.
    • Announce that Round 2 will be 7 minutes long.  Answer any questions about procedures and open the round.
  10. Play Round 2.  Record and discuss the results, as in round 1.
    • Instruct students to update their score cards.
    • Record the number of workers on the Employment Tally overhead.
    • Did anyone choose to work this round who stayed home in Round 1?  Why?
      • The higher wages meant that the working spouse could purchase enough satisfaction points to replace those given up by going to work.
    • Did anyone choose to stay home this time who choose to work last round?  Why?
      • It is unlikely that this would happen unless a spouse just didn’t have time to get to an employer.
    • How did the opportunity cost of staying home change from Round 1 to Round 2?
      • The opportunity cost of staying home increased.
      • What happened to the number of Spouses who stayed home?
        • It decreased.
      • What factors might have caused the change in opportunity cost?
        • The higher wages – meaning a greater ability to purchase satisfaction points. 
        • Question for employers:  What happened?  Why were you willing to pay higher wages?
          • Employers will note labor shortage caused by men entering the army and huge demand for the products they are producing for the war effort.
    • How did the opportunity cost of working change from Round 1 to Round 2?
      • The opportunity cost of working decreased.
      • What happened to the number of Spouses who chose to work?
        • It increased.
      • What factors might have caused the change in opportunity cost?
        • As wages increased, so did the ability of spouses to purchase goods and services for the home that they used to provide themselves, or beyond what they could have provided by themselves.
  11. Distribute Round 3 Employer Role Cards and Round 3 Household Spouse Cards.  Note that there are Household Spouse Cards (D) and (E) in Round 3.   These cards are an optional addition to the activity that will help you deal with the question of people’s values and how they interact with changes in wages to affect people’s decisions. If you choose to use them, make 1 or 2 of each and substitute them for the same number of B and C cards in Round 3.
    • Play Round 3
    • Direct students to record and total their individual scores.
    • Record number of workers on Employment Tally overhead
  12. Distribute prizes to students:
    • Winning employer – candy bar or (or other “large” prize)
    • Household spouses – allow them to purchase single pieces of candy – priced at 1, 2, or 3 with their additional satisfaction points (Teacher note:  Adjust the price of candy depending on how many points they have and how much candy you have).
      • “A” card holders may use any points over 45 
      • “B” card holders may use any points over 60 
      • “C” card holders may use any points over 75 
      • Adjust totals for “D” and “E” cardholders

Debriefing:  Teacher Guide

  1. Did anyone who stayed home in Round 1 or 2 choose to work in this round?  Why?   It is likely that more entered the labor force.
  2. Did anyone choose to stay home this time who chose to work last round?  Why?   Unlikely, but if did make this decision, may actually have decided that staying home provided more satisfaction than they originally thought, and this is clearly an acceptable answer.
  3. Let’s look at the Employment Tally overhead.  How would you explain the change in the numbers of workers from Round 1 to Round 2?
    • In general, the wages increased in Round 2.  This meant that many spouses could improve their families’ circumstances by working outside the home. The opportunity cost of working declined, and the opportunity cost of staying home increased.
  4. Look again at the Employment Tally overhead.  How would you explain the change in the numbers of workers from Round 2 to Round 3?   In general, women were able to create the same satisfaction for their families in less time (because of labor-saving technology).  Some of them used that time to work and purchase additional satisfaction points for themselves and their families.  Some of them found less satisfaction in staying with their families compared to the satisfaction of work (because of their own values, changes in cultural norms, etc.)
  5. If D and E cards were used:
    • What kinds of factors could change the opportunity cost equation so that women who once worked no longer choose to do so?  Students who had the D and E cards should reflect that changing societal and individual values are reflected in our personal calculation of “satisfaction points.”
    • What kinds of factors could change the opportunity cost equation to encourage women to work outside the home, even if the satisfaction points the family experienced from traditional household spouse activities declined?  Students may note that changing values could mean that some things associated with traditional family life – home baked bread, for example – became less important and other things – women’s careers, for example, became more important.
  6. How did the opportunity cost of staying home change from Round 2 to Round 3?   It increased.
    • What happened to the number of Spouses who stayed home? It decreased.  (Note that the addition of cards D and E might render this not so obvious.)
    • What factors might have caused the change in opportunity cost?  Technology gave spouse more time, rising wages, etc.
    • How did the opportunity cost of working change from Round 2 to Round 3?   It decreased.
    • What happened to the number of Spouses who chose to work?    It increased.
    • What factors might have caused the change in opportunity cost?   Changes in personal or societal values.
  7. (optional – only if the “D” Spouse cards were used)  How do individual values impact decisions to work? As individual values change, they change the individual’s evaluation of costs and benefits.
    • Why did the Spouses with the “D” role cards decide not to work?
    • How did the enjoyment of working affect the decisions of the “E” role cards?  Point out to students that some E spouses are willing to accept a  decline in other types of satisfaction – maybe that experienced by other members of their families??? – because they get so much enjoyment from working itself.   In essence, they decided that they didn’t need the full number of home-generated Satisfaction Points replaced by what they could purchase using their income.  It takes less income (that is, lower wages) to pull into the labor market  a spouse who enjoys working outside the home than it does to pull in a spouse who enjoys being home or really dislikes working outside the home.).
  8. Looking at the big picture:
    • Propose a generalization about the relationship of women’s likelihood of seeking employment to the opportunity cost of staying home.   As the opportunity cost of staying home increases, more women will leave their homes to seek employment.
  9. What factors can change the opportunity cost considerations in the decision about whether or not to work?  Wages are a huge factor.  As wages increase, the opportunity cost of staying home rises.
    • Values are also important.  It may take lower wages to lure a dissatisfied woman from the home than it does one who thinks being home with her children is very important – important enough to sacrifice other comforts for.  It may take very high wages to lure from home a woman who doesn’t like the kind of work she thinks she could be hired to do.  Social pressures, like popular conceptions about women’s appropriate roles, may also change perceptions of  opportunity cost.
  10. Do women’s choices become easier or harder as their alternatives increase?  The choices become more difficult.  Pioneer women on the prairie didn’t have much difficulty choosing what to do with their lives and their time.  Their alternatives were severely limited.  Today’s women face many alternatives and the choices are more difficult.  It may sound strange to say that a goal in our lives is to make our choices more difficult – but it reflects the reality that choices are easier if we have few opportunities.
  11. Transfer to American History:
    • In what time periods in American history have we seen a change in the numbers of women (Household Spouses) entering the labor force?  Anticipate that students might identify these time periods:
      • WWII
      • The 1970s Women’s Movement
    • How did each of these events or social phenomena change the opportunity cost of staying home?  What would you predict happened to the numbers of women in the work force? Is your prediction upheld by the historical data?
      • WWII – rising wages increased the opportunity cost of staying home, convincing many women to enter the work force.  After the war, increases in productivity kept wages high, further increasing the opportunity cost of staying home.
      • The Women’s Movement of the 1970s increased women’s perception of the value of work, thus increasing the opportunity cost of not working.  One could also argue that for some women, the Women’s Movement decreased the satisfaction associated with staying home, thus decreasing the opportunity cost of working.

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