When Women Didn't Count
The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics
by Robert Lopresti
June 2017, 352pp, 6 1/8x9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-1-4408-4368-6
$75, £58, 66€, A103
eBook Available: 978-1-4408-4369-3
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

Government statistics affect our laws, our economy, and our understanding of society. Unfortunately, federal statistics have often misrepresented the lives of women.

Erroneous government-generated "data" is more problematic than it would appear. This book demonstrates how women's history has consistently been hidden and distorted by 200 years of official government statistics.

Much of women’s history has been hidden and filtered through unrealistic expectations and assumptions. Because U.S. government data about women’s lives and occupations has been significantly inaccurate, these misrepresentations in statistical information have shaped the reality of women’s lives. They also affect men and society as a whole: these numbers influence our investments, our property values, our representation in Congress, and even how we see our place in society. This book documents how U.S. federal government statistics have served to reveal and conceal facts about women in the United States. It reaches back to the late 1800s, when the U.S. Census Bureau first listed women’s occupations, and forward to the present, when the U.S. government relies on nonprofit groups for statistics on abortion.

Objective and accurate, When Women Didn’t Count isn’t focused on numbers and census results as much as on recognizing problems in data, exposing the hidden facets of government data, and using critical thinking when considering all seemingly authoritative sources. Readers will contemplate how the government decided that a “farmer’s wife” could be a farmer, how the ongoing battle over abortion has been reflected in the numbers the government is allowed to keep and publish, the consequences of the Census Bureau “correcting” reports of women in unusual occupations in 1920, and why the official count of women-owned businesses dropped 20 percent in 1997.


  • Provides new ways of thinking about the history of women in the United States
  • Examines the systems used to gather and publish federal statistics, identifying their strengths, weaknesses, and biases
  • Demonstrates the need for applying critical thinking skills even when examining assumedly trustworthy statistics from official sources
  • Reveals how details of women's lives in the United States have been erased or disguised in data that is considered authoritative and reliable
Robert Lopresti is a professor at Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA. He has been a government information librarian for almost 40 years. His articles have appeared in Library & Information History, Journal of Government Information, and Scientometrics. He is also the author of the novels Greenfellas and Such A Killing Crime, and his award-winning short stories have appeared in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, among other places. Lopresti's website is roblopresti.com.


2018 Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award —ALA GODORT, April 16, 2018


"The author seeks . . . to provide, and does so quite compellingly, an examination of why certain questions were asked, which in turn then generated those numbers, and the ways in which those questions changed over time, thus shaping the representation of women within this official historical record. . . . . [I]t is especially intriguing to see how the author clarifies the impact of changing occupations and new technologies and how they affected women at work, and the need to be able to provide data to effect social change. . . . Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries."—Choice, February 1, 2018

"Some questions have no accurate answers. This is especially true of government statistics on women, as Lopresti demonstrates this beautifully in When Women Didn’t Count. . His treatise on the subject is enlightening. . . . This book is an important work that sheds light on the sexism that permeates our statistics, even as recently as the last decade."—Documents to the People, February 2, 2018

"In nearly every chapter consumers of federal statistics can find important lessons, many of which make it clear that the 'hardness' of numbers often is illusory. . . . In a captivating and often humorous way, Lopresti’s documentation of the 'mismeasuring' of women in federal statistics provides a succinct history of women’s changing role in American society."—Population and Development Review, May 21, 2018

"We live in a world of data, and navigating the plethora of numbers is a daunting task in the best of cases. In cases where social, ideological, and political issues shape what’s collected and why, the silences, confusions, omissions, and biases can discourage even the most dedicated data adventurer. Robert Lopresti has come to the rescue of researchers looking for data on the situation of women in U.S. federal statistics since 1790. He has produced a comprehensive catalog of sources, subjects, and supporting literature, and organized the material into a accessible chapters by subject. Extensive footnotes and bibliography take the reader to additional information. This is an essential book for anyone asking questions about data on women. Lopresti also explains how and why the data came to be as they are. No more, 'lies, damn lies, and statistics.' We can see how the history of women in America can be read through the federal statistical data collections, and even how the 'mismeasurement,' as he puts it, can help us understand the long struggle for the emancipation of women."—Margo Anderson, Distinguished Professor, History & Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

"In ways we are not conscious of, decisions we make about what information to compile about people’s lives and how to store and present that information will influence how our lives will be perceived 100 or 200 years from now. In the same way, decisions made 100 or 200 years ago about what information to gather—largely by the U.S. Bureau of the Census—shape how we perceive the lives of the people who lived then, and how (and how much) they have changed. Robert Lopresti has taken a long, careful look at the Census data on women’s lives (and by extension, everyone’s lives), and what his work reveals seems to me to be essential for historians and readers of history interested in understanding those lives and in understanding how our lives are different."—Donald A. Coffin, PhD, Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics, Indiana University Northwest

"When Women Didn’t Count is a highly readable, thought-provoking investigation of U.S. federal government statistics gathering about women. Synthesizing sources such as instructions to Census enumerators about determining marital status, technical documentation with hypotheses on data limitations, and contemporary feminist scholarship, Rob Lopresti paints a vivid picture of misrepresentation and gender role reinforcement that is as American as apple pie. With an uncanny sensitivity about the nuances of government literature drawn from his longtime role as a federal documents librarian, the author leaves us more deeply informed about our statistical surroundings, and many of the ways in which we got here. Librarians, teachers, and scholars working in the areas of U.S. history, gender studies, social sciences, and cultural studies will find this to be an incredibly useful text."—Cassandra Hartnett, U.S. Documents Librarian, University of Washington Libraries
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