When Women Didn’t Count

The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics


Federal statistics have been hiding and distorting women’s history since the first Census in 1790, when only the male “head of the household” was listed by name.

Robert Lopresti’s book traces the development of data on population, employment, crime, health, and many other topics, showing how often the statistics which have shaped our view of American women have been based on false assumptions, or simply wrong. Readers will learn why a report on farm wages ended with an angry denial of charges that farm life drives women insane, why department store owners hired ex-prostitutes as managers, and why the number of women-owned businesses appeared to suddenly drop by 20 percent in 1997.

When Women Didn’t Count is not a book of statistics, but a study of how those statistics have been collected, published,  and used. As Lopresti said: “This is a book about the questions asked, not the answers given. I’m not interested in a table of data as much as the footnote at the bottom explaining what’s wrong with the table.”


The Government Documents Round Table of the American Library Association gave this book the Margaret T. Lane / Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award.



When Women DIdn't Count


Reviews and Endorsements


Dennis Hodgson, Population and Development Review:

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.


Robert Gerzoff, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Statistical Team Lead (retired):

A tour de force of research and interpretation, this is one of those books that makes you scratch your head and ask yourself, “How was it even possible for people to think that way?” It is, at same time, both amusing and eye-opening. It certainly makes one wonder what sort of prejudices are present in our current data gathering efforts that we just don’t see because they represent the cultural norm. This should be required reading for anyone who works with or is responsible for collecting the data behind official statistics, but certainly it is going to be both entertaining and valuable to all of us who consume those statistics every day. The research behind this book is truly amazing.

Cassandra Hartnett, U.S. Documents Librarian, University of Washington Libraries:

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.






Awards Committee, Government Documents Round Table of the American Library Association:

The 2018 Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award is awarded to Robert Lopresti, Western Washington University Libraries, for his book, When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics published by Praeger. Digging back into the history of how women have been represented or completely missing in U.S. government data collections since the late 1700s, Lopresti has revealed how this inaccurate data has affected women, men, and all of American society. The book challenges readers to reexamine their understanding of data collection methodologies and to think more deeply about biases and weaknesses in these methodologies as they have changed throughout the history of the U.S. and its perception of women. The Awards Committee was impressed with the sheer number of government reports, documents, and statistical information consulted as well as the variety of federal agencies examined. The book is of critical importance at a time when data is valued so highly in decision-making and policy.


Margo Anderson, Distinguished Professor, History & Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee: 

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.

Donald A. Coffin, PhD, Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics, Indiana University Northwest: 

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.


CHOICE Magazine:  Recommended.  All levels, libraries.


Sonnet Ireland, DTTP: Documents to the People:

How many women were the heads of their households in 1930?  How many were single mothers in 1890?  Librarians have a desire to answer every question that comes their way, but some questions have no accurate answers.  This is especially true of government statistics on women, as Lopresti demonstrates beautifully… His treatise on the subject is enlightening, delving into the inconsistencies in how women were considered (or ignored) across different government surveys.  Most infuriating are the times when results were labelled as unreliable or flat-out wrong because the answers did not meet expectations…. This book is an important work that sheds slight on the sexism that permeates our statistics, even as recently as the last decade.


Lori L. Smith, Gov-Stuff 4 U: 

One of the many reasons free government information is useful is that it can be analyzed to reveal fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, facts about our history. An excellent example of this is Robert Lopresti’s new book, When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics.

In the book, society’s (and government’s) changing attitudes toward women are chronicled through statistics on marriage, motherhood, heads of households, occupations, health, crime, and military service, among other topics. The focus isn’t on the statistics themselves, but on how and why they were collected as they were. It is, indeed, both fascinating and disturbing.


Alicia Kubas, University of Minnesota Libraries:

Read this book!