This article examines the relationship between the family and work histories of older women and their personal incomes in later life, using retrospective data from the first 15 waves of the British Household Panel Survey. The association between women's family histories and their incomes later in life are relatively weak, explaining only a small proportion of the overall variation in older women's incomes. Divorce, early widowhood and re-marriage are not associated with any significant differences in older women's incomes, while motherhood is only associated with a small reduction in incomes later in life. While there are significant differences in the work histories of older women with different family histories, this translates into relatively small differences in their personal incomes, because the types of employment career pursued by most women are not associated with significantly higher retirement incomes and because public transfers dampen work history-related differentials, especially for widows. On the one hand, this could be seen as a positive finding in that the ‘pension penalty’ associated with life-course events such as motherhood and divorce is not as severe as often anticipated. On the other hand, the main reason for this is that the pension returns to working longer are relatively low, particularly for women with few qualifications. The analysis suggests that women retiring over the next two decades are unlikely to benefit significantly from the additional years they have spent in employment, because most of this increase has been in part-time employment. The article highlights the tensions between two objectives: rewarding work, and protecting the most vulnerable, such as carers, long-term disabled and unemployed. Resolving this dilemma involves moving away from a close association between pension entitlements and work history and towards universal entitlement based on a citizen's pension.