The Force That Liberated Women
The innovations and opportunities of modern markets freed women more than men.
Everyone in the world today has cause to be thankful that they live in a world and a time shaped by modern capitalism. However, women have particular cause to be thankful above and beyond the gains in material well-being that they share with men.
The contrast between the great majority of human history and the world that has grown up since the mid-18th century, most notably the enormous and unprecedented increase in wealth and physical comfort that has taken place since then, even for those who count as poor today, means that everyone alive today is very fortunate compared to their ancestors.
This huge and measurable increase in well-being is mainly due to modern capitalism and its central feature, sustained innovation, along with the crucial supporting institutions that make that possible: the rule of law, free exchange and inquiry, and individual liberty.
The condition and prospects of women have changed profoundly for the better in the modern world, and this is due centrally to capitalism as an economic and social system. Ideas and thinking have also played an enormous part, but this is one of those cases where the material circumstances and relations of human beings are fundamental. Women have gained a capacity of self-direction and a range of opportunities and options that were denied to their predecessors.
We may truly say that capitalism has liberated women.
Liberated From What, Exactly?
The short answer is that capitalism liberated women from material constraints arising from the reality of living in a world of little innovation, slow or nonexistent growth, and chronic material deprivation. This was also true for men of course, but for reasons both natural and social, the conditions of premodern life affected women much more severely and stringently than they did men.
In traditional society, hard physical labor was the lot of everyone except a very small and privileged minority; the alternative was to starve. At the same time, the threat of violence played a much larger part. Innovation of any kind was seen as dangerous at best, blasphemous at worst.
Given the natural contrasts in physical strength between men and women, this was a world with a very clear sexual division of labor. Women did all kinds of productive work, but many tasks — including many that were more highly rewarded — were monopolized by men. Even more significantly, institutions that wielded power were dominated by men because of their ultimate basis in physical force, which men could exercise more readily. Individual women might enjoy power and influence, but women in general did not.
Most importantly, women had little control over their fertility. Unless they chose a life of chastity, they were almost certain to have children.
This huge biological fact had extensive social consequences. On the one hand, it gave women great social influence by virtue of their maternal role. This influence was outweighed by the way that their maternal role led to stringent regulation of their behavior and options. Men faced many restrictions as well, but nothing so severe.
Women had even less in the way of choices about what to do in their lives than the majority of men did. Even women from the elite had a much more constrained set of possible roles than their male counterparts. This arrangement was rationalized and supported by an ideology of female subordination, a sexual double standard, and an array of ideas about women’s ultimately inferior and limited function.
New Economic Opportunities
The advent and development of capitalist modernity steadily undermined the constrained and limited world of women. A range of new economic opportunities arose for them, even before the advent of machinery and the factory but massively accelerated by them. Increasingly, women could earn an independent income and support themselves, something that was practically (as well as legally) difficult in traditional society. This meant that not being married, but rather being independent, was no longer an utter disaster nor tantamount to a death sentence.
Later on, modern capitalism produced a suite of devices and innovations that physically freed women from the demands and limitations of domestic labor. To take one example, the modern washing machine freed women from the need to spend one or often two entire days of each week doing laundry. Other domestic appliances had similar effects.
The automobile gave women personal mobility and freedom of movement in a way that they had not often had before. The advent of cheap books, newspapers, and magazines created opportunities for many more women to become writers and to communicate their ideas and experiences. It also brought about a level of contact with the wider world and with other women than had ever been feasible.
Eventually, the innovation at the heart of modern capitalism brought about cheap, reliable, and effective contraception and liberated women from the constraints of a central aspect of their biology. None of this would or could have happened without modern capitalism.
The steady decline in the importance of physical strength meant that the variety of life paths open to women expanded even more than it did for men. All of these material changes were matched by intellectual ones that again would not have amounted to more than a jeu d’esprit in the absence of the material conditions created by modern capitalism.
Starting with early figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges, a succession of women attacked traditional ideas of the nature and role of women and made the case for women’s autonomy and independence.
The Ladies of Laissez-Faire
One thing that is little known but should be pointed out is that almost all of these pioneer feminists were ardent laissez-faire liberals and supporters of capitalist industry. They were well aware of the connection between the autonomy and freedom of choice that they advocated for women and the economic transformations that had made freedom possible as a lived reality.
All women today should reflect on how the scope of their agency and self-determination has increased far more than that of their fathers, husbands, and brothers in the last 200 years.
Modern capitalism and its innovations have disproportionately benefited women and changed the material conditions of humanity. To be a woman is no longer to be in a state of natural and inevitable disadvantage in the course of life.
Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London.
Originally published at FEE.org. Republished with permission.