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OP-ED: How capitalism empowers women

  • Published at 08:46 pm August 15th, 2020
rmg
Automation has made this possible REUTERS

It is women who have been hit hardest by the absence of trade

There’s a commonplace claim that capitalism and free markets are somehow anti-women. Even that capitalism requires gender discrimination in order for it to work. There have indeed been economic systems based upon that sort of discrimination, so the question becomes is this true about capitalism -- not merely an insistence that that could never happen.

Recent events, this coronavirus pandemic, provides a useful natural experiment to test the proposition. As the World Trade Organization is reported as pointing out in this newspaper, women are hardest hit by the closedowns and limitations of these current days. 

It is not exactly a leap of logic to note that if women are hardest hit by the absence of trade, business, markets, and capitalism then they must be the prime beneficiaries of their presence and existence in the first place. 

At which point we could simply note that capitalism is therefore pro-women and leave it at that. But it’s worth going on into two further explanations of why this is so.

The first is simply to observe the village economy of not so long ago out there in the countryside. All work is done using either human or animal labour. Machines do exist, are known of, but aren’t affordable to those on small farms. 

One of the real, rather than imagined, gender differences in humans is of musculature. Men really are significantly stronger than women and so in that peasant economy, they’re going to be the people doing the heavy work. 

That’s also the work that is most likely to be commodified which is why men are most likely to be taking part in the cash economy. 

The basic human economic unit is the household, not the individual, which means that there is going to be some division of labour among the members of the group. If the men are going to be using their muscles out in the marketplace, then the women will be left with the domestic duties.

Sure, we can call this gender discrimination for that’s what it is but when it’s muscle power being sold then it’s also entirely rational

It’s when technological development reaches motor power that gender equality in employment is even possible. For that’s when it’s possible to go and earn money without having to have beefy muscles -- exactly what those millions of women are now doing in the RMG industry. 

When employment becomes indoor work with no heavy lifting that’s exactly when women can and do emerge from purely domestic labour into the more general marketplace for work.

The second is that exactly that technological development allows tasks to be automated as well as not-muscle powered. But which tasks do get automated? One of the first is, as with that RMG industry, the creation of textiles. That cuts the amount of household labour immensely as the production of thread and then the homespun cloth is no longer required. 

That’s now done by machines in factories rather than in every spare moment of a woman’s life. The oven and the stove are the automation of cooking over an open fire, the washing machine of clearly the automation of the trip to the river, and so on.

These technologies are usually referred to by economists as “the washing machine” and the effect is substantial. One estimate, possibly a little overstressed in both numbers, is that the time required to run a household in England has declined from 60 hours a week to 15 just this past century. 

One way of describing women’s liberation is that the production of machines to allow it to be what produced the ability for women to go out to work for pay. It’s also notable that the various socialist economies never did quite get the hang of the automation of domestic labour and I say this as someone who once owned a Soviet washing machine.  

We can, though, without having to think through the specific details of why, insist that this idea of capitalism, markets, and trade is pro-women. Precisely because we are being told that the interruption of them is hurting women more than men. 

If the absence of something is detrimental to women then its presence is beneficial, this is very, very, simple logic. So, the more we’re told that the burdens of the coronavirus are falling upon women’s economic position the more assured we can be that the before -- and after -- coronavirus system is pro-women and their interests.   

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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