Not everyone is optimistic about women’s progress. International Women’s Day was March 8, inviting a swath of social media posts and political commentary on the state of women worldwide. The Guardian published an article aptly titled, “Feminism without socialism will never cure our unequal society,” by Ellie Mae O’Hagan.
Her absurd prescription to further gender equality couldn’t be more off base. It’s capitalism, not socialism, that’s driving women’s equality.
O’Hagan argues that women’s work is “exploitation, low pay and precariousness.” Her words evoke imagery of poor women around the world working in dirty, smog-filled factories. The work women in developing countries do in factories or on farms may very well be dangerous and the pay might not be good, but capitalism isn’t the culprit.
Consider India, where the economy has been trending toward capitalism since 1991. The vast majority of farmers there eat what they grow without selling any surplus. Agricultural jobs likely do not offer women a chance at a better life, as they work just to barely scrape by and survive. In 2000, almost three-quarters of Indian women worked on farms; in 2017, a little more than half worked on farms.
Consider also the shares of Indian women who are classified by the World Bank as “contributing family workers.” In 2000, a third of women worked for their family, a share that dropped 7 percentage points by 2017—suggesting that women are able to leave the land they grew up on and get a job elsewhere. Seventeen percent of Indian women work an industrial job, but more than 25 percent of Indian women worked in services in 2017, an increase of more than 10 percentage points from 2010.
No, service and industrial jobs aren’t glamorous, but they offer women a chance at independence and a better life. Women’s work in developing nations is far from ideal. But capitalism has made women’s working lives better, not worse.
Feminists wanting to improve the lives of the majority of the world’s women should look no further than capitalism. In two decades, capitalism has nearly vanquished extreme poverty. O’Hagan’s claim that capitalism is to blame for the state of women’s work worldwide is presented free of evidence. But she even blames capitalism for the Me Too movement. She writes:
When debating the allegations against men like Harvey Weinstein and Philip Green, there was acknowledgment that women often tolerate sexual assault and harassment because of the immense power wielded by the men who mete it out. But there was little discussion around the obvious economic measures that might make it easier for women to leave these kinds of workplaces, or take action against their bosses: measures such as a robust welfare state, stronger trade unions, universal free childcare, better pay and secure affordable housing.
For those unfamiliar with the tale of British businessman Philip Green: Green has been accused of sexually harassing and bullying female and male employees at his company. The former employees signed non-disclosure agreements and were paid considerable sums to keep silent.
Green’s employees were hardly short on cash when they accepted the money. Many of them were company executives. They didn’t continue working for Green because unemployment benefits weren’t large enough or because child care and housing were too expensive. They didn’t tolerate harassment because they weren’t part of a union. There is no evidence at all that employees tolerated Green due to economic reasons that could be fixed by implementing a socialist utopia.
The women Harvey Weinstein preyed on also weren’t dirt poor. Weinstein and Green treated women despicably, but their bad behavior does not prove that women need socialism. Sexual harassment and assault would not be affected at all by the presence of big government policies.
If one compares track records, it’s capitalism, not socialism, that has provided the foundation for women to live the lives they choose. Because capitalism encourages innovation, pregnancy and childbearing are safer and easier to recover from; women can choose to work longer during pregnancy and they can return to work healthy.
Entrepreneurs have also invented dozens of time-saving tools that make women’s lives easier. Washing machines and microwaves and Instant Pots are just a few of capitalism’s small miracles. Women are also more responsive than men to increases in wages, which have been increasing since the 1950s. More women have since joined the labor force.
Business owners also have no reason to discriminate against women, as sexism is truly no match for profit motive. Capitalists today who refuse to hire the best person for the job irrespective of sex put their companies at risk of being overtaken by the competition.
Capitalism gives women the chance to prove themselves and compete with others on the open market. Socialism simply ensures stagnation and puts control over women’s lives in the hands of the government. To revamp a popular phrase, women need socialism much like a fish needs a bicycle.