Today, the dominant narrative among academics and the media is that capitalism furthers the objectives of the patriarchy and exacerbates sexism in the workplace and society. “Feminism and capitalism . . . ultimately cannot coexist,” we are told, because capitalism encourages the “invisibility of women’s work in the domestic sphere” and results in lower pay for women who make it to the workforce. Thus, many modern feminists advocate, we need government to step in and level the playing field. But a closer examination of U.S. history reveals that it’s actually been government that’s held women back, while free market capitalism has empowered them to live their lives as they see fit.
Women Wanted To Work, but Government Got in the Way
Until the mid-20th century, laws curbing women’s participation in the workforce were common in the U.S. In the 1880s, many public schools prohibited the hiring of married women and fired teachers when they got married. During the Great Depression, these “marriage bars” became more prevalent. Jobs, after all, should be reserved for men rather than married women, whose duties were at home. Minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws for women were also widespread, purportedly to help ensure women got paid fairly, since they’d be unable to bargain for themselves in a male-dominated workforce. Instead, these laws put many women out of work altogether.
Though these laws were clearly discriminatory, the Supreme Court refused to strike them down. Restricting women’s work was constitutional, the court said, because their proper role was to “preserve the strength and vigor of the race.” Thus, laws could bar women from certain professions, such as practicing law, because “the harmony . . . [of] the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.” As a result, as late as the 1960s, over half the states still legally excluded women from some type of work.
Women wanted to work, and people wanted to hire them. But the U.S. legal system relegated women to the roles male-dominated governments thought they should fill, ignoring their individual preferences.
Early Feminists Chose Freedom
Early egalitarian feminists believed that, well-intentioned as they may be, these patronizing laws treated women as weak and incapable of making their own decisions or shaping their own destinies. In the 1920s, journalist and feminist Suzanne La Follette wrote, “Women who rely upon [government] guarantees to protect them against prejudice and discrimination are leaning on a broken reed.” Special favors from government only exacerbate inequality and sexism. Women cannot be seen as equals by society, LaFollette believed, until they are treated by the law “not as women but as human beings.”
Alice Paul and her National Woman’s Party, who were women’s suffrage advocates and the original proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, opposed “protective” legislation that singled women out for what they considered restrictive and discriminatory treatment. At that time, a majority of states prohibited businesses from employing women under certain circumstances, limiting the hours they were permitted to work, the weight of objects they were allowed to lift on the job and their ability to work at night—all in the name of protection. Those laws, the National Woman’s Party argued, were actually “used to deny women the right to earn their own livelihoods and to support their dependents.”
Some may be surprised to learn that before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg likewise spent much of her legal career arguing against rules that favored women at the expense of men. She believed that laws aimed at “helping” women frequently resulted in depriving them of their freedom of choice. Based “on the notion that women could not cope with the world beyond hearth and home without a father, husband, or big brother to guide them,” she wrote, “the state impeded both men and women from pursuit of the very opportunities and styles of life that could enable them to break away from traditional patterns and develop their full, human capacities.” As she argued before the Supreme Court in a case involving the husband of an Air Force lieutenant, who was denied the housing and medical benefits afforded to female military spouses, discriminatory rules “help keep woman in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.”
Ginsburg won that lawsuit: The court held that the military can’t bestow benefits differently on account of sex. Eventually, courts and the federal government adopted the position of these early feminists and deemed “protective” legislation that targets women as a class is sexist and unlawful. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that state laws that “do not take into account the capacities, preferences, and abilities of individual females . . . conflict with and are superseded by title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Women Don’t Need the Government’s ‘Help’
But today, the same old justification for discriminatory rules is being recycled by today’s proponents of gender-based mandates: The government needs to “help” women because they can’t help themselves. Through sex-based employment quotas, compulsory paid parental leave and restrictions on home-based businesses, bureaucrats are once again depriving women of their freedom to decide for themselves what jobs to take, what wages to earn, what hours to work and what kinds of lives they want to lead. And they’re treating women as victims of the patriarchy if they dare to choose something different—such as flexibility or other benefits over higher pay.
Anti-capitalists sometimes argue that women’s preferences for flexibility aren’t true desires, but rather effects of a patriarchal system. They claim women are forced by “society” to choose certain jobs because they still bear the brunt of the child care responsibilities. Even assuming this is true, government isn’t the solution. After all, Scandinavian countries have implemented sex-based government mandates and taxpayer-supported paid leave to make it easier for women to work the same full-time jobs as men. But those policies haven’t led women to make different career choices: Economists have found that “even though [the U.S. and] these countries feature different public policies and labor markets, they are no longer very different in terms of overall gender inequality.” Further, it’s insulting to women to presume that their preferences aren’t sincere. And government attempts to “fix” social roles don’t work—they just undermine women’s right to choose for themselves.
Conversely, marketplace freedom has spurred innovation that has brought more opportunity for women and has given them the freedom to break out of traditional gender roles, if they so desire. For example, economic innovations have freed women from tedious housework. Women once spent a day each week washing clothes. Now, thanks to market innovations, housework is no longer “women’s work,” and Americans spend fewer than two hours per week on laundry. “The advent of the modern housewife,” the Foundation for Economic Education’s B.K. Marcus observed, “was the result of greater wealth and leisure, as was women’s growing freedom to accept or reject the role.”
The problem isn’t that women are prevented from making career and life choices—indeed, free markets have afforded women the ability to take control of their own destinies like never before. The problem is that bureaucrats aren’t always on board with the choices women make.
Thus, politicians tout the gender pay gap statistic—that women are paid only 78 cents on the man’s dollar—as a “market failure” and reason for government intervention. But this statistic is deeply misleading. In fact, the supposed pay disparity is actually the product of individual women’s choices. Studies show that, on the whole, men place a high premium on a larger paycheck, while women tend to place more value on flexibility at work. In other words, when men and women are paid differently, it’s not because of discrimination—it’s usually because they’re performing different work. Accounting for a number of factors based on individual preferences, such as education, choice of profession, level of experience and desire for flexibility, women are actually paid on par with men.
Market innovations have helped foster these preferences. Women are increasingly choosing to work in the sharing economy, where they have more flexibility and overwhelmingly believe they can earn equal pay for equal work. Despite their penchant for “gig” work, women are gaining ground in more traditional office roles, too. The Fortune 500 has more female CEOs than ever before, and the number of women-owned businesses has increased 3,000% since 1972.
Government intrusions into the market, through mandates such as sex-based quotas, ignore women’s progress and preferences and instead send the message to women—and their would-be employers and colleagues—that they can’t earn a leadership position without Big Brother’s helping hand. Even supporters of sex-based quotas recognize that women might “be appointed to corporate boards as tokens for the sake of compliance, which could reinforce stereotypes and make it even harder for intelligent and hardworking women to break the glass ceiling.” Studies have shown that women hired under a quota system as opposed to merit are often branded with a “stigma of incompetence” that makes it difficult for them to be taken seriously and less likely to be recommended for promotions, regardless of their job performance.
“The free market,” Independent Women’s Forum President Carrie Lukas points out, “does a much better job at creating opportunities for women than big government does. This not only means better jobs and better pay for women, but also the chance to craft the lives they actually want.”
Freedom Fosters Flexibility
American women toiled for decades to eradicate sex discrimination from our laws and to be treated not as members of a homogenous group, but as individuals with unique preferences and needs. Yet today, by imposing sex-based regulations in the workplace, politicians are once again ignoring the decisions women themselves make when pursuing the career paths of their choice, supplanting those decisions with the choices bureaucrats think women should make.
Instead of pushing one-size-fits-all, top-down agendas, lawmakers can empower women by eliminating unnecessary and overreaching laws. Government at all levels forces people to get permission to practice a trade or start a business. Eliminating overreaching occupational licensing laws would make it easier for women to pursue the job of their choice. And getting rid of local rules that make it difficult or even criminal to work from home would remove senseless barriers to work that have fallen especially hard on working moms.
Laws that force people to judge each other on the basis of sex are discriminatory, harm the people they purport to help and shackle the next generation of women with messages of despair. On the other hand, breaking down unnecessary government barriers empowers women to pursue the careers—and the American dream—that they desire.