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How free markets liberate women

Credit: Rolf Vennenbernd/DPA/PA Images

Credit: Rolf Vennenbernd/DPA/PA Images

April 5, 2018   3 mins

If there is one thing that divides feminists, it is capitalism.

In the very same way that Marxists argue that capitalism leads to the exploitation of the poor, Marxist Feminists argue that capitalism leads to the exploitation of women. In 1986, Maria Mies penned what was to become a classic work. Titled Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, she argued that capitalist production depends upon cheap female labour, not just within factories but also within the home.

Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, went further, suggesting that capitalism relied on violence – against women, the poor and ethnic minorities – in order to create a class of landless labourers who were entirely dependent on capitalists.

It is not competitive markets that have been the greatest enemy of women over the course of human history; it is social norms

As the world has gone global, Marxist feminists have highlighted the way in which professional Western women rely on the labour of poorer women on the other side of the world, whether indirectly in the form of cheaply produced clothing and household goods or directly in the form of cleaners and nannies – and even surrogate mothers.

Philosopher and feminist Nancy Fraser argues that pro-market feminists have engaged in a “dangerous liaison” with capitalism. They have shackled themselves to a system in which inequality is preordained, and so shouldn’t be surprised that the “gender gap” in all of its many dimensions is yet to close. Marxist Feminism, in other words, suggests that the strategy of “lean in” will never be enough; that women need to “lean out”.

While capitalism is, of course, far from perfect, for me the idea of replacing capitalism with an opposite kind of system could not be more terrifying. The bright red revolutionary posters of the Soviet Union depicting healthy and strong factory women may give a positive impression, but in practice, alternatives to capitalism place greater power in the hands of the state and society. These are two bodies that history has shown provide no guarantee of women’s freedom, something John Stuart Mill recognised:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.”

For those, like me, who see society as something other than a happy and harmonious place – as something that can potentially constrain us and restrict our freedom – the market provides an escape mechanism. It is not competitive markets that have been the greatest enemy of women over the course of human history; it is social norms.

Economic historians Jan Luiten Van Zanden and Tine De Moor point to the way in which women’s involvement in the labour market in medieval Europe led to substantial changes in family life that empowered women, including providing them with the ability to escape early marriage, ultimately laying the foundations for economic growth. Historian Amy Froide in her recent book Silent Partners points to the way in which early financial markets in Britain before and during the Industrial Revolution provided opportunities for women that had been denied by incumbent societal practices and institutions.

Not only do markets allow us to escape the norms of society, the greater competition provided by the market also adds a further release valve: it means that individuals are, in general, better able to escape individual cases of abuse or mistreatment than a situation in which there is one sole employer, the state.

One-eighth of the Soviet population were the subject of direct and state-sanctioned repression over the period 1928-53, amounting to 25 million people

While by human nature “bad apples” are inevitable, they are more likely to face the consequences of their actions in the marketplace than they are in any state-run economy. Without competition to expose them, the state can cover-up wrongdoing, meaning that abuses continue. In the marketplace, while cover ups can and do happen, competition generally – and eventually – roots out wrongdoers. Either consumers get wind of it and stop buying a particular producer’s goods, or workers move on to another producer. While the mechanism for this to happen is not perfect, at least it provides a possibility of punishment and escape that is missing when the state has a monopoly of power – and, all importantly, a monopoly of force; one which enables it to imprison or even kill those who speak out.

The recent edited volume Women’s Experiences of Repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe highlights the brutal and dehumanising way in which women were treated when they dared to disagree with the state or were simply seen as being an obstacle to the “wider good”. According to Orlando Figes’ estimates, one-eighth of the Soviet population were the subject of direct and state-sanctioned repression over the period 1928-53, amounting to 25 million people. Half a million people alone were deported in an effort to eliminate “anti-Soviet” sentiment.

Ultimately, it is not capitalism that is the problem for women; it is society and a state that comes to embody patriarchal social norms.


Dr Victoria Bateman is Fellow in Economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She writes regular economic commentary for Bloomberg View and CapX, and is known for her stance on Brexit and for using art to explore perceptions of the female body.


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