Freeman

ARTICLE

Women in Economic History

SEPTEMBER 01, 1984 by HARRY LEE SMITH

Women have been responsible for most of the world’s economic wealth. There is considerable evidence to support this sweeping allegation. Their past contribution to economic growth is a measure of their potential.

Except for a short hiatus during the past 200 years, women have always been part of the work force. Women’s productivity in pre-industrial society was obvious when they labored in the fields side by side with their men. In certain peasant societies of South America and Asia they still do. In addition to farming, they raised children and kept house, which is just as much a part of economic activity as production for the market. But most importantly, women were not destructive. Their male counterparts destroyed a good deal of the wealth created by both sexes through wars and political turmoil.

Women’s accomplishment in creating and preserving wealth has gone unrecognized due to an anomaly brought about by the Industrial Revolution. During the past two centuries, the work patterns of Western Civilization have changed drastically, particularly those of women. The development of the factory system removed the work place from the home for the first time in history. This separated women from their children, putting a strain on family ties and adversely affecting female productivity.

Economic conditions during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution were such that entire families worked in the factories. Early attempts at restricting child labor were fruitless since they merely put less bread on the table and left the children unattended. But the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution rapidly increased living standards so that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, men were earning enough to retire their wives and children from the work force in vast numbers. It is this process, started only 200 years ago, that gave rise to the mistaken concept that women have always stayed at home doing nothing more than domestic chores. This myth was driven home by newly developing sciences such as anthropology, biology, sociology, and ethnology among others.

Nearly all the scientific disciplines have evolved during the past 250 years and were therefore heavily influenced by conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Some anthropologists such as Des-mond Morris have even projected twentieth-century cultural patterns back into the Stone Age.[1] They developed the myth of the Great Hunter, a primitive hominoid, who left the cave in search of food while his mate waited patiently at home, taking care of the children, willing to exchange sex for food, and doing little else. This myth has been effectively exploded by British anthropologist Elaine Morgan in her insightful book (whose title parodies Darwin), The Descent of Woman.[2]

In primitive times the fundamental family unit consisted of a mother and her children living with older members of the family. Apparently men were less aware of their function and responsibility as fathers than were some advanced animals. More often than not they lived apart from the women and children, banding together in hunting-foraging groups, leaving the females to fend for themselves. These bands were the precursors of modern fraternities and other androcentric organizations.[3]

Women had high status in primitive societies. Historian Will Durant wrote: “Since it was the mother who fulfilled most of the parental functions, the family was, at first (so far as we can pierce the mists of history) organized on the assumption that the position of man in the family was superficial and incidental, while that of the woman was fundamental and supreme.” At the time, most gods were feminine, dedicated to human fertility. In primitive society woman’s status was higher than in Periclean Greece and she would have to wait until modern times to regain that social station.

While it is true that primitive man was a hunter, primitive woman was far more than a baby sitter. She can be credited with skinning animals for clothes and tents, spinning cotton and wool, sewing, weaving, woodworking, and making baskets and pottery. She used fire to defeat the darkness, to keep warm, and to break down inedible foods into a wide variety of digestible meals through cooking. She preserved food through salting and drying. In short, she provided the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter in which she specializes to this day. She also exchanged the products of her labor and initiated trade.

Anthropologist Laurens van der Post watched women in the primitive area of Africa’s Kalahari educate their children to glean a meal. Despite the sparse desert vegetation, in short order they had collected a meal of nuts, tsamma melons, eland cucumbers, roots, tubers, grubs, berries and a tortoise. Van der Post said that both men and women searched for food, but the women usually provided two to three times as much food by weight as the men.[4]

While women in primitive times were highly productive in a hunt-ing-gathering economy, they were about to become even more so. Through a nearly miraculous development they invented agriculture.

The Neolithic Food Revolution

Men were too proud or busy as hunter-warriors to dig in the soil. But women, puttering in the back yard, discovered the relationship between seeds and crops. Will Durant put it bluntly: “Most economic advances in early society were made by women rather than men.” He goes on to point out that “women made the greatest discovery of all—the bounty of the soil.” In short, women were responsible for the Neolithic Food Revolution which was, and still is, the greatest economic advancement in history. This development, which started some 10,000 years ago and still continues, increased the human carrying capacity of the earth from five million to a billion inhabitants.[5] This ratio was not exceeded by the Industrial Revolution. It is an excellent measure of wealth creation.

But the Neolithic Food Revolution had its dark side. The development of agriculture produced vast amounts of wealth. Peaceful, immobile, and wealthy agricultural communities proved to be an enticing temptation for marauding bands of hunter-warriors. They attacked, killed, plundered, and enslaved. Thus, in ruthlessness and violence, the state was born, and with it political man. He produced no wealth himself and his economic contribution to society was negative.

For a hundred centuries the world was run for the exclusive benefit of tiny, self-perpetuating, ruling elites. They confiscated all the means of production. Only rulers were allowed to own land, to which they bound their subjects. The same system carries on today under communist totalitarianism.

There was little improvement over the millennia. As late as the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes observed that life for most individuals was solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short. Edward Gibbon saw history as little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. Women became second-class slaves, subject to the dictates of political overlords and of their patriarchal husbands.

The history of political man in an agricultural economy proved to be one long nightmare. Primitive man had had considerable leisure time. But under slavery he worked from dawn to dusk to satisfy the wants of avaricious and rich rulers. Wars, conquests, enslavement, and plunder were considered noble and therefore became unending. Political man became the only animal to torture a member of his own species for satisfaction and profit. Wealth created by both sexes was eroded by conflict, and the world’s profit and loss statement showed little gain. The female sex participated in this process hardly at all. Female economic contribution to society was positive, outweighing the net wealth contribution of the opposite sex.

Despite this oppression, women continued to bear up sturdily and to produce mightily. The Bible describes the ideal wife as one who is gainfully employed, talented, dignified, praiseworthy and God-fearing. She makes real estate investments (“She considereth a field and buyeth it”), manages her business (“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good”), teaches loyalty and wisdom, and is honored in her community (Proverbs, 31:10-31).

The Industrial Revolution

If the Neolithic Food Revolution was feminine, the Industrial Revolution was masculine. The natural mechanical bent of men had manifested itself in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and in such inventions as tools, the wheel, and the horse collar. But only under individual freedom would this ingenuity find full flower.

The concept of limited government, the protection of private property, and the rule of law gave birth to free entrepreneurial man. Entrepreneurial man became the true champion of woman and his contribution to her emancipation was extraordinary. It is ironic that woman, the mother of agriculture, should have been enslaved for her efforts, whereas the masculine Industrial Revolution bore the seeds of her freedom.

Instead of enslaving other men, entrepreneurial man enslaved oil, gas, coal, and the atom. He filled the home with thousands of mechanical servants. He rescued women from being beasts of burden by inventing incredible transportation machines. In the short span of 200 years he had elevated millions of peasants into a comfortable middle class, free from famine and drudgery for the first time in history. Women, who had looked old at thirty and were dead at forty, could be active, healthy, and attractive during a doubled life span.

Women as Civilizers

“Women are the civilizers of mankind,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nevertheless, even in free America, men procrastinated in giving them equal political status. It is incongruous that the founding fathers could have written such inspirational documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, and still have tolerated slavery for blacks and a subservient status for women. As a result, the oppressed made common cause.

As an organizing force, feminism dates from abolitionism in the early 1830s. Abbie Kelley (1810-1887), an abolitionist-feminist, observed: “We have good cause to be grateful to the slave for the benefit we have received ourselves in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.”

The modern historian Aileen S. Kraditor wrote: “A few women in the abolitionist movement in the 1830s . . . found their religiously inspired work for the slave impeded by prejudices against public activity by women. They and many others began to ponder the parallels between women’s status and the Negro status, and to notice that white men usually applied the principles of natural rights and the ideology of individualism only to themselves.”[6]

The slaves won the race to emancipation. The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution freeing the slaves was ratified in 1865. Women waited another 55 years for the right to vote.

Political Man

During the long nightmare of slavery, most women accepted their lot stoically. Some were known to have killed their infant daughters to save them from a lifetime of childbearing and drudgery. Others welcomed polygamy to share the burden with their sisters.[7] But most lived out their short lives asking little more than that they be cherished and respected. They experienced little of either. In a world of poverty and political predation, there was little charity in the human spirit.

Poverty has been the scourge of mankind for centuries, brought about by the greed and oppression of political man. There was a hiatus of this political power during the nineteenth century. This produced not only entrepreneurial man but also the most peaceful century in recorded history. However, as with the agricultural economic wave, the Industrial Revolution produced vast amounts of wealth. With new wealth to plunder, political man came roaring back with renewed virulence. Thus far in the twentieth century he has killed, plundered, tortured, and oppressed more people for political purposes than in all the other centuries combined. Incredibly, the process has been idealized and might possibly accelerate. Political instability and technical ability have put political man in a position to destroy civilization as we know it.

There is far less a tendency for women to become politically overextended. When faced with the question of feeding the baby or governing the country, she instinctively knows that her duty lies within her capacity. This is a basic wisdom sorely needed in a world facing problems without solutions brought about by hubris.

A small minority of women are seeking further emancipation through the public sector. But the political world is a man’s conclave based on coercion and violence, unsuited to the female temperament. A far better place for women to make their mark is in the private sector. Most women have chosen this path.

Women as Producers

In 1980 some 52 per cent of all women aged 16 and over were in the work force, up from 27 per cent in 1940. Today, for the first time working women outnumber housewives. It spells a rise in creativity at which women have always excelled. The problem of divided loyalty brought about by separating women from their children still exists. But Alvin Toffler has suggested in The Third Wave (the first two waves being the Neolithic Food Revolution and the Industrial Revolution), that with the advent of the computer age, sophisticated work may be brought back into the home electronically.[8]

Although male-dominated labor unions oppose it, seven per cent of the total labor force now works at home full time and six per cent part time.[9] It is a heartening trend.

Today, as women venture to continue their contributions to the work force in new ways, they merely ask to be welcomed and to have their worth recognized. In acknowledging their economic contribution of the past and recognizing their potential for the future, men will also come to accept the feminine point of view on weighty matters as valid and a necessary adjunct to their own. But such an intellectual melding can only come about if women are accepted as full-fledged partners and peers without reservation. They deserve nothing less. []

Mr. Smith is a real estate developer and investor in Georgia.


1.   Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (McGraw Hill, 1967), pp. 67, 187.

2.   Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman (Bantam Books, 1973), pp. 159-190.

3.   Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 32; also Morris, p. 188.

4.   Morgan, pp. 171-173.

5.   The Human Population (Scientific American Books, W. H. Freeman, Inc., 1974), pp. 15-17; also E. A. Wrigley, Population and History (World University Library, 1969), pp. 44-45.

6.   Wendy McElroy, editor, Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Cato Institute, 1982), p. 4.

7.   Durant, p. 35.

8.   Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (William Morrow & Co., 1980), pp. 181-193.

9.   The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1984.

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September 1984

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