Feminism

Progressives—Screwing Up Feminist Gains in America Since the Early 1900s

How early 20th-century social reformers teamed up with the state to limit women's workforce advancement.

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State Library Victoria Collections/Flickr

Did you know that many early U.S. labor reformers were motivated more by fear of working women than love for the proletariat? Or that, once upon a time, the slogan "equal pay for equal work"—now a rallying cry for all sorts of new regulations—was once used by feminists to protest government meddling in the marketplace? These are just two of many fascinating tidbits from Jeffrey Tucker's exploration into the "government's war on women: 1900-1920." 

According to pop-history, women didn't really start entering the workforce en masse until World War II—a workforce from which they were promptly booted when the boys returned from overseas. It wasn't until Betty Friedan and company started kicking up shit in the early '60s that second-wave feminism—with its emphasis on women's economic as well as sexual opportunity—really started to take back the punch clock. 

But there's trouble with this narrative, writes Tucker. With the industrial revolution came all sorts of new opportunities for women, and by 1910, women accounted for around one-fifth of the entire U.S. workforce. Their wages, while still lower than men's, were rising quickly: up 16 percent between 1890 and 1920. And female pay relative to men's pay was also higher in 1920 than it was in 1980.

Yet the early decades of the 20th century "were also the years in which we first saw government intervention in the labor market, much of it specifically targeting women," writes Tucker. 

Society must control reproduction and therefore what women do with their lives. So said the prevailing ideology of the age. We couldn't have a situation in which markets enticed women to leave the control of their families and move to the city.

Though they are called Progressives, the reformers' rhetoric had more in common with the "family values" movement of the 1970s and '80s — with pseudoscientific race paranoia playing the role that religion would later play. In many ways, they were the ultimate conservatives, attempting to roll back the tide of history made possible by the advance of the capitalist economy.

They were incredibly successful. Over a 10-year period between 1909 and 1919, 40 states restricted the number of hours that women employees could work. Fifteen states passed new minimum wage laws to limit entry-level jobs. Most states created stipends for single-parent families, specifically to incentivize women to reject commercial life, return to protected domesticity, and stop competing with men for wages.

Such laws were completely new in American history (and in almost all of modern history) because they intervened so fundamentally in the right of workers and employers to make any sort of contract….How did all this happen so fast, and why?

See Tucker's whole piece for an attempt at answering that tricky question. One last thing I want to highlight is how feminist activists once protested against government micromanagement of their working lives. 

Between 1900 and 1920, notes Tucker, "hundreds of laws stifling [working] women were passed in every state and at the federal level," including limits on what times of day they could work, how many hours they could work, and in what roles. And these laws drew the ire of early feminists across the country. In New York, the Equal Opportunity League lobbied hard for the state to repeal gendered labor laws, stating that "a law that is unconstitutional for a man voter is equally unconstitutional for a woman voter."  

"Working at night is not more injurious than working in the daytime," the league argued. "Many women prefer to work at night because the wage is higher, opportunities for advancement greater, and women with children can enjoy being with their child after school hours in the day time."

In fact, the phrase "equal pay for equal work" was not created to mandate higher wages for women. It was a league slogan invoked to argue against laws that made it "a crime to employ women even five minutes after the eight-hour day." The phrase emerged as a preferred slogan to protest in favor of free markets, not against them.

Unfortunately, today's progressives are up to the same old shenanigans. You see it when they say it's okay for the state to demand hundreds of dollars and a year's time for the right to paint nails, but it's criminally exploitative for small-business owners to pay unskilled manicurists only in tips while they're being trained. You see it when progressives say that the "on-demand economy," comprised of Uber et al., is exploitative because while it provides people with flexible work, it doesn't offer health-insurance coverage. You see it when they say that prostitution should be illegal for the good of the women in the sex industry, or when they ask the federal government to make all employers offer paid maternity leave. 

Sure, today's progressives are motivated by different cultural cues. But the impulse ("I know what's best for any and all people's lives") and the results (regulations that depress wages and harm women's work prospects) are the same. 

There will always be these types of people. But perhaps we'd have an easier time convincing each new generation of their danger if we weren't operating under a fairy tale version of history. This story "says that during the 20th century, government freed women to become newly empowered in the workplace," but "the reality is exactly the opposite," writes Tucker. "Just as the market was granting women more choices, government swept in to limit them in the name of health, purity, family values, and social uplift."

For more on "the sexist collectivism" of the early progressive movement, see this 2008 essay from Reason senior editor Damon Root. 

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64 responses to “Progressives—Screwing Up Feminist Gains in America Since the Early 1900s

  1. I don’t care what the reasons are, I fought hard for that extra 14 cents on the dollar, and I’m not letting it go.

    1. That’s nothin’, Paul. A real libertarian man’s income increases the discrepancy by at least 28 cents on the dollar, usually more. TIWTANFL, naturally.

      1. Well then I obviously belong to the wrong Union.

  2. Government: fucking you over for your own good since the invention of fire.

      1. That flint, somebody mined that, you can’t do that by yourself.

      2. Heat tax!

      3. It’s been always burning, since the world’s been turning.

  3. I learned everything I need to know in life, in addition to ads in comic books, Allo Police, and cereal boxes, from ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ – particularly about progressives.

  4. ‘is exploitative because it while it provides people with flexible work, it doesn’t offer health-insurance coverage.’

    I for the life of me still can’t see why a business needs to provide health-insurance coverage where a person can do it themselves.

    Could you imagine how much cheaper stuff would be, from goods an services to education to insurance had the government not stuck its nose in all those places?

    But hey. Children.

    1. It’s the same argument that says Walmart benefits from food stamps because many Walmart employees are on food stamps. As though the people on food stamps wouldn’t be collecting them if they didn’t have a job.

      1. Retardation in other words.

      2. And as if Wal-Mart created the food stamp program instead of it being created by politicians.

        The beneficiaries of food stamps are the specific individuals who are actually getting food stamps – not Wal-Mart or anyone else.

        1. You could make a case that Wal-Mart benefits from food stamps, (not a GOOD case, but a case). You could try to make a case that food stamps are spent on staples, and that Wal-Mart receives a larger percentage of that money than other businesses. However, all grocery businesses have an equal chance to compete for that business.

          1. …oh, and that WalMart pays a disproportionate share of the taxes that are used to give these food stamps (see, I didn’t say it was a good case).

            Darn edit button *chuckle*

      3. You really don’t grasp how the government is subsidizing companies by providing welfare (and health care) for employees because companies don’t pay them enough?

        1. Yes, because they aren’t. At best you can argue that they are subsidizing consumers.

        2. well, except that companies subsidize government by paying the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

        3. “You really don’t grasp how the government is subsidizing companies by providing welfare (and health care) for employees because companies don’t pay them enough?”

          That would be a good case against having coercion-funded welfare programs, wouldn’t it? You get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax. If the government is subsidizing companies that pay low wages and offer no benefits, then the existence of the “working poor” is really the government’s fault, isn’t it?

        4. What I don’t grasp is why people who make this argument generally think that the answer to this problem is more government intervention into the market place.

          Because that same intervention created this mess that we have now, we need more of it? Blows my mind how stupid people really are, and on such a massive scale….

    2. Could you imagine how much cheaper stuff would be, from goods an services to education to insurance had the government not stuck its nose in all those places?
      Combined federal, state, and local governments spend $6-8T a year. I have never found a single combined authoritative source, but have had to piece together totals from various estimates. Anyways, there’s a good rough start. Some of that would have been spent anyway by private industry in the absence of government spending, but a lot of it is unnecessary, all of it is inefficient, and it doesn’t even begin to consider how much private businesses and individuals have to spend on their own bureaucrats to comply. Income taxes, for instance, soak up enough hours from the private sector to equal 3M full time jobs.

      My guess is that the economy would boom so damned fast that the rest of the world would be left in the dust, even if you kept the overblown military, SSN, Medicaire, etc. Just get rid of the bureaucrats and intrusion and let the economy go.

      1. How much they spend isn’t that relevant. It’s how much they make other people spend for no good reason. The law mandating half a university degree to paint nails isn’t that expensive to administer, but you can bet it’s expensive to obey.

        Government shifting costs to the powerless since the Code of Hammurabi.

  5. You see it when progressive say that the “on-demand economy” comprised of Uber et al. is exploitative because it while it provides people with flexible work

    What’s important here is to see the bigger picture, and that is Unions are currently on a major, broad societal campaign to insert themselves back into everything.

    Here locally, we have union shadow groups which are essentially sponsoring what would normally be called “corporate events”, inviting legislators, offering campaign contributions, dictating legislation and sending said legislators back to write and pass it.

    The level of corruption is breathtaking but for some reason no one calls it as such– certainly not the journalists reporting on these things– because somehow it’s all about protecting workers, not finding all sorts of new areas to cull new paying customers (dues payers) and expand their influence.

    Unions have been on the way out for several decades except in the public sector. They’re trying to reverse that shrinkage in the private sector. So next time you see a law passed to “protect Uber workers”, look in the background and there’s a 100% chance you’ll see a union official.

  6. Sure he wears that stupid bow tie all the time, but damn if Jeffrey Tucker can’t put together an argument.

  7. Progressive Constant: The government must fuck with women, for their benefit, of course.

    1. I suppose you’d prefer that women make their own choices.

      Why do hate women?

      1. I let my wife chose which apron she wears while she cooks my dinner.
        *checks to make sure wife isn’t looking over shoulder*

        1. So what are you cooking for dinner tonight, FM?

          1. Actually picking up chick filet to take to our friends house. They love chick filet, so I don’t argue.

            1. Wow, you hate gays too. Obvious Trump voter.

              1. I hate most everything that’s ever walked or crawled.

                1. “There are some really beautifully landscapes in the world, but the human figures in them are poor, and you had not better look at them.”

                2. And you only don’t hate things that fly when they’re fried.

      2. Only if its Hillary and Gloria and Madeleine. Women who don’t think like them obviously need no choices.

  8. This reminds me of the book a guy wrote some years ago about the progress of gays in society… a book that accidentally discovered that the free market historically did more for the progress of gay people than the government ever did.

    When he was interviewed on NPR, he was almost apologetic.

    1. Why, it’s almost as if the free market treats everyone equally…

      1. yeah, but where does that leave the TopMen?

        1. i guess if youve never had a real job you might not realize this, but customers are way too precious to entrepreneurs to turn one down cuz you think what gets him/her off is gross.

          1. ..and that good employees are too important to afford to let one get away because of what they do on their own time (or who they do…), or an overabundance of melanin, or any of a hundred different things in which Progressives stick the gun barrel of government.

            The article should be titled, Progressives: screwing up everything since 1900.

    2. If you can remember, I would love to know the title of the book. It’s always a pleasure to have more ammo to use against the derp.

      1. Years and years ago… interview with Terri Gross. I’ll try to find it, but don’t hold your breath.

    3. Would love a cite on this…

  9. Everything modern day progressives say about government regulation for corporations can easily be applied to women in the workplace.

  10. You see it when they say it’s okay for the state to demand hundreds of dollars and a year’s time for the right to paint nails, but it’s criminally exploitative for small-business owners to pay unskilled manicurists only in tips while they’re being trained. … You see it when they say that prostitution should be illegal for the good of the women in the sex industry, or when they ask the federal government make all employers offer paid maternity leave.

    Remember the time Diane Ravitch absolutely lost her shit over the fact that Pitbull opened a charter school? The absolute kicker was that she thought mentioning that Pitbull makes his living writing songs about callipygian women shaking their hips in a sexually provocative manner was sufficient enough criticism. Not once did she present an argument about the merits of the education provided by the institution.

    Make no mistake, whether it’s about entry-level jobs for immigrant women or commenting on their culturally-preferred forms of dance, from its inception, Progressivism has always been about White upper-middle class women putting poor Black, Asian, and Latina (BAL) women in their place.

    1. They’re trying to help them make informed choices. Choices informed by white, upper-middle class women.

  11. Pressives – Screwing up feminist gains in America since the early 1900s

    FIFY

  12. “In fact, the phrase “equal pay for equal work” was not created to mandate higher wages for women. It was a league slogan invoked to argue against laws that made it “a crime to employ women even five minutes after the eight-hour day.” The phrase emerged as a preferred slogan to protest in favor of free markets, not against them.”

    Not convincing. “Equal work” would have been sufficient. Why add “equal pay”?

    And I wonder whether these feminists objected to Muller v Oregon (1908) and West Coast v Parish (1937). The former upholding maximum hours restriction for women (against the “infamous” Lochner, by the way), and the latter a minimum wage statute applicable to women only. Did (second-wave?) feminists object to Manhart (1978), which forbids taking into account sex when determining contribution levels for standard defined benefit pension plans? That leads to redistribution, since women live(d) about 5 years longer. Simply put, the existence of “classically liberal feminism” is suspect, more so as a dominant stream.

    For more information, see Epstein, Forbidden Grounds, Harvard UP. (And Taylor, Reclaiming the Mainstream – Individualist Feminism Rediscovered.)

    1. What do you mean by “not convincing”? This was their phrase, their slogan. It was a protest against maximum working hours, against government regulation of the labor market. I provided the news clipping and quoted it in detail. They wanted an equal chance to make money, an equal opportunity to work, and opposed laws that specifically targeted women. This is what they said and what the slogan meant. I don’t know what else you need to be convinced.

  13. Along these same lines, I recommend Illiberal Reformers, by Thomas Leonard, which just came out recently.

  14. Progressivism is just pure evil. Period.

  15. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with the punches.

    http://www.Anon-Net.tk

  16. My friend shared a story with me when he was working the front desk at a mid-range hotel. A middle aged black lady came in one day, dressed in what he could tell was the best she had, though it wasn’t much. She asked, “Excuse me, is y’all hiring?” He said it was the saddest thing he’s seen in a long time, and it stuck with him. She tried her best and she seemed nice, but if she couldn’t manage proper English, it wasn’t going to happen. She had no chance at anything much beyond manual labor. I’ve used her as an example before when he went on Progressive rants about government intrusion into labor markets: The only card she could ever possibly play to gain an advantage over a better educated person is the ability to sell her labor at a lower rate. No, a higher minimum wage isn’t going to kill the economy, but it will fuck over people whose only hope is to underbid those who are more qualified. If employers have to pay literally ANYONE DOING ANYTHING at least $31,000/yr, they will want the most for their money, and at that rate, they’ll have no shortage of highly qualified applicants. Progs give no thought as to what will happen to those who cannot convince an employer that they’re worth it.
    Actually, that’s a lie: Progs know exactly what’ll happen. They’ll become voters who are told that the reason they’re unemployed is because of evil capitalism.

    1. And they will reliably vote for more Free Shit.

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