Capitalism and 19th Century Feminism

Posted January 11, 2008

Patriarchy has existed for thousands of years, but the process of separation between public and private spheres in capitalism imposed new kinds of gender roles between husbands and wives in Western Europe by the middle of the 19th century: While a husband became the sole breadwinner in the public sphere, his wife took the task of the reproduction process in the private sphere. These separate roles became more rigidly reinforced by the ideology of the “cult of domesticity,” which was advocated by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and subsequently by nineteenth-century literary writers like Sarah Ellis.

According to the principles of the cult of domesticity, women and men are different but their differences do not conflict but rather complement each other: Women are weak and emotional and thus do not fit into the harsh competitive public sphere, while men are strong and rational and thus can deal with public affairs. But women are spiritually and morally strong and thus they are better at taking care of their family affairs than men.

Although this ideology brought about ideas of companionship between husband and wife and suggested new positive ways of rearing children, it not only justified the separate roles between genders and the restriction of women’s sphere into the private sphere, but also imposed ruthless moral discipline on women and their activities at home. Women became the primary defenders of morality and respectability — characteristics that represented the values of the rising new bourgeois middle-class.

One of the reactions to this ideology among nineteenth-century feminists was to claim women’s power over men by even glorifying more the differences between the genders, emphasizing the superiority of women’s reproductive function and their abilities to control all household affairs. They expanded their ideas of women’s moral superiority into the public sphere in the form of temperance movements and charity works, but their activities and claims resulted in increasing their dependency on males by not questioning the fundamental problems of the separation of the spheres and accepting the male domination in the economic and political spheres – all which reinforced the existing gender hierarchy.

In contrast, another group of feminists, including J. S. Mill and his wife Helen Taylor, accepted the separation of the two spheres but attacked the restriction of women in the private sphere and demanded “universal rights” for women to access the public sphere, such as equal wages and equal career opportunities. However, this type of feminism was also limited because, by accepting the separation of the spheres, these feminists did not pay attention to gender equality at home, such as equal participation in child rearing and housework, and other dimensions, such as the issues of birth control and eliminating the double standard of sexuality between the genders. Without equality in these dimensions, women would either not have time to enjoy the benefit of legal rights and prospects for careers or their labor would be doubly exploited at the workplace and at home.

Despite the strong impulse of the 1960s feminist movement, namely the “Second Wave” of feminism that raised whole host of issues in gender relationship, feminism at present has been weakened. By dividing women and by mobilizing the New-Right counter movements, capitalism, on the one hand, has attacked radical feminism that demands the system pay the costs for reproduction of labor-power as well as provide equal opportunities in the public sphere.

On the other hand, capitalism manipulates feminism for the benefit of the system. Capitalism encourages more women to participate in the public sphere, providing low-income or part-time jobs. Historian Donald Sassoon in his One Hundred Years of Socialism points out that the number of females in the workforce increased during the 1980s and 1990s when the labor market became more flexible, but the increasing employment of women did not bring about equality between men and women and created a “dualist class” within the working class. Women in this system occupied part-time, low-paying jobs and had little influence on changing their working conditions, and thus the division within the working class between full- time and part-time workers became a threat both to the labor movement and feminist movement.

Not only does capitalism exploit lower-income and part-time female workers, but also it compels middle class professional women to be “super-moms” trying to succeed in both job and family. Moreover, the advertising industry coins feminism by dictating what women should buy in order to be women. Commercialism creates new kinds of desires and mandates what kinds of gifts women should receive for their needs as women to be satisfied.