The Advent of the Modern Housewife
From the Foundation for Economic Education
By B.K. Marcus
“Your capitalistic attitude to women,” said the Soviet premier, “does not occur under communism.”
Nikita Khrushchev was addressing Vice President Richard Nixon during the opening day of 1959’s American National Exhibition in Moscow. Nixon was there to represent not just the US government but also General Mills, Whirlpool, and General Electric — to represent, in other words, what both men understood as the essence of capitalism.
What provoked Khrushchev’s rebuke?
“In America,” Nixon had announced while spokesmodels showed off the latest kitchen conveniences, “we like to make life easier for women.”
According to Bee Wilson, who tells the story of what came to be known as the Kitchen Debates in her book Consider the Fork, the top communist was “implying that instead of making life easier, these machines only confirmed the American view that the vocation of women was to be housewives.”
“And perhaps,” Wilson adds parenthetically, “he was partly right about this.”
East Meets West
There’s something compelling about the story of the Kitchen Debates. Instead of the abstractions of economics and ethics, of power struggle and political theory, we have two men embodying East and West, communism and capitalism in the mid-20th century. In “How Ice Cream Won the Cold War” (Freeman, fall 2015), I used the event to explore the importance of luxury to economic development. But there’s more than one thing profoundly misleading about employing this scene to encapsulate the clash of these two economic systems.
For one thing, while there may be some justice in calling on Khrushchev to personify communism, there’s something terribly wrong with letting Nixon represent free enterprise.
Nixon was never procapitalism. He was anticommunism. He made his reputation ferreting out communist infiltrators in government. When he later held the top spot in the White House, Nixon increased federal regulation of industry, killed off the last vestige of the gold standard, and imposed wage and price controls on an already ailing economy. In his foreign policy, President Nixon supported petty dictators throughout the world who were anything but friendly to freedom in the marketplace — just as long as they, too, opposed the red menace that Khrushchev had spoken for.
The system that Nixon subscribed to throughout his political career had more in common with Mussolini’s corporatism than it did with Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
Who Speaks for Free Enterprise?
But there’s a more fundamental problem. Even if Nixon had been a genuine free-marketeer, the economic system of competitive commerce cannot have a spokesman. Communism is fundamentally centralized, whether it is directed by a small central committee or a single leader. Capitalism, in contrast, is radically decentralized. No committee can guide a healthy economy. No single person can run the show. And the more anyone tries to do so, the less the economic system can be described as capitalistic.
When Nixon told Khrushchev, “We like to make life easier for women,” he was implying that the latest kitchen conveniences were the result of benevolence, as if successful entrepreneurs — or worse, politicians — were directing the market’s resources toward a particular social goal: greater leisure for American housewives. And when Khrushchev replied by accusing capitalism of a sexist agenda, he was indulging in the same fallacy: the idea that capitalism is driven by capitalists.
It doesn’t matter if businessmen are benevolent or patronizing, progressive or reactionary; in a free and competitive economy, the successful entrepreneur maximizes profits through mutually beneficial exchange — anticipating the products and services that customers will be most willing to pay for.
Economist John C. Goodman, writing in a different context, puts it well:
The marketplace uniquely melds altruism and self-interest. Take Bill Gates, the man who pioneered the personal computer revolution. By empowering computer users everywhere, he became the world’s richest man; and now he is giving all his wealth away. Was he motivated by selfishness? Or was he altruistically trying to create the greatest good for the greatest number? The beauty of the marketplace is that Gates’ motivation doesn’t matter. You get pretty much the same result either way. (Independent.org, “Capitalism, Socialism, and the Pope”)
And yet, Nixon wasn’t entirely wrong. Capitalism did make life easier for women. It made life easier for men, too, but as historian Stephen Davies has pointed out, “women have particular cause to be thankful above and beyond the gains in material well-being that they share with men.”
This was true even before the advent of the consumer technology Nixon was showing off in Moscow. After the Industrial Revolution, Davies writes, for the first time,
women could earn an independent income and support themselves, something that was practically (as well as legally) difficult in traditional society. This meant that not being married, but rather being independent, was no longer an utter disaster nor tantamount to a death sentence.
For those who did marry, he continues,
modern capitalism produced a suite of devices and innovations that physically freed women from the demands and limitations of domestic labor. To take one example, the modern washing machine freed women from the need to spend one or often two entire days of each week doing laundry. Other domestic appliances had similar effects. (“The Force That Liberated Women,” FEE.org)
From our perspective in the 21st century, we can question the assumption thatlaundry should be women’s work, but capitalism didn’t create the sexual division of labor; it began the process of eliminating it.
It did so first by making labor less onerous, then by making independence a more realistic option, and finally by creating a world in which individuals can afford to reject the burdens of tradition — and to attempt to persuade others to join them in that rejection. If feminism is about women’s liberation from millennia of oppression, then capitalism is the sponsor, not the enemy, of feminism.
This is why, Davies claims, almost all of the earliest feminists “were ardentlaissez-faire liberals and supporters of capitalist industry. They were well aware of the connection between the autonomy and freedom of choice that they advocated for women and the economic transformations that had made freedom possible as a lived reality.”
Pity the Poor Housewife
Khrushchev implied that the modern housewife was a creation of capitalism — and he was right. He further implied that the prevalence of housewives in 1950s America was a blot on the market system, and many Western women since the 1960s have been inclined to agree.
The reputation of housewives may never recover from a book published a few years after the Kitchen Debates: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, in which Friedan spoke of “the problem that has no name.”
“Simply stated,” writes libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy, Friedan believed that
domesticity denied housewives their humanity and potential, making them suffer both physically and mentally. Friedan described the typical ‘50s family as a “comfortable concentration camp.” Like camp inmates, suburban housewives had adjusted psychologically and become “dependent, passive, childlike” and lived at a “lower human level.” (“Individualist Feminism: The Lost Tradition,” FEE.org)
After The Feminine Mystique became a cornerstone of second wave feminism, Friedan, who cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, downplayed her previous political activism: she “had been a staunch political activist on the communist left for decades,” according to McElroy, and probably didn’t want the movement then known as “women’s liberation” to be associated in the popular imagination with radical socialism. But that connection was not unfounded.
Down with the Capitalist Patriarchy
As Davies and McElroy point out, the more individualist traditions of feminism embraced capitalism. And yet, the mainstream of modern feminism has borrowed significantly from socialist theory.
In the 19th century, McElroy writes, “the two basic traditions of feminism that fundamentally questioned the political system were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws, and individualist feminism, which is sometimes called libertarian feminism.”
The language of the two traditions can seem similar, employing the same words and naming the same goals, but “the key concepts of feminism within individualism — such as equality, justice, and class — bear so little relation to the concepts as used by socialists that the definitions often conflict.” For example, the socialist “approach to justice is ends-oriented and defined in terms of a specific social condition,” including economic equality.
When Nixon acknowledged that kitchen conveniences were of greater immediate benefit to women than men, that distinction was, from the socialist perspective, not just an acceptance of differences between contemporary American men and women; it was an acceptance of inequality in the socialist sense of injustice.
In contrast, libertarian feminists consider justice to be the absence of coercion. “Whatever is voluntary is ‘just,’” McElroy summarizes, “or, at least, it is as close to justice as non-utopia can come.”
To the extent, then, that women have legitimate options other than being housewives, the choice to stay home and manage the household is the product of both liberty and justice.
We might argue that a combination of laws and culture limited women’s options in the 1950s, that the prevalence of housewives did represent an injustice because it resulted from women’s lack of true freedom. As we’ve already noted in the case of Nixon, the people in charge of American government were not champions of individual liberty. They had a particular vision of how things should work, and they used the coercive authority of the state to try to make it so.
But it was capitalism that undermined their vision. Nixon welcomed the latest appliances’ making life easier for American women, but those dishwashers and fancy refrigerators were having a less obvious longer-term effect: by reducing the burden of domestic labor, they opened a world of options that the men in power may not have been as happy about.
Leisure isn’t just the absence of labor; it is the freedom to seek more rewarding work.
“It is undeniably true,” McElroy writes, “that The Feminine Mystique spoke to many women whose lives were changed as a result of reading the book. For them, being a housewife was a negation of their potential as human beings, and they discovered the courage to reach out to make a different choice.” But whether those women understood it or not, it was the wealth of the market economy that enabled them to resist tradition and explore other careers — even when the larger culture may not yet have condoned their doing so.
Capitalism, in other words, is not the same thing as Western culture. To equate them is to miss the ongoing struggle between the two. The market undermines traditions by testing their value against more fluid social arrangements. Those customs that depend on a particular historical condition will lose out, because, as the economy grows, the rules change.
Capitalism is not the resistance to such changes. It is their catalyst.
Profit and Progress
The era of the suburban housewife marked a transition in Western history. Women had always been responsible for managing their homes. That was true throughout the world and across political and economic systems. The advent of the modern housewife was the result of greater wealth and leisure, as was women’s growing freedom to accept or reject the role, well before the 1950s.
Khrushchev portrayed Nixon as the cultural reactionary, “and perhaps,” as Wilson comments, “he was partly right about this.”
Maybe the American politician was condescending toward women. So, too, may have been the individual capitalists whose products were on display at Nixon’s exhibition. But the economic system that produced those goods functions with or without regressive attitudes, and by 1959, it had produced an unprecedented level of wealth and freedom for everyone — women in particular.
If we can look back, over half a century later, and take exception to the fine points of what was then presented as progress, that’s only because commerce and enterprise continue to afford us — men and women, both — ever more options to pursue our own liberation.