The expanding definition of citizenship proved a necessary but not sufficient cause for feminist movements to form. An economic motor reinforced these ideas — the transition from agricultural, family-based economies to commercial, and later industrial, market economies based on wage labor. Over time, women joined the ranks of paid workers, but it was not wage earning per se that fomented feminism, for capitalism by no means liberates women; rather, it requires them to perform the dual tasks of domestic and wage labor. Female wage earning had the potential to weaken the patriarchal family because women’s economic contributions might provide greater leverage in the home. However, the lingering ideology of female dependency—the fiction of the “private woman” supported in the home — survived the demographic and economic transition to female wage labor. Because women earned lower wages than men in sexually segregated job markets (and had limited rights to property and little access to credit), they could not in fact support themselves. Lower wages in turn insured women’s dependence on fathers and husbands, thus reinforcing patriarchy. As in the realm of citizenship, the discrepancies between male and female opportunities ignited feminist critiques.
The economic processes that created dilemmas for women workers occurred at different times throughout the world. With the exception of early textile workers, the initial transition to industrial production in Europe and North America excluded most women, reinforcing maternal identities within the middle class and employing working-class women largely to perform domestic labor outside their own homes. In response, male workers and the early labor movement promulgated an ideal of the “family wage” in which a male breadwinner earned enough to support his dependent wife and children. Over the twentieth century, light manufacturing, clerical and service jobs, and later information economies drew women of all classes and ages into formal labor markets.
In industrializing societies, the pool of available female workers grew as women’s reproductive labor declined. In the United States, for example, average marital fertility rates dropped from around eight children in 1800 to under two children in 2000. Whenever an expanding sector of the economy sought cheap wage labor, women, who now had fewer reproductive labors, filled the jobs. As a result of worker availability and employer demand, female wage labor changed from exceptional to commonplace in most industrializing cultures. First, it was younger and single women who worked for wages; later, older and married women, and then mothers of small children, began to spend longer periods of their lives earning wages. By 1999, 70 percent of married women with children were working for wages in the United States. By then, 46 percent of U. S. workers and 42 percent of western European workers were women.
Given the global reach of market economies, this process was not limited to the West. By the 1990s, women constituted 43 percent of the wage labor force in East Asia, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa. Significantly, their jobs clustered in “female” sectors of the economy: light manufacturing, clerical and sales, and services once offered in private homes, such as preparing and serving food, cleaning, caring for children, and sex work. During every transition from agricultural to industrial economies, sexual commerce has drawn women from rural areas to cities, where restrictions on women’s jobs keeps the pool of sex workers full.
The legacies of the private home have meant that even when women earn wages, they continue to have primary responsibility for caring for family members. This unpaid work in the home has perpetuated economic inequality in the wage labor force at every stage of economic development. Women’s association as primarily unpaid caregivers has masked their full economic contributions, just as it has masked men’s capacity for familial labors. In addition, it creates the double day for most women workers, who continue to absorb the social costs of family care. Data on the division of housework throughout the world, even for dual-earning couples, documents this disparity. Wage-earning women do most of the caring work within families. Even when socialist states have offered some relief, such as child care, women’s domestic responsibility remained powerful. The domestic legacy has also led to employer biases that women are not dedicated to their jobs, simply by virtue of being potential or actual mothers. Women’s secondary political status and this dual economic burden have meant that women increasingly chafe against the limitations on their full participation as citizens and as workers.
Competing feminist strategies have addressed the disparity between the ideal of political and economic democracy and the second-class status of women. Just as the paradox of female citizenship required a dual strategy that balanced universal and maternal claims to authority, labor inequalities have inspired multiple responses. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most women worked within their own families, even liberal feminists recognized that as long as women remained economically dependent on men, motherhood represented a very powerful justification for protecting and empowering women. Like maternalists, the liberal feminists who sought public authority through woman suffrage felt comfortable invoking maternalist rhetoric to justify their demand for the vote; they accepted women’s difference as a strength. Before the mid-twentieth century, most suffragists and socialists also supported the protection of women as mothers through laws that regulated women’s hours of labor and the tasks they could perform for pay.
Until the 1920s, most American women accepted these particularist arguments, with the significant exception of the young militants who first claimed the label “feminist” around 1910. These women later formed the National Woman’s Party, and in the 1920s, they introduced the Equal Rights Amendment to abolish all gender distinctions in the law. Only after the surge in women’s wage labor force participation would equal rights laws grow in popularity. With so many women facing obstacles to jobs and professions, liberal feminists began to rely on a universalist strategy of promoting equal rights legislation. After its founding in 1966, for example, the National Organization for Women concentrated on supporting laws that would expand women’s economic independence by opening new jobs and careers. Despite the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, they succeeded in breaking down many legal barriers to women’s economic opportunity. In the process, however, many American feminists shifted motherhood from the center to the periphery of their politics. Yet the double day persisted for working women who could not afford full-time domestic help, and even those who could hire caretakers often chafed at the conflicting claims of job and family.
By the end of the twentieth century, liberal feminists in the United States recognized both the benefits and the limitations of integrating into male work patterns. They began to articulate a new model of interdependence, in which women and men share both caregiving and breadwinning tasks. Drawing on policies long advocated by socialist feminists in Europe, U. S. activists increasingly called for paid family leave, workplace child care, and other forms of support from employers and the state to help parents combine wage labor and family life.8 Unlike earlier maternalist politics, this recent approach avoids the pitfall of gender essentialism (which assumes that only women can parent) by assigning caregiving work to both men and women. Today, American feminists advocate family-friendly workplaces, adequate child care, and welfare policies that value children’s education. Whether they will succeed in establishing the kind of social policies long in effect in parts of Europe and whether these services will survive where they originally flourished depends not only on feminist priorities but also on broader political realities and the alliances feminists are able to build with other social movements.