Capitalism has been a net good for women, but you wouldn’t know it if you did a quick Google search of women and capitalism. Many of the top results, aside from this worthwhile debate put on by Cato Institute, claim that capitalism perpetuates oppression, empowers the patriarchy, and exacerbates inequality.
March is Women’s History Month, so this weekend I decided to revisit my copy of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, an 1848 document signed by 100 men and women that listed the plenteous ways in which the United States had not yet lived up to the ideals promoted in the Declaration of Independence. Written 72 years before women had the right to vote, this line stood out to me:
“He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.”
Throughout history and across geography, women were deprived the right to exert the same control over their property that free men enjoyed, if they were allowed to possess property at all. Today, women control approximately 51% of personal wealth in the United States and 40% of businesses are women-owned. Wealth managers and philanthropic foundations are already positioning for the demographic shift that will make women their primary customer/grantor in the coming years.
Why do these stats matter? According to Professor Ann Cudd of Boston University, “Market participation increases women’s bargaining power within society, empowering them to lobby for legal equality and greater freedom.”
Yet, Prof. Cudd’s statement has an implicit question: How does market participation increase in the first place? Capitalism’s levers of 1) economic competition and 2) voluntary cooperation create the conditions necessary for individuals, both men and women, to participate in the market and create their own wealth.
Capitalism’s inherent competitive and cooperative nature has given many women an opportunity to participate in the marketplace. According to Visual Capitalist, female-led unicorns (a “unicorn” is a private company that is valued at $1B or more) increased by 425% from 2013-2019, moving from four to twenty-one. That sort of progress and prosperity is hard to come by under heavily regulated, patriarchally-oppressive, centrally planned economies.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the stats that exemplify how capitalism has benefited women, but there are myriad qualitative ways it has improved our lives, especially when it comes to the innovations that market-based economies have spurred.
Thanks to the ingenuity and innovation fundamental to capitalism, we no longer need to spend the majority of our days making light sources, churning butter, curing meats, mending clothes, and washing laundry. And thankfully, for the women (and men) that want to make their own butter, there’s a market for that, provided government doesn’t get in the way.
So, as you consider the achievements of women this Women’s History Month, I hope you’ll remember that capitalism has provided the best conditions for today’s women to flourish, whether at home or in the marketplace.