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Gender Equality and Capitalism in the United States: Analyzing Its Compatibility

“Gender equality is the goal that will help abolish poverty, that will create more equal economies, fairer societies, and happier men, women, and children,” asserted Graça Machel, the former first lady of South Africa and the founder of Graça Machel Trust: a Pan-African organization dedicated to women empowerment and children rights. Over the course of global history, gender inequality has been an enduring issue perpetuated by social stereotypes, inherent legal barriers, and economic discrimination. However, with the exceptional rising influence of capitalism, its intersectionality with gender equality is to be noted. As a nation with the highest GDP in the world, $20.953 trillion in 2020 according to the World Bank - an international development bank with affiliations to the United Nations - the United States can arguably be considered the epitome of capitalism. With its booming free-market economy, one in which government intervention in the economy is limited, the nation has become a global hotspot for economic opportunities. However, it’s significant to consider the underlying implications of this economic system, particularly that of gender, for the advancement of economic inclusion and social justice. The gender gap in the United States continues to widen in many areas of life including economic, social, and occupational. In fact, according to the U.S. Census of Bureau, one of the largest financial federal agencies in the US, in 2020, “Women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median usual weekly earnings that were 82 percent of those of male full-time wage and salary workers.” While this gap may not seem as wide in comparison to other countries, it still hints at major gender disparities within the nation that can worsen if not held accountable for. By thoroughly scrutinizing the intersectionality of capitalism and gender equality in the US during the 21st century, this can assist business leaders with the modification of their economic choices for the pursuit of economic integration and social prosperity. Consequently, this begs the question: to what extent does capitalism help achieve gender equality for women in the US? It is to be noted that in this article, gender equality will be measured through the equality of economic and social opportunity for women.

All in all, capitalism mostly accentuates gender equality for women through numerous ways including improving access to education and reducing time spent on unpaid, domestic labor. In a society operating under capitalism, opportunities become abundant.

Capitalism is a complex economic system that is heterogenous. While there is no simple definition for this system, according to William J. Baumol, an Economics Professor at New York University, and his fellow colleagues, “Generally, an economy is said to be capitalistic when most or at least a substantial proportion of its means of production—its farms, its factories, its complex machinery—are in private hands, rather than being owned and operated by the government.” Accordingly, the prioritization of private property enables economic freedom since individuals are not bound to government restrictions on spending or investments, especially in the United States which operates under a free-market economy. Consequently, the economy of the United States mixes big-firm and entrepreneurial capitalism. Big-firm capitalism refers to “economic systems dominated by large companies,” (Baumol 80) while entrepreneurial capitalism encourages the commercialization of products and innovations founded by entrepreneurs (Baumol 86). These two systems cooperate to generate major economic growth. For instance, big firms utilize their lucrative resources to purchase major innovations from entrepreneurs or smaller companies who may not be as financially stable. Consequently, these firms refine the products, make them more appealing and affordable for consumers, and then engage in mass-production. (Baumol 86) Through this cycle of collaboration, not only is innovation encouraged, but productivity and economic growth soar through the constant exchange of money. Increased investments help generate more jobs which benefit skilled workers coming from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, with the increased diffusion of wealth across society, coincidental social changes have occurred, particularly that of the evolution of gender norms for women.

Although capitalism prioritized economic liberalization, this was not initially applied to women. In the 18th century, rigid gender norms perpetuated by traditionalism hindered women’s ability to be active participants in the labor market. According to Dr. Graham Warder, an Associate Professor of History at Keene State College, the role of women largely surrounded the ideas of maintaining the home, while men were the sole financial providers of the household. Furthermore, the inherent sexist laws emplaced helped advance the status of men, while pushing back women. To illustrate, as contended by William Blackstone, an English jurist in the 18th century, “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.” In combination with the rigid gender hierarchy in family relationships, the gender discriminatory legal system severely hindered women’s economic independence, thus forcing them to be co-dependent on a male relative or their husbands for freedom.

Nevertheless, the stark difference in women’s participation in society beyond the household today conveys the unique evolution of gender norms within the United States. In the 21st century, women have the right to work, vote, and go to school. Frankly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an independent US governmental agency, women held almost 40% of managerial positions in 2016. This paradigm shift originates from the fundamental system of democracy, particularly its impact on associations or civil societies. Essentially, the functionality of democracy within the U.S. emanates from the doctrines of Enlightenment philosophers, most prominently John Locke. In his book, the Second Treatise, he asserts the notion that the government derives its power from the people. Through the consent of the governed, society has the right to replace leaders if they do not adhere to their needs and interests. (Locke 1) By prioritizing society’s desires, democracy encourages the formation of associations based on special interests. In connection to the development of women rights, associations like the National Women Suffrage Association were at the forefront of political change. Similarly, 19th century political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.” Driven by the public interest of local freedom in due part to democracy’s push for political participation, women were able to self-advocate for gender equality. Therefore, many of the practical political rights women are granted today were institutionalized through the staunch persistence of women rights associations. Exploring the

historical roots of gender inequality for women in the United States can be helpful as it may accentuate the role other factors - such as the economy- have on hindering or propelling it.

One of the ways in which capitalism has advanced gender equality for women in the United States is through the increased provision of girl’s education. Education is a significant tool that can help women achieve economic freedom and liberty. According to UNICEF, a global non-partisan organization dedicated to children rights, by integrating girls into the education system not only do the “lifetime earnings of girls dramatically increase” but “national growth rates rise, child marriage rates decline [and] child mortality rates fall.” Within the United States, capitalism has assisted in the advancement of women’s education through the increased diffusion of wealth. As stated earlier, due to the economic growth that U.S. capitalism induces, living standards and the accumulation of wealth amongst the population increases. As a result, more families can invest in their daughter’s education which is vital as it will guarantee her economic independence and the equality of opportunity of outcome. Moreover, it breaks the traditionalist standards that historically oppressed women’s freedom. Consequently, this explains why women have outpaced men in college graduation. As reported by the nonpartisan fact tank, the Pew Research Center, 39% of women aged 25 and older held a bachelor’s degree, in contrast to only 37% by men. As the influx of income and other additional factors have encouraged women to invest in their education, gender equality thus progresses.

Additionally, capitalism has also helped advance gender equality for women through its encouragement of technological innovation which has reduced women’s engagement in unpaid domestic labor. According to Megan Brenan, a research consultant at a nonpartisan analytics company titled the Gallup News, women are at least 50% more likely to do laundry, clean the house, and prepare meals. However, despite the gender inequality present in the household, capitalism has indirectly helped relieve some of these burdens for women. Due to the competitive nature of firm-based and entrepreneurial capitalism, technological innovations are constantly developed and renovated. As stated by Valeria A. Ramsey, an Economics Professor at the University of California, San Diego, studies demonstrate “that time spent in home production by prime-age women fell by around six hours from 1900 to 1965 and by another 12 hours from 1965 to 2005.” During this interval of time, various popular home appliances were invented including the vacuum cleaner and washing machine. Consequently, today, these groundbreaking tools are continuously utilized to ease the time women spend in household chores. By doing so, as more women are investing in their education, the minimization of the time burden posed by domestic labor, encourages them to pursue and progress in their career life. Unpaid labor does not act as a major barrier to self-development in their career.

Nevertheless, although capitalism has generated tremendous progression of gender equality for women, a prominent critique has been its inherent nature to exploit women for the benefit of capitalists. To illustrate, one observable outcome of capitalism in the US has been occupational gender segregation which enables the devaluation of women’s work. According to the US Bureau of Labor, in 2004, women made up 73.4% of education, training, and library occupations and 96.9% of secretaries and administrative assistants. Coincidentally, these occupations tend to pay lower than other professions containing more leadership roles. The oversaturation of women in the education and service industry has enabled capitalists to monetarily devalue their work for profit maximization. If more women are pushed into low-paying jobs, then capitalists will be able to acquire vast financial gains. Therefore, the exploitative nature of capitalism which leverages wealthy capitalists enables the devaluation of women’s work.

Despite this argument, however, by acknowledging the cultural aspects of society within the U.S. it becomes evident that the root cause of gender discrimination can be found in the deeply ingrained patriarchy. According to Nicoletta Policek, head of the Graduate School at the University of Cumbria, the patriarchy refers to a “system of gender-based hierarchy in society which assigns most power to men, and assigns higher value to men, maleness, and “masculine traits.”’ Evidently, this principle has become the driving force that propels occupational gender segregation. As referred to by Madeline E. Heilman, a professor of Psychology at New York University, agency which is associated with leadership, success, and reliability are oftentimes affiliated with men, while characteristics including sympathy, nurturance, and concern for others are attributed to women. Hence, these stark gender stereotypes are translated into the labor market. Occupations that require cooperation such as teachers or assistants are oversaturated with women, while managerial and leadership positions – that are associated with agency - are dominated by men. Consequently, these occupational stereotypes generate social expectations that not only push women towards more low-paying jobs, but also discriminate those who defy the social norms. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, it was discovered that over 43% of individuals agreed that the reason why there aren’t more women in top executive business positions and high political offices is because women are held to higher standards than their counterparts, men. Therefore, in due part to the natural implementation of misogynistic gender stereotypes into the labor market, women have been situated in a disadvantageous position. They are compelled to put in additional effort into their occupations to prove their competency.

The intersectionality between capitalism, gender, and the patriarchy can be convoluted. However, as American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, conveyed in his painting “The Holdout,” it is evidently embedded into American society. The painting consists of 12 jurors who all are uniformly quarrelling with the only female jury. Judging from her body language and facial expression, it seems as if she’s uncomfortable and is refusing to conform to them. As a result, she is quickly labeled as a “holdout” or burden to the rest of them. These basic depictions convey the inherent gender prejudices and stereotypes that can be present within a workplace. While capitalism has enabled more women to receive higher education and thus have higher paying jobs – such as being a juror – the patriarchy is unavoidable. It enables women to be degraded and perpetuates segregation.

In conclusion, it is evident that although the patriarchy gives major disadvantages to women, capitalism has helped generate major breakthroughs that have enabled women to divert from economic oppression. Economic growth and technological innovations encouraged by this system have progressed women’s independence and liberty.

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