Does growth matter?

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

Does growth matter? Yes, and sometimes in surprising ways:

The popular mythology of Women’s Liberation regards it almost entirely as a political movement. And yet there is no other historical movement so completely economically determined.

A majority of women work outside the home today for two reasons:

  1. Most workers are no longer used as slightly smarter horses
  2. Labour saving appliances have reduced the amount of housework that must be done.

The first point is obvious, though often overlooked: so long as muscle and speed were important job qualifications, there were almost no jobs that women could do better than men; in consequence, they were inevitably at an economic disadvantage. And the second is shamefully neglected, possibly because almost no one has any idea just how hard a woman’s work was, before the invention of modern conveniences. Feeding, clothing, and sheltering a family was a full time job; given the demands of pregnancy and infant care, and their competitive disadvantages in the labour force, it is not reasonable to imagine that anyone but women was going to do that job. There is a reason that sufragettes were relatively wealthy women: they had servants to take care of their homes.

A partial list of the consumer goods (so much derided by the left) that made women’s lib possible:

  • Refrigeration means that people don’t have to cook three meals from scratch every day, and spend another hour or so shopping for same
  • Airtight packaging has saved hours of time grinding coffee (by hand), shelling nuts, chopping chocolate, baking bread (or buying it at the bakery), cleaning fish . . . the list goes on and on. It also makes it possible to buy things in bigger lots, saving shopping time.
  • Flash freezing puts wholesome, tasty vegetables, seafood, and meat on peoples’ tables within minutes, at low cost. Even frozen dinners have done their part by taking a lot of terrible cooks out of the game
  • Self-regulating ovens mean that dinner can be started as you walk in the door from work, without waiting for the oven (and the house) to warm up; and that many things can easily be cooked at once
  • Central heating has eliminated hours of work sweeping ashes, scrubbing grates, carrying coal or wood, and dusting . . . your great-grandmother (or her “help”) used to dust the whole house every day, and with good reason
  • Hot and cold running water make cleaning indescribably easier, particularly in concert with modern chemical concoctions; end the work of drawing baths; immeasurably speed the work of washing dishes and doing laundry
  • Dishwashers have knocked out a half hour or so of labour after every meal
  • Washers and dryers have liberated women in a way that is impossible to overstate. Women’s magazines from the 1920s and 1930s are full of ads bemoaning “that Monday evening feeling” . . . that feeling being stark exhaustion, after spending a full day heating water and wrestling with tubs full of sopping wet cloth. A woman who has to spend hours at hard labour every week just to keep her family’s clothes clean is not a woman free to start her own coffee shop or go to law school

Undoubtedly readers could come up with other, equally critical devices, to add to the list.

But the point is that in the 1930s, almost no one imagined that all these worthless, decadent consumer goods had the power to revolutionize gender relations. Aldous Huxley thought we’d have to invent increasingly equipment-intensive games to use up all our excess production; George Orwell envisioned a world permanently at war to destroy these dangerous goods; John Kenneth Galbraith foresaw corporations tricking consumers into buying all their useless geegaws through slick advertising. The reality was that for the first time in history, an average Western woman could have her own family, and her own home, and still have a career besides cooking and cleaning for them. We are no doubt similarly blind to the people who might be empowered by economic revolutions still to come. How can we possibly declare that the things we don’t now know that we want are morally unimportant, when we don’t even know what those things are?

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