What is generally seen as an expression of freedom and empowerment might, in reality, be a case of clever manipulation. One example that I want to bring up today is of women who are driven to seek a job and focus on their career, thereby “empowering” themselves, “breaking barriers” and “being free”. I think that this narrative is far from the truth. This drive, ambition, and peer pressure are chains that bind them and serve only to supply cheap labor to meet an insatiable hunger for more profits. To understand this, let’s see how this aspect of feminism follows from capitalism and consumerism.
Capitalism thrives on “growth”. What they mean by growth is making more money, which calls for increased production. This, in turn, calls for a larger workforce. Also, only producing will not improve profits if what is produced cannot be sold. To sell more, people should both be willing to and able to purchase more. The one “revolution” that held the promise of solving all three of these problems in one go was feminism.
The first problem was addressed by diverting the productivity of a large part of the human population that was engaged in activities vital for maintaining the health of society and quality of life in intangible, invaluable and irreplaceable ways to, producing goods and services that can be sold for profit.
For this, they had to be convinced that the value they added to the society was nil. That the time spent watching their kids grow was worth less than the time spent staring into a computer. That titles and accolades bestowed with vested interests are worth more than words of genuine appreciation made redundant by love. That they should not find happiness and contentment within the loving comfort of their homes. That they should find their “self”-worth by going out and working in factories or offices, by pursuing careers and burning themselves out in the fire of ambition.
Capitalism made this possible through a value system that measured a person’s worth by the money they earned, and their contribution to society by the addition they made to GDP.
On another front, this also solved the problem of limited purchasing capacity. With two earning members in a family, they would be able to afford more goods and services, which will translate to greater sales and more profits. Thus, luxuries which were previously not needed for one to be comfortable and happy came to be necessities of life. Once they become necessities, they can no longer bring pride or happiness with their presence, but only frustration and discontent in their absence!
With many families having this “double” income and raising their standard of living, the societal pressure on other families to send their women out to work will increase. The standard of living once raised cannot be lowered at will. So they will strive to maintain it even if they have to struggle for it. This is a chain more effective than the ones used to bind slaves, to keep the workforce bound, ever available and even willing to turn their lives into fodder for the economy.
This is not true only for women. The oft-repeated lie of a fulfilling career, that you will be happy if you make a name for yourself and rise up the career ladder by working yourself to a point of exhaustion has taken a toll on men as well. Instead of doing what is absolutely needed for sustenance and spending the rest of the time in ways that will help them, they are now tied up with work. This has created a difficult situation for those who see their job as a means of livelihood and not life itself. There is just no place for such people. This reality undermines the argument that both can work outside for some time and then also contribute to housework together because the same greed which has made household chores unappreciated has made moderation in work even more so!
Having seen how feminism has helped address the workforce and purchasing power shortages, let’s now look at how that has helped address the third problem by improving propensity to spend. One common explanation is possible if we accept the hypothesis that women are more likely to spend than men. If this were true, then putting money into the hands of women is a sure way of improving spending. However, this hypothesis is debatable at best and so an explanation based on it will also be questionable.
A less contested theory can be that men and women tend to spend in different ways. Men, for example, might spend more on a bike or on food, while women may want to spend more on clothing and accessories. Previously, when we had only a common family budget, items that only the man, or only the woman, of the family wanted were less likely to find a place in it. The family would typically spend only on what they really needed and not what one or the other had a fancy for.
To address this “problem”, men and women were told that they have to earn for themselves, the money they earn is all theirs, and how they spend it is their own concern and something that their spouse has no right to interfere or even know details of. Having presented it as an ideal of freedom, of empowerment, both men and women will now be more likely to spend on what they want to and think that by doing this they will be happier. This has been stretched to such an extent that there are even theories on “therapeutic shopping” that tell you that spending money can make you feel better and pampering yourself can improve your health!
Thus, in feminism, capitalism found a powerful ally that could not only help increase productivity and spending power but also bring about a culture of spending that would make you feel empowered while being subtly manipulated. Note that here I am not saying that women should not seek work outside the home, but only that the idea that working outside the home is somehow more empowering and liberating than fulfilling one’s responsibilities at home is founded on capitalism.
That your success is measured by the money you make, that money and the things it can buy will make you happy, are ideas that capitalism is based on and reinforces. Treating women as a commodity and reducing the dignity of human life, and looking down on the highest value provided by women in their traditional roles to society is also a side effect of this. To think that the same capitalism can be the biggest champion of feminism and the “right” (or rather an obligation) of women to work and earn money may seem surprising at first, but not after we see how it serves the primary purpose of capitalism.