Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. This month, we’re celebrating a fair economy for all, and below, Bryce Covert reflects on a 1971 essay by Betty MacMoran Gray on whether feminism can ever be reconciled with capitalism. Learn more about our 150th anniversary events and special content here.
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Women and their role in the workplace are set to be a constant drumbeat in this presidential campaign. In Hillary Clinton’s first major policy speech on the economy, she called for the need to “break…down barriers so more Americans participate more fully in the workforce, especially women.” Leaving “talent on the sidelines,” and in particular female talent, she argued, is a drag on the economy. This represents, in Clinton’s parlance, “unused potential” in our capitalist society.
But feminists and capitalism sometimes have an uneasy relationship. In 1971, Betty MacMorran Gray wrote in the pages of this magazine that capitalism makes an odd bedfellow for those seeking women’s liberation. Under capitalism, she says, women will regularly get kicked out of the workforce as unnecessary, constituting an always-contingent pool of labor. “Capitalism, which rarely requires full employment, cannot use increasing numbers of women workers,” she wrote.
Her thesis has not been borne out over the decades since. Between the 1970s and the late 1990s, women’s labor force participation steadily rose. Over 40 percent of women were working when Gray wrote her essay, and by 1999, that share peaked, at 60 percent. Capitalism, it turned out, had plenty of room for women to get jobs outside of the home. And the American economy significantly benefitted from their decision to do so. By 2012, GDP would have been 11 percent smaller if women hadn’t dramatically increased the collective hours they spent working for pay since the 1970s.
But since reaching that 60 percent peak, women’s labor force participation rate has been on a slow decline, now at 57.7 percent. Could Gray’s thesis be coming true? Is there not enough room for women workers under capitalism?
Probably not, given that women’s exit from the workforce is a uniquely American problem among developed countries, as Clinton has been pointing out. It’s essentially an unforced error. In 2013, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn looked at the fact that the United States had fallen from a rank of number six among developed countries in how many women are in our labor force to number 17. And they found that policy choices are to thank for much of that failure: We would rank at number 11, not 17, if we had kept up with the developed world by mandating paid maternity leave, spending more on childcare, and making it easier for workers to seek out flexible schedules. Women’s labor force participation would be 6.8 percentage points higher.