Mises Wire

Home | Wire | The Liberation of Women

The Liberation of Women

Tags PovertyU.S. History

[Reprinted from Free Market Economics: A Basic Reader, compiled by Bettina G. Greaves.]

Legal and political rights, without distinction as to sex, have been recognized gradually by the governments of most civilized nations of the world. By legislation and common law decisions, women have acquired freedom on a par with men to act, own property, and make contracts in their own behalf. (This freedom is being eroded by the present trend toward socialism—to the disadvantage of both men and women. Special government privileges and subsidies, progressive taxation, legislation limiting the right of contract, hours of work, and so on, have already seriously interfered with the rights of property owners and the freedom of contract. But this is another story.) For all practical purposes, laws now deal with men and women pretty much the same.

Economic Opportunities

In recent decades, economic and professional opportunities have been opened to women. Step-by-step, insofar as social customs have permitted, and within the limitations imposed by the “différence” between the sexes which at least the French appreciate, women in this country are relatively free. They may now compete with men, each to the extent of her abilities, in seeking their chosen goals — economically and professionally.

The tremendous advances, which have made it possible for women to achieve recognition as persons—legally, politically, economically, and professionally—are undoubtedly due in large part to capitalistic contributions. Savers, inventors, and producers, operating in a relatively free market economy risking their own private property in the hope of profit, supplied the goods and services which have freed women from the daily drudgery and heavy manual labor expected of them for centuries simply to fulfill their roles as sexual companions, mothers to their children, and homemakers for their families. The improved production and preparation of food, more efficient transport, better retail outlets, and inventions of modern household appliances have given women more time to pursue interests outside the home.

In this day of push button kitchens, automatic timers, electric refrigeration, home freezers, mechanical beaters and choppers, prepared foods and instant mixes, a housewife cannot begin to conceive of the many strenuous chores her grandmothers and great-grandmothers coped with daily. Imagine a home without heat or electricity. Imagine a kitchen without a stove, refrigerator, or running water. Suppose there were no corner stores or supermarkets with milk, butter, bread, meat, vegetables, or soap. Think of a life when each family had to grow its own food, gather the fuel to cook it, tote all water, produce the textiles, and sew, patch, and mend the family clothing.

Early cookbooks offer helpful hints to save the housewife’s time and energy, hints which no modem bride need consider. For instance, keep kettles of water, both hot and cold, handy always in the kitchen. Pine wood is an economical fuel for heating ovens but hard wood makes much hotter coals. Lamps will have a less disagreeable smell if you dip your wick-yarn in strong hot vinegar, and dry it. Teach children to prepare and braid straw for their own bonnets, and their brothers’ hats. Fresh meat brought into the house should be carefully covered from the flies, put in the coldest place in the cellar, and then cooked promptly—especially in summer. Save all the nice pieces of fat to make lard, and put those that are not so nice into the soap grease.

The earliest cookbooks and housekeeping manuals appeared only about 200 years ago. Few women could read before then; and how-to-do-it information, so much of which was needed to run a household smoothly, was passed along by example and by word-of-mouth.

One early cookbook published in this country was The American Frugal Housewife by Mrs. Lydia Maria Childs (12th ed., 1832). The housewife of that day cooked over an open fire, roasted meat on a spit, or baked in a reflecting oven before the fire or in a brick oven built in the chimney. To fire up the oven was such a chore that one or two days a week were set aside just for baking. With good planning, five successive bakings could be done in the oven with one heating: “The bread first—then the puddings—afterward pastry—then cake and gingerbread—and lastly, custards.” This last suggestion comes from Mrs. M. H. Cornelius, whose book, The Young Housekeeper's Friend, appeared in 1859. At the time she wrote, brick ovens were going out, cooking stoves and ranges coming in. Yet, boiled dinners, stews, soups, and steamed cakes and puddings prepared on top of the stove were still more popular with the cooks than cakes which called for firing up the oven.

In 1832, Mrs. Childs wrote for the rural housewife who had her own vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, and chickens. The whole family shared in the household chores, of course, and most housewives had extra help from a hired girl or a female relative living with the family. Yet, the responsibility for the work was the housewife’s. She grew the herbs for flavoring, gathered the eggs, and oft-times milked the cow. She baked with yeast of her own making, or used eggs or baking soda and cream of tartar for leavening—baking powder was not for sale until about 1850. She did the family’s cooking, and did it all with crude utensils. She beat eggs with a fork or a wire whisk, and elbow grease—the rotary egg beater did not come into general use until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Housewives had to bake the family’s bread regularly. This meant mixing the dough, usually in the evening, setting it to rise overnight, and kneading it “very thoroughly.” Mrs. Cornelius wrote, “A half an hour is the least time to be given to kneading a baking of bread, unless you prefer, after having done this till it ceases to stick to your hands, to chop it with a chopping-knife four or five hundred strokes. An hour’s kneading is not too much.” Bread was the staff of life and good bread was a source of pride to the housewife.

Lack of refrigeration was a continual challenge. The housewife took care to use things before they spoiled or to find satisfactory ways to preserve them. Before the canning industry developed in the late 1800’s, she had to preserve fruits and vegetables in season to be assured of provisions year round. In 1859, Mrs. Cornelius advised putting preserves in wide-necked bottles, pasting paper over the tops, and then brushing egg white over the paper with a feather to seal the bottles and discourage mold.

First, Get a Cow

The nineteenth century housewife had to be a Jill of all trades. The industrial revolution with its increased specialization and division of labor barely ruffled the surface of traditional housekeeping practices. The 1859 housewife purchased a few more household items than her grandmother could have in 1832. But she still had to kill her own fowl, cut up the family’s meat, salt it, smoke it, or otherwise cure it and keep it safe from bugs and animals. To be sure of good dairy products, she was told: “The first requisite is to have a good cow.” Keeping a cow added to the household chores. Someone had to feed the cow and milk her, day in and day out, set the milk for the cream to rise, and chum butter at least twice a week. Without refrigeration, keeping milk, cream, butter, and dairy utensils sweet was a continual worry. Now that dairy products are sold in stores, packaged and ready to use, men do most of this heavy manual labor on a mass production basis, using methods developed and equipment produced with the aid of increased savings and investments.

Doing the family wash was another backbreaking chore in the nineteenth century. First the soap had to be prepared from lye made out of wood ashes, and fat and grease saved from cooking. The water had to be toted and heated, heavy wash tubs filled, with countless trips back and forth to the stove. After the clothes were sorted, the finest and less soiled things were washed first, the coarser and dirtier items later in the same water. Most pieces were scrubbed by hand on a washboard. The white things were boiled. After washing, rinsing, boiling, wringing, bluing, and starching as necessary, the clothes were wrung and hung outdoors on a line. Doing the family wash took another full day of the housewife’s time.

Ironing consumed most of a third day each week. The flat irons and special “polishing irons” for final touchups had to be heated on the stove and reheated again and again as they cooled.

Then Came Automation

The kitchen stove or range using wood or coal gradually came into use in the mid-nineteenth century. These had advantages over the open fireplace and the brick oven. With the use of gas and the construction of gas lines in the late 1800’s, new cooking jets became available—gas ovens came considerably later—making meal preparations a little easier. The development of electricity, refrigeration, large scale specialized farming, improved transportation, professional bakeries, and the expansion of retail outlets have further liberated women from the grueling household labor which had been their lot in life. Automatic washing machines and dryers have taken the drudgery out of doing the family wash. Moth-proofed woolens and new miracle fibers have simplified the care of the family’s clothing. Vacuum cleaners, floor polishers, and local dry cleaning establishments help to keep homes and their furnishings clean the year round, doing away with the need to scour the house and everything in it from top to bottom spring and fall. Refrigeration and other effective ways of preserving foods have freed the family menu from dependence on the season. When compared with her nineteenth century counterpart, the modern housewife is truly liberated from grinding household drudgery and endless kitchen chores.

When a housewife presses a button or turns a switch on a modem household appliance, she has at her command the labor of countless specialists—savers, investors, inventors, producers, and merchants—each of whom then helps with her daily chores. In effect, they help tote the wood when she turns up the thermostat. A twist of the faucet draws the water. Turning a dial will fire the oven. A push-button machine will wash, rinse, and wring the weekly wash. With a trip to a grocery store, the housewife can in effect grow the family’s food, milk the cow, chum the butter, make the cheese, gather the eggs, knead and bake the bread, grind the spices, kill the poultry, cure the meat, preserve fruits and vegetables, and make the soap.

Capital, the Key

Each person in the world differs from every other person. Thanks to these differences, everyone benefits if each of us is free to concentrate in the field of his (or her) greatest aptitude and interest. There is some specialization and division of labor even in small groups and primitive communities. But under capitalism, with private property and the freedom to move, invest, and exchange goods and services throughout large areas and among increasingly large populations, it has been possible to develop and exploit our differences more fully than ever before, to everyone’s advantage. It was this complex economic system, developed on the basis of highly specialized division of labor, which liberated women from their traditional household chores.

Women are different from men—and always will be. The woman of the 1970’s has gained recognition as an individual under law. She may own property, make contracts and, thanks to the development of capitalism, now has time to pursue her special aptitudes and interests outside the home and thus compete with men economically and professionally. Rather than trying to compel denial by law of the physical and physiological differences between the sexes, let’s acknowledge and accept them philosophically as the French do: “Vive la différence.”


Bettina Bien Greaves

Bettina Bien Greaves was a senior scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, she attended Ludwig von Mises's New York University seminar and worked with Mises as his assistant for many years.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source:
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here