Implications of the Acceleration of the Pace of Growth of the Value of Human Knowledge: An In-Take from "Slouching Towards Utopia: The Economic History of the Long 20th Century"

Feminism in the Long 20th Century: An In-Take from "Slouching Towards Utopia: The Economic History of the Long 20th Century"


With November 8, 2016, the Long 20th Century comes to an end. It began in 1870, when the combination of the development of the industrial research lab, the screw-propellered iron-hulled steamship, the submarine telegraph network, and America's openness to (European) immigration brought the world out of the age of gunpowder empires and set it on the escalator to prosperous modernity. It ended in 2016, when the U.S. abandoned its role as Kindlebergian hegemon and as the, at least in its own mind, City Upon a Hill.

So it is time to finish my twentieth century history book, which has been hanging fire for two decades now as the 20th Century seemed to refuse to stop—as things kept happening that seemed to be the continuation of 20th Century processes.

Right now I am working on Chapter 2: Themes. I am making a hash of it. This part of it does not say what I want it to say, and I am not sure that what I want to say is what I should say. Advice, anybody?

2.2: The Arrival of Feminism

In 1764 in Britain’s Massachusetts colony Abigail Smith was 20, and had had no formal education at all: girls weren’t worth it. In that year married a man she had known for five years: the up-and-coming 30-year-old lawyer John Adams. Their daughter Nabby was born the following year, in 1765. There followed John Quincy (1767), Suky (1768, who died at the age of 2), Charles (1770, who died at the age of 10), Thomas (1772), with high probability a couple of miscarriages, and then the stillborn Elizabeth (1777). She ran their Boston-Braintree household and property operations while he played his role on the large political-intellectual stage, becoming second president of the United States.

Death and disease were, as was the case in the Agrarian Age, omnipresent. One letter to her husband in 1776 contains: “our Neighbour Trot whose affliction I most sensibly feel but cannot discribe, striped of two lovely children in one week…”, “Betsy Cranch has been very bad…”, “Becky Peck they do not expect will live out the day…”, “The Mumps… Isaac is now confined with it…”, and “your Brothers youngest child lies bad with convulsion fitts…”[5]

Her letters tell us that she badly wanted to know what was going on in the world outside her household and the Boston-Braintree circle: “I wish you would ever write me a Letter half as long as I write you; and tell me if you may: Where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals? Are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be?…” and “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs…”

And Abigail Adams was not happy about the position of women in society:

By the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness…

Her husband thought this was a great joke:

As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.

This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out.

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight…

Why male supremacy was so firmly established back in the Agrarian Age is something that is not obvious to me. Yes, it was very important that people who wished to survive should they reach old age—especially women who did not want to be burned as witches—to have surviving descendants. The pressure at all levels of society was immense: Queen Anne I Stuart (1665–1714), the last British monarch of the Stuart dynasty,[6] was pregnant eighteen times: eight miscarriages, five stillbirths, George (who lived only minutes), Mary (premature: lived only two hours), Anne Sophia (who lived only nine months), Mary (died of smallpox before she would have turned two), and William (died at 11 of strep throat).

Anne survived all eighteen pregnancies. Many of her fellow-queens were not so lucky. Of the 45 queens and female heirs-apparent of England from the Norman Conquest through Victoria, seven died in childbed: 15.5%, more than one in seven, among the most cosseted and best-nourished women in England. In the horrible run from Isabelle de Valois in 1409 through Anne Hyde in 1671, six of twenty died in childbed. The last to die in childbed was Crown Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales in 1817. Being an Agrarian-Age woman was not for sissies.

Yes, back in the Agrarian Age the biological requirements of obtaining a reasonable chance of having surviving descendants to take care of one in one’s old age meant that the typical woman spent 20 years eating for two: 20 years pregnant and breastfeeding. Yes, eating for two is an enormous energy drain, especially in populations near subsistence. Yes, Agrarian Age populations were near subsistence—my great-grandmother Eleanor Lawton Carter’s maxim was “have a baby, lose a tooth” as the child-to-be leached calcium out of the mother to build her or his own bones, and she was an upper class Bostonian born in the mid-1870s. Yes, breastfeeding kept women very close to their children, and impelled a concentration of female labor on activities that made that easy: gardening and other forms of within-and-near-the-dwelling labor, especially textiles.[7] Yes, there were benefits to men as a group from oppressing women—especially if women could be convinced that they deserved it: “Unto the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband; and he shall rule over thee’…”[8] But surely even in the Agrarian Age a shift to a society with less male supremacy would have been a positive-sum change: women who are not kept illiterate, barefoot, and pregnant as a matter of course can do more, and we—optimistic—economists have a strong bias toward believing that people in groups will find ways to become, collectively, more productive and then to distribute the fruits of higher productivity in a way that makes such a more productive social order sustainable.[9]

There were signs of erosion in the bio-demographic underpinnings of high male supremacy even before the Long 20th Century began. But it was over 1870-2016 that these underpinnings dissolved utterly. The number of years the typical woman spent eating for two fell from twenty—if she survived her childbed—down to four, as better sanitation, much better nutrition, and more knowledge about disease made many pregnancies less necessary for leaving surviving descendants and as birth control technology made it easier to plan families. The number of babies per potential mother dropped by about two-thirds.

Thus reductions in infant mortality, the advancing average age of marriage, and the increasing costs of child raising together drove a decrease in fertility. And, after exploding in the Industrial Age, rate of population growth in the industrial core slowed drastically. The population explosion turned out to be a relatively short run thing. And so human population growth went from an approximate doubling each generation to a rate approximately consistent with zero long-run population growth in the advanced industrial economies, with the rest of the world now following along behind. I world that had had perhaps 750 million people in 1800, 1.1 billion in 1870, and 7.4 billion in 2016 now appears headed for a stable population of about 9.5 billion come 2050.

The path of within-the-household technological advance worked to the benefit of the typical woman in the Long 205h Century: dishwashers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, improved chemical cleansing products, other electrical and natural gas appliances, and so on, especially clothes-washing machines—all these made the tasks of keeping the household clean, ordered, and functioning much easier. Maintaining a nineteenth century, high-fertility household was a much more than fulltime job. Maintaining a late twentieth century household could become more like a part-time job. And so much female female labor that had been tied to full-time work within the household because of the backward state of household technology became a reserve that could now be used for other purposes.

My great-great grandmother Florence Wyman Richardson was born in 1855 in St. Louis, MO, a privileged scion of what then qualified as St. Louis’s upper class.[10] Unlike Abigail Smith Adams, she received an education—but not a college degree. Unlike Abigail Smith Adams, she was not limited to writing private letters to her husband asking him to please “Remember the Ladies”. 1882 finds her lobbying for raising the age of consent in Missouri, then 12. 1908 finds her on the executive board of the St. Louis Woman's Trade Union League. 1910 finds her, with her daughter and my great-grandmother Florence (“Fonnie”) Richardson Usher, organizing the St. Louis Women’s Suffrage League. And the system… responded: the 19th Women’s Suffrage Amendment, which had first been introduced back in 1878, was ratified on August 20, 1920.[11]

In response to the declining time demands of within household work and the expanding set of outside opportunities, female participation in the paid labor force surged. In the United States female levels of formal education are now poised to soon surpass male levels.

The move of women from largely within-the-household, unpaid to largely outside-the-household, paid work catalyzed an increase in women’s material welfare and social status. As Betty Friedan wrote in the early 1960s, women could advance toward something like equal status only if they found “identity…in work… for which, usually, our society pays.” As long as women were confined to separate, domestic, occupations which the market did not reward with cash, it was easy for men to denigrate and minimize their competence and accomplishments. As the labor requirements of running a household fell, the wide separation of men’s from women’s roles became harder to maintain—and with it the belief that biology imposed a different, lower status on the female half of the human race.

Institutions and practices derived under the assumption that the overwhelming bulk of the labor force is male, attached to employment full-time over the long term, and has minimal child care and household-maintenance responsibilities held back progress toward something like full economic equality between men and women. Nothing like full equality has yet been established. Male wages and earnings still appeared higher than female wages and earnings by more than could be easily accounted for by differences in education, training, and degree of labor force attachment. There is still substantial discrimination visible, especially in the form of a “break in labor force participation” penalty. Today in Denmark—one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, mothers have a 7%-point lower chance of being employed, work an average of 7% fewer hours conditional on being employed, and receive an average of 7% less in compensation conditional on being employed and on working their hours.

In my intellectual discipline, economics, and in my labor market status group, tenured professors, we are now grappling with one of these institutions and practices: that, in the word of my friend and teacher ex-Harvard President Larry Summers, people deciding whether you are going to receive tenure expect that candidate professors in their 20s and 30s have “near total commitments to their work… a large number of hours in the office… a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency… a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and… the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job”.[12] But requiring such total commitment up through one’s 30s does not fit easily or well with female parenthood. The response of universities was to give mothers extra time—extra years to prepare their portfolios for the tenure review. And then gender equality seemed to demand that universities give fathers—especially those who would certify that they had been primary caregivers—extra years on their tenure clocks as well.[13]

The effect of this facially-neutral pro-parent policy? Men whose wives gave birth and so got extra time on their tenure clocks saw their chances of getting academic tenure increase by 20% . Women who gave birth and so got extra time on their tenure clocks saw their chances of getting academic tenure decrease by 20%. The men had spent the extra time writing more articles. The women had spent the extra time eating for two under the heavy biological load of mammalian motherhood.[14]

I see the centrality of the economic and the extraordinary upward leap in prosperity as the principal news that the future will remember from the history of the Long 20th Century. But I am male. If I were female, would I see the demographic transition—the shift of the typical woman’s experience from one of eating for two for twenty years (and of having one chance in seven of dying in childbed) to eating for two for four years—and the rise of feminism as the biggest news?

Quite possibly.

[5] Abigail Smith Adams (1776): Letter to John Adams 31 Mar-5 Apr 1776
[6] In the Protestant line. The last Catholic Stuart dynasty claimant was Henry IX Stuart, died 1807.
[7] See Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1994): Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton: 0393313484)
[8] Genesis 3:16 (King James Version)
[9] Or do we economists? See Adam Smith (1776): An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell) Smith, at least, grappled hard with the question of why human elites resorted to what he saw as the extremely unproductive system of slavery. His answer was the “domination” was something humans enjoyed for its own sake: “In ancient Italy, how much the cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked by both Pliny and Columella. In the time of Aristotle it had not been much better in ancient Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic described in the laws of Plato, to maintain five thousand idle men (the number of warriors supposed necessary for its defence) together with their women and servants, would require, he says, a territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon. The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen. The planting of sugar and tobacco can afford the expense of slave-cultivation. The raising of corn, it seems, in the present times, cannot. In the English colonies, of which the principal produce is corn, the far greater part of the work is done by freemen. The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to set at liberty all their negro slaves may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great. Had they made any considerable part of their property, such a resolution could never have been agreed to…”
[10] Florence Wyman’s father, Edward Wyman, was a graduate of Amherst College and himself an educator. In 1848 he built Wyman’s Hall: a then “impressive four-story building” on Market Street opposite the courthouse, where now the Gateway Arch stands. The third and fourth stories of the building housed Wyman’s Classical High School. The first story was for retail. The second story held a concert hall, at which Jenny Lind “the Swedish Nightingale”, then the most prominent vocalist in the world, performed when she came to St. Louis in 1851.
[11] After the passage of the 19th Women’s Suffrage Amendment, Fonnie turned her energy to Black civil rights as a prominent member of the St. Louis Urban League.
[12] Lawrence Summers (2005): Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce
[13] An example of how at times feminism came into conflict with social democracy: the desire to use women’s “specialness” to win regulatory benefits conflicted with the feminist principle that “special” was code for “low status”.
[14] Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns (2016): Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies? Using a unique data set on the universe of assistant professor hires at top-50 economics departments from 1985-2004, we show that the adoption of gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies substantially reduced female tenure rates while substantially increasing male tenure rates…