In his Forbes column last week, Tim Worstall made the point that perhaps the biggest economic story of the last century has been the economic emancipation of women:
There’s an interesting little rumpus going on over the new book by Robert Putnam on the class divide in American lifestyles. Put very simply, the middle and upper classes seem to take marriage and child rearing seriously and the poor have a more, umm, chaotic approach. Looking at the various think pieces that have been done on this book I find myself astonished by the way that the most important salient and relevant fact is simply not being mentioned. Marriage is many things but among them is that it is an economic contract. And the terms of that contract have changed: thus it’s not even remotely surprising that behaviour has changed too.
Which brings me to that headline: that the economic emancipation of women is the most important single fact of the past century. That past really was a different place. We can argue if we want to about whether that economic emancipation is complete (the famous womens’ 77 cents to mens’ dollar, or is it a motherhood pay gap and so on) but let’s leave that for another time. What is obviously and glaringly true is that women are much freer economically than they were a century ago. Wages for women back then were distinctly lower than they were for men. And no, this wasn’t particularly discrimination: some large part of what most people were hired for was physical muscle. Men have more of this so they got paid more. There were also strong social norms: I’m not quite sure of pre-WWI America but in my native UK the only respectable jobs for an adult woman (ie, something that the bourgeois would be happy to see their daughters go into) were nursing or teaching. And as a result of this paucity of choice the wages were low in both professions (there’s a strong truth to the point that the rising wages of both teachers and nurses in recent decades are the result of their being free to work in other sectors these days).
The result of both of these things was that the wages of a female worker were not, except at the most basic, basic, level, sufficient to raise a child let alone support a family. I’m not saying that being a single parent these days is easy but it is at least possible as tens of millions of people are showing us.
Which brings us to marriage: yes, this is many things. Love, sex, companionship and so on. But it is also an economic contract (the only proof we need of this is to read some divorce settlements)
and marriage always has been an economic contract. Pretty much since humans arrived as a species it has been necessary to have two parents around in order for a child to have a reasonable chance of survival to an age where it would have its own children. This was true of hunter gatherer societies, of agricultural ones, of industrial ones, feudal and so on. It really is only in this past century, more so in the past 50 years, that it’s been possible for one person to both earn a living and raise a child or children. Yes, obviously people did do so as a result of having to do so but it wasn’t something that anyone did by choice simply because of the penury that resulted from their doing so. And yes, all of this is much more true of women than men.