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Artillery Row

How capitalism gave women leisure

Feminist anti-capitalists are spinning delusions about economic history

The main beneficiaries of capitalism — heck, of the Industrial Revolution itself — have been women. This is one of those truths that makes the existence of the feminist anti-capitalist slightly difficult to understand. 

The argument comes in two parts — one falling between “easy to understand” and “generally accepted” and the other violating much that is held dear about economic history. 

More recently, it’s very obvious indeed that the female workload within the household has decreased. The vacuum cleaner, microwave, prepared foods, takeaways, irons, the whole panoply of domestic technology that the economist Ha-Joon Chang calls the “washing machine.” Hans Rosling went so far as to say that the washing machine brought him books. Now that Mom didn’t have to hand-wash the clothes she had time to go to the library and read to him.

A pencil sketch of working hours in the past century would have female household working hours declining substantially, female market working hours climbing (that economic liberation of women) and both male household and market hours declining more gently. The net result is that we all have far more leisure time than our grandparents — well, unless Grandpa was an Astor or something and you’re not — and therefore must be doing less work. One estimate has suggested that female household work has declined from 60 hours a week to the current 15 since the 1920s.

Yes, this is also work. The human economic unit is the household, so it is all labour done by the household — within it and outside it — that counts. Therefore any study of working hours has to include those done out in the market, for pay and those done in the home. For it’s the household that the whole show is trying to keep on the road.

This is not difficult to understand. Chatting with one’s own Grandmother will usually be enough to convince you, even if you have no taste for statistics.

But if we try to extend this back into history we come up against one of the grand shibboleths. For it would seem to be reasonable that if the Industrial Revolution made people richer, then leisure should have gone up at that time, working hours down. But that’s not the usual story at all. The claim is that working hours went up. Those free peasants out on their common lands were immiserated by enclosure and this is what forced them into the factories. That’s also what forced the working year up to 3,000 hours and the like (a more normal one now — market work only — is 1,750).

That is, capitalism made people poorer. Increased working hours, lower living standards. Which doesn’t really make sense – why would people do this? 

This narrative also doesn’t accord with basic historical facts. Farm workers in Dorset — where there was no industrial revolution — were making perhaps 8 shillings a week in the 1830s. Those up in the North — where the IR was happening — made some 25 shillings. As ever, the wages for one job are determined by the wages you can get at the next one. It’s a lot easier to walk over t’t moor to t’t factory than it is to go 300 miles, which is why farm wages in the north were higher. It’s also why people from the rural south west — Somerset, Devon and, yes, Dorset — flooded into South Wales to the coal and steel plants. Life was better there. 

But that violently contradicts two things held to be generally true. First, that living standards declined during the Industrial Revolution — a Marxist, possibly Marxian, claim — and secondly that mediaeval peasants lived more leisurely lives. The latter argument is simply nonsense, fuelled by such claims as that the serfs got 70 days off a year, which is more than we do. This is something that doesn’t stand up to the mildest scrutiny. Animal owning peasants with 70 days off a year would swiftly become non-animal owning peasants. 

The first effect of the Industrial Revolution was to kill off hundreds and hundreds of hours of female work within household working hours

The actually good economic historian Gregory Clark estimates that the work day for the Lord was perhaps only 6 hours. This could be true — but the point readers might miss is that this is the work day “for the Lord” of the Manor. That’s the amount owed in rent for the peasant’s own fields. After that there’s still the task of ploughing the 30 acres of directly farmed land. With an ox and a stick. Plus, there are the pig, the chooks, the firewood and so on. Peasant life is a complex technology with many moving parts.

In other words, those estimates of lolling and gagging free peasantry are counting only the market working hours, not those within the household. 3,000 hours a year in the factory could well be a reduction from that sort of workload.

But there’s a more obvious piece of counting to do. Spinning. Remember that? Crompton’s Mule, the Spinning Jenny? That’s the first part of the whole process that was automated – spinning. And that was a huge, huge, labour burden. One estimate has it that to make a shirt took anywhere from 2,500 (i.e., more than a whole year’s work at modern standards) to 500 hours. This was all done by women. Another estimate has the linen necessary for a Viking shirt at 10 kilometres of hand spun flax. One single shirt.

Assume that it really is total household working hours that matter. (It is.) The first effect of the Industrial Revolution was to kill off hundreds and hundreds of hours of female work within household working hours. Total household working hours almost certainly declined from that one influence. Just that.

As the economic historian Brad Delong has pointed out, when you meet women in literature pre-1700 or so they are nearly always spinning (although Odysseus’ Penelope was weaving). By the time we get to Jane Austen the subject isn’t even mentioned. That’s the change that had happened by 1810 or so. Hand spinning just wasn’t a thing. It’s entirely possible to say — and I would say so myself — that the one single largest labour saving device ever was that Spinning Jenny. 

And guess whose labour it saved? That of women. Capitalism hasn’t changed since its foundation either. The major beneficiaries have been women in the reduction of all that formerly gendered labour. It simply vanished into the factories. Which really does make that existence of feminist anti-capitalists more than a little weird.       

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