Gender Hierarchy during the Progressive Era: Thoughts and Practices
Progressive‐Era reforms reflected sexist and racist beliefs, contrasting against classical liberalism’s “analytical egalitarianism.”
Influential economists and policy advocates during the Progressive Era had just as checkered a record when it came to the economic participation of women as they did with people of varying racial backgrounds.
In several important contributions to the history of economic thought, Sandra Peart and David Levy chronicled the shifting perspectives from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries concerning the nature of differences between people, and the underlying factors informing those differences. Peart and Levy characterised the classical economics tradition, of the likes of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, as subscribing to an “analytical egalitarian” perspective of human agency. What this concept broadly entails is that individuals can be regarded as being homogenous in capabilities and respect, in which “all the observed differences among people arise from incentives, luck, and history,” and this in sharp contrast to narratives portraying natural differences between individuals, or groups thereof. According to Peart and Levy, debates over the applicability of analytical egalitarianism perhaps most dramatically surfaced after the mid‑nineteenth century, with an embrace of inherent human hierarchicalism increasingly substituting for notions of an inherent human egalitarianism.
A notable example of this was the increasingly charged debates surrounding the economic capacities of different races of people, exemplified by the famous debate between Mill and Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s and 1850s over the question of maintaining the slave trade. Until roughly 1870 the ideas of classical economics and libertarian (classical liberal) political philosophy were, arguably, in their ascendancy throughout Britain and the United States, and this reflected itself in historically seismic reforms such as the abolition of slavery. But for a host of complex reasons, some of which are described here, those ideas waned from the late nineteenth century in favour of a more interventionist role for governments which, incidentally, represented a diminution in esteem for the analytical egalitarian ideal.
Peart and Levy, and others familiar with the hierarchical policy scaffolding erected during the “Progressive Era” in America from about 1890 to about 1920, have placed great emphasis on the role of exclusionist immigration and labor market policy settings harming the interests of races that would allegedly “underlive” the material standards of Caucasian workers. But the Progressive Era’s philosophical and policy transitions away from egalitarianism to hierarchicalism also affected the economic status of women at the time.
Most economists during the period, even those who stridently campaigned for state interventions to resolve a host of economic and social ills, agreed that the imposition of a regulated minimum wage by government would disemploy some workers, especially those with lower skill levels and less workplace experience. However, what distinguished the early progressive economists from their classical forebears, and neoclassical peers, was their belief that such disemployment effects were socially desirable and, therefore, measures of “social control” were necessary to ensure the most desirable employment composition. Thomas Leonard has written that American labor market legislation during the Progressive Era reflected a host of complementary, and reinforcing, arguments:
women needed to be protected from the hazards of market work, some of which entailed the performance of complex or dangerous tasks deemed only suitable for men to perform;
women needed to be deterred from actively engaging in the labor market, as the low wages they may be paid could encourage them to augment their meagre incomes through providing prostitution services;
women should be discouraged from working for wages, as the resultant labor market competition could lower wages for male heads of household; and
women needed to abstain from workplaces to uphold their duties as “mothers of the race,” and to provide for other unpaid services in the home.
An influential figure in early twentieth century American economic thought, the progressive Richard T. Ely, subscribed to views suggestive that women were hierarchically inferior to men, in an economic sense. Ely admonished the views of analytical egalitarians, such as Mill, on the question of freedom of contract for women in the labor market, claiming “the reason for her [womenʼs] economic disabilities are as profound as her sex differences and must be reckoned with in any realistic legislation. This is the verdict of the worldʼs civilization.” He went further to castigate any notion that women neednʼt require governmental policies of limitations and restrictions for their own economic good:
until recently economists were inclined to limit regulation of labor conditions and especially hours of toil to children, young persons, and women, leaving adult men ʻfree,ʼ so it was said, to make their own contracts. But experience has shown conclusively that while adult males as a rule are in a far better position in the labor contract than the classes just mentioned, unregulated contract does not always conduce to freedom and fair opportunity–ʻthe square dealʼ–but frequently means bondage and degradation. A realistic political economy must recognize the facts of the actual world, and does so.
The influential presumption during the Progressive Era that women were to abstain from laboring activities, leaving men the privilege of working for an income for themselves and their families, had a profound effect upon the question as to how wages should be determined. Those who subscribed to the mindset favouring labor market intervention disparaged the economic perspective that wages ought to be determined by the value of marginal product provided by individual workers interfacing within the production process. This economically contrarian, indeed exotic, standpoint was, then, reflected in policies upholding that wages ought to be determined by the consumption needs of families, presided over by male households heads.
Reflecting the unfortunate truth that not all women economically argue from a libertarian feminist view, Theresa McMahon, a student of progressive economist John R. Commons, wrote a book alchemically divining living standards for different groups. In Social and Economic Standards of Living, McMahon wrote, naturally, of an allegedly lowly “feminine” standard of living, which was to be distinguished from other groupings of her choosing, such as “immigrant,” “rural,” and curiously, “American.” Governments during the period latched onto these, and similar, kinds of arguments and, so, set to it that so‑called “family wages” or “living wages” be ordained through regulation, implemented either through legislative fiat or through mock judicial processes, and paid by employers.
The prevailing policy, and surely attitudinal, antipathy toward the employment of women during the Progressive Era, especially those married, was reflected in the vastly lower female labor market participation rates, hovering at about the 20 per cent mark, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a far cry from the United States female labor force participation rate today, at above 50 per cent, in a modern era whereby more women than ever before can tap into lucrative opportunities to forge valuable economic connections with others.
Even with its lens upon the economic and social conditions facing women firmly in place, libertarian feminism has consistently argued for greater freedoms in the analytical egalitarian spirit. At its core, women are just as equally capable in making their own life decisions as men but, more to the point, the promotion of liberty will not only benefit women but all other human beings irrespective of their gender identity, racial background, sexual preference, religious belief, and other personal factors.
In effect, the record of long‐run improvement in the economic and social status of women over time, and in many localities, reflects something of a practical assertion, even if uneven in character, of the analytical egalitarian ideal. And may those trends continue, including through the removal of policy residues from the past such as the minimum wage, occupational licensure, and so on.
But the story of the anti‑egalitarian Progressive Era, nonetheless, serves as a telling reminder of just how far women have progressed, and that the past was, well and truly, “a different country.”