Published by Barry and Marble, San Francisco, 1895, Public Domain.

The Viability of Gilman’s Women and Economics

Charlotte Perkins Gilman shocked the world with her progressive ideas. Although she did not particularly like the term “feminist”, she is considered one of the most important women to have influenced feminist thought. Her work laid the foundations for generations of women in the First Wave, and gave hope for those who were stuck in perpetuated economic dependency. In 1898, she published the polemical piece Women and Economics, whose main theme revolves around the idea that female economic dependency on men promotes “femininity”, rather than an affinity to be human. Gilman argues that women who are economically tied to their husbands lose their sense of individuality, as they are not able to economically stand on their own two feet. As a result, the frameworks of patriarchy are duly reinforced, which cause the further subjugation of women. Early on in the text, Gilman sought to compare human females to other female species, in the natural world, to conclude that women are the only one dependent on males, out of all the species that roam the Earth. Economic independence is the key for women who wish to break the cycle of motherhood and loveless marriages, as many women marry out of economic necessity even basic survival. Women and Economics borrows ideas from Darwin, Marx, Engels and even Mill to formulate a feminist critique on the status of middle-class  women in the  19th century. Ultimately it is obvious that the book promotes a socialist-feminist perspective, specifically when it comes to Gilman’s analysis of the intersection of gender and class. Gilman was, and still is, one of the most important Western feminist to ever advocate for the economics equality of women. Women and Economics holds truths that still apply to this day.

By analyzing Gilman’s Women and Economics and compare it to socialist feminism, and Marxist theory, we can achieve a better understanding of Gilman’s ideas and perspectives. Moreover, this piece will explain that many of Gilman’s economic theories, which are entirely plausible on their principles, cannot be achieved within a capitalist system due to the strong reinforcement of patriarchy. They can only be successfully implemented within a socialist state.

Gilman puts a great deal of emphasis on the economics relationship between men and women, and its general framework in western society. She implies that women and men seek different types of satisfaction in marriage. Women, which have always been forced to live domestic lives, seek economic security, while men see sexual satisfaction. As a result, women merely become commodities, and are forced under the complete control of their male counterparts. Gilman implies that marriage can be seen as an economic market, where men seek submissive wives, and women seek wealthy men. This relationship causes a rift in the natural order of humanity, and automatically forces women to become the subordinate of men. This system has forced women to seek husbands for their own “economic good”, as they are given few other material options to become economically dependent. The reason for this is because women as mothers who have lived in this manner, prepare their daughters for the same lifestyle through the education in domesticity. The system of economic marriage is the concrete that reinforced patriarchy. The remedy to this problem is the economic independence of women, which would allow for their equality inside the household, and more importantly, their integration into the public sphere.

Economic marriages are constructs that resemble the oppression produced by capitalism through the reinforcement of classes.

Economic marriages are constructs that resemble the oppression produced by capitalism through the reinforcement of classes. Therefore, just like the capitalist systems, marriages can also be bound by a hierarchal class system. Therefore, just like the capitalist systems, marriages can also be seen as a hierarchy . Marxism calls for the dissolution of all classes in order to produce an equal relationship within all spheres of society. Gilman is essentially arguing for the exact same system inside the household. If women achieve their own economic independence she argues they are elevated to the same class as their husbands. Only within such an environment can both become entirely equal. Kollontai, an important socialist feminist from the same era, argues that once men and women no longer depend on each other for economic support, they become equals and their marriages can solely be based on lover. Interestingly, Gilman argues that marriages “cannot become perfect unless they are between class equals”. The parallels between Gilman’s ideas and Marxism are significant. Both Marx and Gilman agree that once equality is established, the economic importance of all members of a system within either marriage or a state, would rise above the constructs of gender. Through this equality and economic independence , women would be able in Gilman’s words “to create, to discover, to learn, to express, and to advance”.

One significant issue which arises in Women and Economics, is that of the specialization of household labour. Gilman explains that the individualization of housework, within marriage, has led to extreme inefficiency in productivity, not only because women do not gain any rewards or payment for they work, but also because they usually perform these duties on their own. Gilman states that organization and collectivization are essential aspects of human evolution. She is correct that women cannot be expected to achieve optimal productivity in the household maintenance when they are forced to do labour that is meant to be done by groups. Furthermore, this specifically reinforced in conservative models of marriage, Gilman’s answer to this inefficiency is the collectivization of all housework, done by different women and men who are rained specifically for these tasks. Gilman argues that productivity would increase as the pressure would be transferred away from women to the collective group efforts. Moreover, this would also act as a barrier to the social expectation of female performance in household maintenance.

Marxism, similar to Gillman’s proposal, implies that the organization of labour must be achieved to increase general productivity. Kollontai, brilliantly, suggests that the best way that women can be freed from housework, is the employment of women, and men into communal jobs. For example, the collectivization of all laundry could possibly free women from their household chores, and provide jobs to women who wish to become economically independent. Gilman’s idea of collectivization of labour is ultimately socialist in nature. With this in mind, it is important to note that the idea of collective production is not entirely possible within a capitalist system. The means of production, within capitalism, can only be achieved in a form of communal living. Gilman touched upon the idea of family groups living together in a collective, but fails to explain that these structures are not possible within hierarchal systems. In fact, the only communes that have been successful inside a capital state, are usually the most isolated from the community. In Israel, socialist communes by the name of kibbutzim, although are highly successful, are severely isolationist., mainly due to their extreme differentiation in ideology with the rest of the country. Collective living can only be achieved within Marxist paradigms.

The subject of motherhood is readily discussed by Gilman as a matter which provides a false sense of value to women, and generally functions as a means of validation. Gilman explains that motherhood as it is presently experiences cannot possibly function to provide worth to women. She explains that women’s reproductive labour is viewed as a resource and commodity for the household, for which women are paid in “food and clothes”. Furthermore, motherhood disables women from becoming individuals as it requires a vast amount of energy and time which in turn creates more economic dependence on husbands. In this case I believe that Gilman has miscalculated the fact that having children provides a different sense of validation in each woman. The problem is not motherhood, but the husband’s and state’s unwillingness to provide better alternative models of organizing maternal care. Kollontai argues that once enough capital is allocated within a socialist system the institution of free day cares is possible, which caters to the needs of each family. The is even true today.  Free day care aid many working women, yet not to the scaled imagined by past leading feminists such as Kollontai. Gilman’s views on motherhood are undoubtedly a reflection of the times she lived in, where almost all women were subjected to becoming mothers. It is in my opinion, that Gilman is not in fact arguing against motherhood, she is simply analysing it from a socio-economic perspective.

Socialist Feminism is one of the most misunderstood ideologies due to its employment of Marxist ideals. The general assumption is that Marxism and Feminism, are two distinct methods of thought, which deal with completely different aspects of social evolution. However, they both share one critical factor; the way they both analyse society. The theories of socialist Feminism, resolve around the social function of society, in relations to economics, to explain the subjugation of women. Unlike middle-class feminism, which derives its ideas from a biological standpoint, socialist feminism strives to understand the world as a conglomerate of social and economic constructs. For instance, socialist feminism states that female oppression is the result of a deep rooted schism in the history of all human society, derived from an economic framework. Its stratification is the direct consequence of the distribution of unequal wealth and power, which subdue both women and men. In other words, the patriarchal system is a construct of the overarching framework, run by the elite classes, who maintain patriarchy with the webs of economic exploitation. However, women are the victims of exploitation both at the hands of the bourgeois and individual men. In his famous The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State that “women are the slaves of slaves” referring to the fact that not only do they have to appeases the capitalist machine but also their husbands at home.  This cannot be closer to the truth. Ultimately, socialist feminism suggests that female liberation can only be achieved through the abolishment of classes. By dissolving all chains of economic control, women can be freed from the traditional bounds of society such as marriage and religion, because under a socialist system they would become economically, socially and politically independent. How is this relevant to Gilman’s Women and Economics?

Gilman is essentially a micro-economic socialist. What is meant by this, is the fact that all her ideas are structured fractions of society, such as family and marriage. Women and Economics, in most of its elements, is entirely a Marxist publication. However, unlike most socialists, Gilman concentrates on the fine fabrics that constitutes society, from a feminist perspective, and not the entire fabric of society as a whole. With this in mind, it is important to understand that her ideas of female economic independence and collectivization, are not possible within a capitalist state because capitalism in inherently patriarchal. Although some women have enjoyed economic freedom, the system that is currently in place has been constructed to stop women from fully becoming equal members of society. This is evidence by the structure of the female labour force in modern times.

Today, the percentage of women in the labour force remains significantly low.

Today, the percentage of women in the labour force remains significantly low. However, the women who do participate in the workforce have achieved an important amount of independence, as individuals. This is evident by the increasing participation of women in all aspects of society. In the U.S, a 2008 Congressional Report suggests that 34% of all working women are the sole bread winners of their family and that the female labour participation rate has been hovering at 60% for the past decade. These numbers are low, but when they analyse with the structure of the modern family, it becomes obvious that women enjoy more proportional freedom than they did in the 19th century U.S. However, women today still do not enjoy equal pay opportunities, and even the chance to become part of the workforce. Gilman’s idea of equalizing household labour is only a fractional solution to a much bigger problem, the capitalist system, which is designed to keep women economically dependent. It is for this reason that women cannot achieve their liberty both inside and outside the household. Gilman’s perspective and models of female economic independence are only possible in a socialist system, where the same rules of economic equality apply to both structure of society.

The idea of small economic pockets that conform to Gilman’s principles cannot possibly survive in a capitalist system for two main reasons. Firstly, the elitism of class will always keep women from joining the labour pool. All industries are dominated by elite males, who have gained their positions through privilege. They are the ones who control the influx of female participation in the labour force an will always keep it at a minimum, usually within trivial employment. Secondly, capitalism is built on the oppression of the lower classes. The system has been specially constructed yo hold women n in positions of minor importance, and has been doing so for the past century.

Gilman’s economic theories are invaluable to the principles of socialist feminism, and I can confidently say, even scientific Marxism. Subjugation, at the hand of capitalist and patriarchy, is not solely a woman’s problems, but also the problem of all men. The increase of women’s economic independence relies on an institutional restructuring fir, which would be initiated by the cooperation of both women and men, before ant real change could initiate within household and marriages. These changes have been readily highlighted in Women and Economics which is precisely which the book is so important to socialism and socialist feminism. Her work has been called utopian, but in fact serves as an important tool in the larger extent of political theory, not only for feminism, but towards a more egalitarian society.



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