How Free Were American Women in the Gilded [C]age?

Bryan Caplan apparently missed the memo that nostalgia for the 18th and 19th centuries is, at best, an emotional appeal that connects with only a very narrow segment of the population. He’s taken it to a new low, however, by defending tooth and nail his theory that women possessed more freedom in 1880 than they do today, in 2010.

I was very relieved to see, however, that Caplan’s dive into the deep end of the libertarian crazy pool was a solo performance. Most libertarian-esque bloggers — in fact all the ones I’ve seen so far — have strongly pointed out that the idea women in the 1880’s lived in a libertarian utopia is nonsensical, ahistorical, and a really horrible argument for libertarianism. Because if libertarianism truly believes that women would be better off if they traded in the freedoms they enjoy now in favor of the “freedoms” they enjoyed in 1880, then libertarianism is too gruesome of an ideology to ever be worth defending.

I was struck by how deeply paternalistic Caplan’s argument was, and how much it echoes the same arguments that have been made against women’s rights for centuries. For instance, Caplan believes that the fact women were denied the vote is not indicative that women were any less free then they are today:

Yet the fact that women were unable to vote in defense of their “basic liberty rights” doesn’t show that American political system denied them these rights.

This is the same argument that was made against women’s suffrage for much of history. Why should women possibly need the right to vote? Their interests were adequately represented in politics already — after all, women have husbands and fathers looking out for their best interests, and to vote on their behalf. Their husbands and fathers love them, so of course they would not vote for politicians or legislation contrary to women’s interests.

Under Caplan’s theory, life in the gilded cage was a life of liberty — after all, so long as you don’t mind giving up your autonomy, and you are willing to accept legal and social restrictions that drastically narrowed the choices available to you, life in the 1880’s wasn’t so bad, now was it?

Sure, in 1880, personal opportunities were severely restricted — but that’s not a problem, says Caplan, because only a portion of it was directly mandated by legislation. And moreover, the tax rate was hardly objectionable at all — there wasn’t even a 16th Amendment. It’s utopia!

Of course, if I’m living in the 1880s, whether or not there is an income tax probably isn’t my foremost concern, as the odds are overwhelming that I won’t be working for pay, anyway. If I am, it will probably only be for a few years out of my life. In 1890, only 18 percent of women worked for pay. [PDF] So while there may not be a federal income tax, it’s not really that material to me, as I probably don’t have an income in the first place. And, once I get married, my odds of working go down to a meager 4.6%. Not to mention, once I’m married (and the odds are overwhelming that I will be), I also give up my right to own property, enter contracts, possess an independent legal existence, or not be raped by my spouse. Married or unmarried, I still can’t vote, can’t hold office, and I am forbidden from working in most occupations (and essentially all high paying ones). Technically, there’s still a chance I could’ve been a lawyer — thanks to good old Belva Ann Lockwood (GW Law Alum, ’73), one year previously, in 1879, I would have been allowed to practice in federal court. But given that there are about three female lawyers in all of America at this time, it’s a safe bet I won’t be one of them.

More likely, I would have been earning poverty-level wages as a seamstress, working 12 hour days — or more likely still, working in someone else’s house. In 1870, of the women who did work, 60% of the non-farm laborers were household servants. Although generally unmarried and not living with their families, they lived with their employer, and they did not have autonomous existences — being a household servant was deemed a way to provide a semi-respectable means for a woman to work, and yet still provide them with extensive supervision. I could possibly have been a nurse or teacher — in terms of “careers,” that was pretty much the extent of it — but even in 1890, only 2,500 women in all of the United States earned a bachelors degree.

So to recap, in the 1880s, the odds are better than 4 to 1 that I don’t work. If I do work, I have very few career options available to me, and the ones that I do have pay 1/3 to 1/5 of what men are paid for comparable work. I am probably working 12 hour days, and likely have to live with my employer. If I get married in a state with coverture, my effective tax rate becomes 100%, as I cannot own property, and any money I earn belongs to a male caretaker — a husband, or if I am younger, a father — who is in charge of my financial and legal affairs. On the up side, he probably does have my well-being in interest at heart. On the down side, he holds the absolute power to define what exactly my “well-being” is. If I disagree with his assessment of what is best for me, I have few legal options available to contradict it, and even fewer social options. Oh, and did I mention I don’t even have the right to vote?

Now, let’s fast forward to 2010. Suddenly, I possess the full set of legal rights that U.S. citizens currently enjoy. It’s not perfect, but the basics are mostly there. Oh, yeah, and women can vote, too. The income tax rate is high, that’s no fun, but on the other hand, I can actually make an income now, in just about any profession I want. Okay, true, I can’t make an income selling recreational drugs. But I can be a doctor, or an engineer, or a politician. And, sure, there are lots of petty and ill-considered economic regulations that interfere with any business plans I may have… But owning a business encumbered by federal legislation is still a lot better than not being able to own a business at all.

There shouldn’t be a question here about which is the better option. No rational actor would voluntarily choose the freedom available to women in 1880 over the freedom available to women in 2010. And for the majority of people, 2010 is still the far preferable choice, whether the average tax rate is 30% or 50% — or even higher still.