Labor Market Participation
As with innovations, labor market participation has also had a positive effect on women’s material well-being and social equality. Despite its poor reputation, factory work has proven particularly important for women’s labor force integration both historically and today in developing countries.
Consider the historical effects of factory work on women in the United States in the 19th century, as well as the effects of factory work on women today in developing countries such as China and Bangladesh.
19th Century Factories in the United States
Women’s economic involvement in the United States increased steadily from the American Revolution through the 19th century. “Women … experienced increasing … autonomy in the sense of freedom from utter dependence on particular men” over this time period as more and more women took on paid work and married women gained the legal right to separate estates, according to one study of a Southern factory city.63 However, it was the greater industrialization of the North that heralded the first entry en masse of women into the labor force.
Even the wealthy United States had “sweatshops” once. During the Industrial Revolution, young women fled the impoverished countryside to work at factories in cities where they could earn and spend their own money. Most ceased work after marriage, but for a time they enjoyed a level of independence that disturbed Victorian sensibilities.
Many complained that factory conditions were too dangerous for women. Others feared living apart from the protection of a father or husband would ruin women’s reputations, because even if they did not actually transgress the mores of the day, they still risked the appearance of impropriety. In 1840, the Boston Quarterly Review’s editor remarked, “ ‘She has worked in a factory,’ is sufficient to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl.”64
Female factory workers did not all consider themselves victims of “capitalist exploitation” and insufficient male protection. Such remarks about infamy and mistreatment prompted this response from a textile mill operative named Harriet Farley in Lowell, Massachusetts:
We are under restraints, but they are voluntarily assumed; and we are at liberty to withdraw from them, whenever they become galling or irksome… . [W]e are [here] to get money, as much of it and as fast as we can… . It is these wages which, in spite of toil, restraint, discomfort, and prejudice, have drawn so many … girls to … factories… . [O]ne of the most lucrative female employments should [not] be rejected because it is toilsome, or because some people are prejudiced against it. Yankee girls have too much independence for that.65
Farley was far from alone in her sentiments. The “joy of relative independence” was a recurrent theme in millworkers’ accounts, according to historian Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University.66 “As important as the feeling of having cash in one’s pocket was the sense of choice that many women experienced for the first time,” she notes.67
Diverse Motives and Achievements. Those who imagine Industrial Revolution factory work in the United States as a dark chapter in history might benefit from reading the words of those who lived through it. Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860, provides a collection of first-hand accounts revealing a more nuanced reality.
The letters do indeed reveal abject misery, but that misery comes from 19th-century farm life. To many women, factory work was an escape from backbreaking agricultural labor. Consider this excerpt from a letter a young woman on a New Hampshire farm wrote to her urban factory-worker sister in 1845 (the spelling and punctuation are modernized for readability):
Between my housework and dairying, spinning, weaving and raking hay I find but little time to write… . This morning I fainted away and had to lie on the shed floor fifteen or twenty minutes for any comfort before I could get to bed. And to pay for it tomorrow I have got to wash [the laundry], churn [butter], bake [bread] and make a cheese and go … blackberrying [blackberry-picking].68
Compared to the unceasing labor of the farm, even harsh factory conditions can represent a positive change. By contrast, urban living often offered somewhat better living conditions. Far more women sought factory work than there were factory jobs available.
A closer look at the letters in the book reveals the incredibly varied lives of the “factory girls.” For example, with a substantial inheritance, Delia Page was never in need of money. But at age 18, Delia decided to take up work in a factory in New Hampshire despite the risks — a mill in nearby Massachusetts had collapsed in a fire that killed 88 people and seriously injured more than a hundred others.69 Delia’s foster family wrote to her about the tragedy and their fears for her well-being.70 But she defiantly continued factory work for several years.
What led well-to-do Delia to seek out factory work in spite of the danger and long hours? The answer is social independence.71 In their letters, her foster family repeatedly urged her to break off what they considered a scandalous affair, implored her to attend church, and subtly suggested she come home.72 But by working in a factory, Delia was free to live on her own terms — to her, that was worth it.
The unique story of Emeline Larcom also emerges from the letters. Emeline’s background differed greatly from Delia’s. Her father died at sea and her mother, widowed with 12 children, struggled to support the family.73 Emeline and three of her sisters found gainful employment at a factory and sent money home to support their mother and other siblings.74 Emeline, the oldest of the four Larcom factory girls, essentially raised the other three. One of them, Lucy, went on to become a noted poet, professor, and abolitionist. Her own memoirs cast mill work in a positive light.75
Of the diverse personalities captured in the letters, only one openly despises her work in the mill.76 Mary Paul was a restless spirit. She moved from town to town, sometimes working in factories, sometimes trying her hand at other forms of employment such as tailoring, but she never stayed anywhere for long.77 She loathed factory work, but it enabled her to save up enough money to pursue her dream: buying entry into a Utopian agricultural community that operated on protosocialist principles.78
She enjoyed living at the “North American Phalanx” and working only two to six hours a day while it lasted.79 But as is common with such communities, it ran into money problems, exacerbated by a barn fire, and she was forced to leave.80 She eventually settled down, married a shopkeeper, and — her letters seem to hint — became involved in the early temperance movement to ban alcohol, another ultimately ill-fated venture.81
Delia, Emeline, and Mary provide a glimpse of the different ways that factory work affected women during the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy Delia gained the social independence she sought, and Emeline was able to support her family. Even Mary, who detested factories, was ultimately only able to chase her ill-advised dream through factory work.
Increased Earning and Bargaining Power. In addition to helping women achieve their personal goals, factory work also gave women the economic power to lobby for broader social changes.
By midcentury, women in the industrialized North began to mobilize for women’s reform, including equal property rights and custody of children, according to historian Robert Dinkin of California State University at Fresno.82 This prompted one male commentator to grouse in 1852 that “our women Americans” should be “angels, not agitators.”83 Some key reforms, such as the wave of laws granting married women more equal property rights, were not a direct result of women’s agitation. “Positive change in the status of women can occur when no organized feminism is present,” as Rutgers University historian Suzanne Lebsock put it.84 However, in the United States and Britain, working-class women played a key role in the suffrage movement.
By contrast, the women leaders of the anti-reform countermovement were generally housewives.85 Many of them felt threatened by the newfound purchasing power of factory workers. Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential mainstream women’s magazine of the day, insisted women should shun activism and bewailed the fact that factory women could afford the same clothes as the upper-class — even gold watches — thus creating a “problem of distinguishing the lady from the factory worker by dress alone.”86 Her panic over blurring social classes exemplifies how industrialization created widespread material prosperity for the first time.
In the primarily agricultural economy of the South, women were less active in paid labor than their northern counterparts. Free women were not typically involved in the business aspect of plantations, with notable exceptions such as late 18th century indigo mogul Eliza Pinckney.87 As for enslaved women, the ability of slaves to earn money and buy personal property was mostly limited to urban areas. In 1860, about 6 percent of rural and 31 percent of urban slaves were “hired out,” often receiving a share of the wages earned.88 However, their property rights were profoundly restricted. The abolition of slavery in 1865 enabled many of the roughly 13 percent of U.S. women who had been slaves to engage in paid labor for the first time.89
Factories Helped Change Attitudes on Female Labor Force Participation. Before the rise of the modern regulatory state, there typically were no written laws barring free women from entering occupations. However, sexist customary prohibitions were strong. Cultural attitudes thus served to limit women’s ability to pursue various professions.
Aided by the increased visibility of women mill workers, those attitudes later underwent a transformation. By the mid-19th century, even Southern newspapers openly advocated economic freedom for (white) women: “Now, what every woman, no less than every man, should have to depend upon, is an ability, after some fashion or other, to turn labor into money. She may not … exercise it, but everyone ought to possess it.”90 Editorials made explicit calls to widen the range of occupations open to female workers, ranging from postmasters to artists.
In 1840, one source alleged that only seven industries were widely available to women: teaching, running an inn or boardinghouse, typesetting, bookbinding, needlework, domestic service, and mill work. By 1883, around 300 occupations were open to women, ranging from “lady government officials” to beekeepers and wood engravers.91 There were about 30 practicing women lawyers, and even female physicians in the United States. Despite facing prejudice for their race as well as their gender, the first black female physician, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, earned her medical degree from New England Female Medical College in 1864, and the first black female lawyer, Charlotte E. Ray, graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872.92
New fields continued to open to women throughout the 20th century.93 Women’s labor force participation rose in part thanks to expanded opportunities. “Another factor was the greater acceptance of married women in the labor force,” claims Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin.94 But it was improvements in household production technology in the mid-20th century that allowed many more married women to enter the workforce instead of tending the home as a full-time job (see Figure 8). As shown in Figure 9, women’s home production time fell more sharply after 1966, as those technologies became more widely available, boosting labor market participation further. While not the only causes, the technological and medical gains freeing women’s time from home production and allowing for smaller family sizes played an outsized role in bringing women’s labor force participation in the United States up to its current level.
Though the Industrial Revolution is often vilified, it empowered many women to both achieve their personal goals and to effect social change, and it was an important first step toward increasing women’s socioeconomic mobility. The option of labor force participation empowers women by offering them the chance to earn money and attain economic independence.95 The potential earning power then translates into increased intrahousehold and societal bargaining power, lending more weight to women’s voices. The option of entering the labor force also strengthens the fallback position of women who choose not to engage in paid labor.
Industrialization transformed not only women’s lives, but society, and ultimately brought about widely shared prosperity unimaginable in the preindustrial world. The pace of industrial economic development has even been speeding up.96 In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the process of moving from sweatshops to First World living standards took less than two generations, as opposed to a century in the United States. Such “sweatshop” factories are often primarily staffed by women.
Harriet Farley’s arguments still apply today. As long as work is “voluntarily assumed” and laborers maintain the “liberty to withdraw” from it, we should not reject a potential force for women’s empowerment in developing countries in an attempt to protect them.
“[A]sk the woman,” economic historian Deirdre McCloskey suggests, “if she would rather that the shoe company not make her the offer… . Look at the length of queue that forms when Nike opens a new plant in Indonesia. And ask her if she’d rather not have any market opportunities at all, and be left home instead entirely to her father or husband.”97
Factories in Developing Countries Today
Today, throughout the developing world, factory work continues to serve as a path out of poverty and an escape from agricultural drudgery, with particular benefits for women seeking economic independence. There remain places “where sweatshops are a dream,” offering life-transforming wages.98
Experts across the ideological spectrum agree that factories are a proven path to development.99 “The overwhelming mainstream view among economists is that the growth of this kind of employment is tremendous good news for the world’s poor,” as economist Paul Krugman put it.100
Industrialization helps women in particular: consider China and Bangladesh.
Factories Today in China. China experienced the most remarkable advancement out of poverty of all time, partly thanks to a manufacturing boom following economic liberalization in the late 1970s and 1980s. Some fear this has led to widespread exploitation and sweatshop conditions.
“This simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing,” according to writer Leslie T. Chang. “But it’s also inaccurate and disrespectful.”101 “Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods,” Chang explains.102 “They choose to leave their homes [in rural China] in order to earn money, to learn new skills and to see the world.”
She spent two years in China getting to know factory workers in order to make their stories known.103 “In the ongoing debate about globalization, what’s been missing is the voice of the workers themselves,” she says. “Certainly the factory conditions are really tough, and it’s nothing you or I would want to do, but from their perspective, where they’re coming from is much worse… . I just wanted to give that context of what’s going on in their minds, not what necessarily is going on in yours.”104
The book Chang published as a result of her research, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, presents an intimate picture of how globalization changed the lives of women in her ancestral country.105 The portraits that emerge of independent, ambitious young women contrast sharply with the widespread narrative of victimhood.
Women accounted for 70 percent of rural transplants to the factory city that Chang visited. They travel farther from home and stay longer in urban areas than their male counterparts. Women “are more likely to value migration for its life-changing possibilities” than men, because gender roles are less restrictive in cities than in the traditional countryside.106 Unlike in most countries, in China women have a higher suicide rate than men, and in rural areas they are two to five times more likely to kill themselves than in cities.107 Yet China’s suicide rate has declined more rapidly than any other country’s in recent years, falling from among the world’s highest rates in the 1990s, driven by sky-high rates among young rural women, to among the world’s lowest rates (see Figure 10).108 The World Health Organization attributes this progress partly to women gaining the option to leave the countryside to work in factory cities, and so improving their social and economic conditions.109 The Telegraph’s Yuan Ren ascribes the high rural suicide rate to harsh gender roles: “Even today, many rural women are treated like second class citizens by their own family, subordinate to their fathers, brothers and — once married — their husband and mother-in-law.”110 A 2010 study found that, whereas marriage has a protective effect against suicide in many countries, marriage triples suicide risk among young rural Chinese women.111 The author notes that “being married in rural Chinese culture usually … further limits [a woman’s] freedom” as a possible explanation for this.112
Escape from such gender roles helps explain why many women choose to migrate. Initially, Chinese society viewed factory work as dangerous and shameful to a woman’s reputation, echoing Victorian concerns for the Industrial Revolution’s factory girls.113 But over time, migration became a rite of passage for rural Chinese. Today, urban life affords factory workers — particularly women — freedom from rural areas’ more traditional, restrictive social norms. As The Economist put it, “Moving to the cities to work … has been the salvation of many rural young women, liberating them.”114
In the city, Chang was surprised to find that social mobility was strong, with many assembly line women moving into administrative roles or other fields.115 Factory turnover was high, as women frequently switched jobs in search of better prospects. Compared to their Industrial Revolution predecessors, China’s factory girls enjoy more opportunities for economic mobility and long-term labor force participation. Chang observed that evening classes in business etiquette, English, or computer skills could catapult an ambitious woman into white-collar work. In fact, as China’s human capital and wages have soared, more workers have moved into the services sector, and many factories have relocated southward to poorer countries such as Bangladesh.
Urbanization not only offers escape from poverty, but also has the knock-on effect of improving migrants’ home villages. It demolishes the idea that being poor in the city is just as bad, if not worse, than being poor in the countryside. When Min, a handbag factory employee accustomed to modern city life, visited her family home in the countryside, she found herself faced with this scene:
Electricity was used sparingly to save money, and most dinners were eaten in near-darkness. There was no plumbing and no heating. In the wet chill of the Hubei winter, the whole family wore their coats and gloves indoors, and the cement walls and floors soaked up the cold like a sponge. If you sat too long, your toes went numb, and your fingers too.116
Min made it her mission to modernize the farm home where she grew up. “Min walked through the house pointing out improvements she wanted: a hot-water dispenser, a washing machine, a walk of poured concrete across the muddy yard.”117 She told Chang she planned on eventually paying for the construction of an indoor bathroom and an electric hot-water heater so that her family might bathe in the winter without being cold.
Migrants like Min act as the chief source of village income by sending earnings home. Min and her older sister Guimin sent home more than double the amount of money the small family farm brought in through the sale of pigs and cotton. The money also gave the sisters a voice in family affairs, letting them insist that their younger sisters attend school longer than was usual for girls.
As Chang notes, most migrants never return permanently to the countryside. “The ones who do well will likely buy apartments and settle in their adopted cities; the others may eventually move to towns and cities near their home villages and set up stores, restaurants, and small businesses like hairdressing salons or tailoring shops.”118 Very few go back to farming.119 The majority of China’s swelling new middle class are former economic migrants who did well in the cities and stayed.120
But urban life does more than simply raise a woman’s expectations regarding social status and influence. According to Chang, migration makes rural women more likely to seek equality in marriage.121 This is one way, in the factory towns of the south, young women “came to believe that they mattered, despite their humble origins.”122
As economic opportunity has swept across China, it has brought a sense of self-worth. Chang notes the older and more rural Chinese she interviewed did not believe their stories were worth telling, but the young women in the city deemed themselves worthy subjects. Chang noted that “individualism was taking root.”123
Thanks to economic liberalization, for the first time “there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real… . [Factory women] were concerned with their own destinies, and they made their own decisions.”124 Globalization didn’t imprison them in sweatshops; it expanded their options.
Factories Today in Bangladesh. The word “sweatshop” still conjures images of the tragic 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh that resulted in more than a thousand deaths. In the wake of such disasters, many people in rich countries assume the compassionate response is to impose trade restrictions. But such a response would harm Bangladeshi garment workers, most of whom are women, by forcing them into far worse situations than factory work.
Social economist Naila Kabeer explored the “transformatory potential” of factories in her 2000 book, The Power to Choose.125 She interviewed 60 women in her native Bangladesh. The country is home to 18.4 million of the world’s poorest people and has strict gender norms.126
“In my mother’s time,” one woman told Kabeer, “women had to tolerate more suffering because they did not have the means to become independent. [T]hey are better off now… . [T]hey can work and stand on their own feet. They have more freedom.”127
For many years, government and nongovernmental organizations tried unsuccessfully to promote female participation in Bangladesh’s labor force. “In the end, however, it took market forces, and the advent of an export-oriented garment industry, to achieve what a decade of government and non-government efforts had failed to do: to create a female labor force,” notes Kabeer.128
The country industrialized rapidly, growing its number of export-oriented factories from a handful in the mid-1970s to around 700 by 1985.129 Today, approximately 80 percent of garment workers are female, according to the World Bank.130
In 1985, Britain, France, and the United States all imposed quota limitations on clothing imports from Bangladesh in response to anti-sweatshop campaigns financed by labor unions in the rich countries.131 Within three months, two-thirds of Bangladeshi factories shuttered their gates and more than 100,000 women were thrown out of work.132
The Bangladeshi General Secretary of National Garment Workers had this to say to the anti-sweatshop activists:
[N]ot buying Bangladeshi shirts isn’t going to help us, it will just take away people’s jobs. The shock tactics — such as the pictures I have seen from America of Bangladeshi shirts dripping with blood — should stop… . As workers, we give an emphatic “yes” to the campaign against quotas.133
Britain and France removed their quotas in 1986, and Bangladesh’s garment industry has since expanded to thousands of factories employing millions. (The United States finally ended its apparel quota regime, which included Bangladeshi imports, in 2005, but still maintains import tariffs on many kinds of apparel).134 Growing protectionist sentiment in rich countries, aided by sensationalized accounts of working conditions in poor countries, could restrict Bangladesh’s growth.
Despite its poor reputation, Bangladeshi factory work has slashed extreme poverty and increased women’s educational attainment while lowering rates of child marriage.135 The share of Bangladeshi women married by age 18 has fallen from more than 73 percent in 1994 to 59 percent in 2014, and the average age of Bangladeshi brides at first marriage has risen from 16 in 1975 to 19 in 2013.136 As in China, in Bangladesh women commit suicide at higher rates than men, and the rural suicide rate is 17-fold higher than the urban suicide rate.137 An overview of the literature concluded that the unusually high suicide rate among young women reflected forced marriages, lower social status of women, poverty, and high rates of violence against women.138 As with China, Bangladesh’s suicide rate has declined as urbanization has increased.139 As women have left the countryside for factory work in cities, it has not only improved their personal situations, but also sparked broader cultural change toward more freedom for women.
“Now I feel I have rights,” explained a factory woman whose earnings allowed her to escape her physically abusive spouse. “I can earn and survive.”140
The country’s women-dominated garment industry transformed the norm of purdah or seclusion (literally, “veil”) that traditionally prevented women from working beyond the home, walking outside unaccompanied by a male guardian, or even speaking in the presence of unrelated men. Many Bangladeshi women now interpret purdah to simply mean modesty instead of social and economic segregation. In Kabeer’s words, factory work let women “renegotiate the boundaries of permissible behavior.”141 Today, in Dhaka and other industrial cities, women walk outside and interact with unrelated men.
Kabeer found “the decision to take up factory work was largely initiated by the women themselves, often in the face of considerable resistance from other family members.”142 Some men beat their wives for seeking factory work. Dismayingly, a 2011 survey showed 65 percent of Bangladeshi wives have experienced domestic violence.143
Several men Kabeer interviewed feared factory work gave women too much freedom. As one man put it:
Women … are becoming a little too free. When I marry, I will not let my wife work. Then she will have to obey my wishes because she will be dependent on me.144
Not all Bangladeshi men think that way. In fact, the earning power of women is eroding the custom of bridal dowries. It has also brought about greater responsiveness by the court system toward women. Since women have started working, the “law is on their side,” one woman explained.145
Attitudes toward women are changing, and Kabeer found that earning increased the weight a woman’s priorities carried within the household. “When she brings [in] money, I have to buy her whatever she wants,” explained one factory woman’s husband. He continued, “She may want a new sari or she may say that [our] daughter needs a book …”146
“Because women can work and earn money, they are being given some recognition. Now all the men think that they are worth something,” claimed one woman.147
Tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse are horrifying and understandably garner a lot of press. But they should not overshadow the garment industry’s wider-reaching effects on the material well-being and social equality of women in Bangladesh. As one factory worker put it: “The garments have saved so many lives.”148
Market-led innovation has improved the lives of women even more so than for men. Women have reaped greater benefits from health advances financed by the prosperity created by free enterprise: female life expectancy has risen faster than men’s and today women outlive men almost everywhere. Women are also less likely to die in childbirth, and falling infant mortality rates have enabled smaller family sizes, giving women more time. Laborsaving household devices have also freed women from the burden of housework. This freeing of women’s time is ongoing as appliances spread throughout the world, and as women spend less time on household production, more of them choose to engage in paid labor.
Labor market participation offers women economic independence and heightened societal bargaining power. Factory work, despite its poor reputation, empowered women in the 19th-century United States by helping them achieve economic independence and social change. Today, the story of the factory girls is repeating itself in new settings across the world, as young women gain economic independence through risk and toil. In China, factory work gave rural women a chance to change their fates and the conditions in their home villages. In Bangladesh it let women renegotiate restrictive cultural norms.
Innovation and market participation enable women to achieve greater material prosperity and promote positive cultural change away from sexism. Progress is still in its earlier stages in many countries, but with the right policies, women everywhere can one day enjoy the same degree of material prosperity and cultural gender equality present in the United States today.