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I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. One of our oldest family stories is of Young Sarah asking Mom why Puppy Chow had a commercial that said “Don’t treat your puppy like a dog. Feed him Puppy Chow, ‘til he’s full grown.” I asked: “Don’t they know that some puppies are girls?”

I have been a libertarian for nearly as long, probably ever since I cheerfully moved into a 9×10 closet/spare bedroom in order to protect my privacy and property rights from my younger sister, though I didn’t have a name for what I was (other than impossible and cranky) until much later when I read Hayek.

So, I am old enough to remember when the feminist movement’s catch phrase was “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Coined by Irina Dunn and popularized by Gloria Steinem, the phrase was everywhere for a while. It stood for rejecting the idea that a woman needed a man in order to protect and care for her while she bore and raised his children—or if she tried to do anything particularly difficult, like cooking or climbing a mountain, or driving a car, or buying coffee, or opening ketchup.

Women’s real enemy

But I want to suggest that while “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” gives us an easy answer to who the enemy is, we are too easily distracted by it. Petty misogyny like that should be the “monster of the week” of the feminist agenda.

The real “big bad?” That’s the state. I want to rewrite that old t-shirt and bumper sticker slogan. I want it to say, “A woman needs the state like a fish needs a bicycle.”

And I want to say that because, baked right into the government cake—scrambled into the government omelet—are all the assumptions we most need to be rid of in order to be free and flourishing individuals.

Let’s take the labor movement as an example.

A little history of the labor movement’s campaign against women

In 1903, the state of Oregon passed a law forbidding female employees of laundry services, factories, and mechanical manufacturers from working more than ten hours a day.

And September 4, 1905, Mrs. E. Gocher worked more than ten hours at the Grand Laundry owned by Curt Muller. The state stepped in, sued Mr. Muller, and the case found its way to the Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision, the Court found the Oregon law constitutional, stating:

The physical wellbeing of woman is an object of public interest. The regulation of her hour of labor falls within the police protective power of the State […] and is not affected by other laws of the State granting or denying to women the same rights as to contract and the elective franchise as are enjoyed by men.

The Court’s justification for this right of the State, as given in the opinion written by Justice Brewer, was:

[The woman’s] physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence […] This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity, continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical wellbeing of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race…

Even for modern women who are, like myself, inclined to be patient with the medical and scientific misconceptions of other eras and allow for the possibility that the court legitimately felt there was a medical danger to women who engaged in this kind of work, I must acknowledge that there are problems with the Muller decision.

The kind language and dark intentions of big labor

Despite the paternalistic but arguably kindly language of Muller, we are wrong to think of Muller and related decisions as coming only from a noble impulse to protect women’s health and stop exploitation. Instead they arose, at least as much, from a desire to protect masculine work outside the house from competition from lower-priced female laborers—and to legally restrict women’s work to domestic and maternal labor.

It is worth noting that women laboring in domestic service were left untouched by protective legislation. It was only laundry done outside a home that was dangerous, evidently. Scrubbing floors at home or in offices, apparently, had no health consequences at all.

In a similar fashion, part of the early reasoning for the minimum wage—which originated as a “family wage or living wage”—was its intent to allow a worker to “keep his wife and children out of competition with himself.”

Ruth Milkman, Martha May, Alice Kessler-Harris, and other scholars of women’s history in the labor movement have long noted these and other cases as parts of the problematic way in which, from its earliest days, the labor movement protected white male labor from having to compete against immigrant, female, or non-union labor.

What unions really do

There are subtleties to this generalization, of course, and Milkman identifies four historical waves of the labor movement that have differing commitments (and lack thereof) to a more diverse vision of labor rights.

But unions—as do so many other institutions–work on the “get up and bar the door” principle. The idea is to get up as high as you can and then bar the door behind you against any further entrants who might cut into the goodies you have grabbed for yourself. Charles Baird notes:

Unions depend on capture. They try to capture employers by cutting them off from alternative sources of labor; they try to capture workers by eliminating union-free employment alternatives; and they try to capture customers by eliminating union-free producers. Successful capture generates monopoly gains for unions.

Protection is the name of the game.

The push for equal rights that no one thinks about

Here is why the labor unions are a very bad bicycle to ride to work—for anyone, really, but for women in particular.

About 50 years before the push for the Equal Rights Amendment with which most of us are probably familiar, there was another attempt to create an equal rights amendment in America. Written by Alice Paul, the amendment was an attempt to leverage the newly recognized voting power of women into a policy that guaranteed that men and women “shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place under its jurisdiction.”

Organized labor, however, opposed this amendment, arguing that even if women should be equal in all other areas, they should never be equal in industry.

Rheta Childe Dorr (in Good Housekeeping, of all places) pointed out again the logic behind labor’s opposition to the equal rights amendment:

The labor unions are most opposed to this law, for few unions want women to advance in skilled trades. The Women’s Trade Union League, controlled and to a large extent supported by the men’s unions, opposes it. Of course, the welfare organizations oppose it, for it frees women wage earners from the police power of the old laws. But I pray that public opinion, especially that of the club women will support it. It’s the first law yet proposed that gives working women a man’s chance industrially. “No men’s labor unions, no leisure class women, no uniformed legislators have a right to govern our lives without our consent,” the women declare, and I think they are dead right about it. (Should There Be Labor Laws? No says Rheta Childe Dorr)

Organized labor—founded to ensure the collective right to contract—refused to stand up for the right of individual women to contract. From their point of view, it was only sensible.

And—and this is important—the women in organized labor refused to stand up for the women on the outside. Organized male and female labor’s fight against the ERA was at least as much about protectionism as it was about sexism. Maybe more.

So labor unions excluded women for as long as they could, then let in a privileged few and barred the doors behind them.

That’s the kind of help we could all probably do without.

To read part two of this two part series on women and liberty, please follow the button below.


This article was originally published on the Learn Liberty blog.

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