The writer Joan Kennedy Taylor, in her book Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Reconsidered, wrote of one conservative critic of feminism: "Midge Decter characterized the entire movement as one in which 'a group of the freest, most vital and energetic — and most economically and physically privileged — young women in the history of the race rose up and proclaimed themselves to be the victims of intolerable oppression'."
Decter's remarks shows she missed something extremely important, something I believe many people miss as well.
It was precisely because the women of the 50s and 60s were the "most economically" privileged women in history that caused the modern feminist movement to take off. In fact, being economically well off did much to spur on the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and the self-esteem movement as well.
The gentleman who explains why was psychologist Abraham Maslow with his famous pyramid of human needs.
Maslow's idea was a simple one with profound implications. People tend to place their needs in a hierarchy or pyramid. There are some fundamental ones that are the same for everyone — the basic needs. These are things such as food, water, safety, warmth, and rest.
Next are psychological needs such as friends, relationships, and pride. Finally, at the top of pyramid are very individualistic needs — such as self-fulfillment or self-actualization. Lower order needs tend to be fulfilled before higher order needs are sought out. People who are starving worry about food and tend to ignore those areas of unique, individualistic fulfillment.
When people are secure physically, when they are relatively safe, and have families, support groups, friends and lovers, they start seeking the higher order needs of esteem and self-actualization.
And this includes the need to have the same legal rights as all others. For women it was the same rights as men; for gays it was the same rights as for straights; for blacks it was the same rights as for whites.
It's precisely because of the prosperity of the 50s that the 60s were such an unsettling time in the West. Economic prosperity decreased motivation for items at the bottom of the pyramid while increasing motivation to achieve things at the top of the pyramid.
In political terms we could say lower order needs are collective needs — similar for all people — while those at the top are highly individualistic and vary dramatically from person to person.
As women became more prosperous and lower order needs were met, they demanded self-actualization needs, which varied dramatically from one person to the next. Some wanted to be entrepreneurs and inventors, some wanted to be stay-at-home mothers, or even single mothers — others wanted to seek education. These individualistic, self-actualization needs could only be sought when they had enough economic prosperity to do so.
As is often the case, this greater freedom reinforced the rising economic prosperity thus speeding up the cultural shift toward individualized goals. More economic freedom for women leads to great economic prosperity. The "culture war" in the West is largely the inevitable result of social changes wrought by increased economic freedom.
Greater prosperity led to more individualism further increasing prosperity. In a paper tied to their Economic Freedom of the World report, the Fraser Institute notes:
"Economic freedom, the ability of individuals to make their own economic decisions, is key to economic and social progress. Hundreds of academic studies have shown that economic freedom leads to higher rates of economic growth, higher levels of income, increased trust and honesty in government, protection of civil liberties, reductions in poverty, and improvements in health and educational outcomes."
The Fraser report correctly notes economic freedom fills lower order needs, but in the process it also increases the demand for, and the fulfillment of higher order needs. As higher order needs are met the level of economic prosperity rises even more. Happy people tend to be productive people. More opportunity means more demand and production leading to even more self-actualization.
The International Monetary Fund reported:
NOT long ago women faced tremendous barriers as they sought opportunities that would set them on an equal footing with men. Going back a mere quarter century, inequality between women and men was widely apparent — in university classrooms, in the workplace, and even in homes. Since then, the lives of women and girls around the world have improved dramatically in many respects. In most countries — rich and developing — they are going to school more, living longer, getting better jobs, and acquiring legal rights and protections.
Greater economic freedom and opportunity leads to greater prosperity, leading to greater gender equality followed by even higher levels of economic prosperity. It's capitalism's benevolent circle, the opposite of a vicious circle.
This article was first published on City Press on 18 March 2021.