Some of the problems identified by Alison Wolf are real, but it is not the emancipation of women that is to blame. It is rather the neoliberal economic policies of Britain, as international comparisons make clearby Rosemary Crompton / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
In her article in the April issue of Prospect, Alison Wolf correctly describes the formal emancipation of women in “developed” societies as a “rupture in human history,” but trips up in much of her commentary on the consequences of this fact. She argues that historically, women of all classes shared the same life experiences, thus rendering “women” a more or less homogeneous category. However, in contemporary societies a minority of educated women now behave as “surrogate men,” following the same career paths as men in elite occupations. This has led not only to reduced or non-existent childbearing among such women, but also to the end of middle-class “female altruism,” which previously had ensured a committed workforce in areas such as nursing and education, but also a supply of unpaid middle-class, working-age female volunteers for the running of a variety of charitable organisations.
Feminists, however, have long argued that this female altruism was never “natural,” but socially imposed. Women have not always been seen as morally advantaged, but rather as the natural inferiors of men in all respects. As feminist historians have demonstrated, it was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the middle-class ideal of woman as the morally superior “angel of the house” was developed. Classic liberalism saw the individual as being bound by moral codes relating to social responsibility. Joan Williams has argued that the 19th-century shift from classic liberalism to possessive individualism was accompanied by the development of the “ideology of domesticity,” in which “good” women “lived for others.” They thus achieved the purity that allowed them to establish moral reference points for their families and for society, and increasingly, altruism became a female preserve. From this perspective, the problem identified by Wolf of declining altruism becomes not one that relates to women in particular, but rather about how to reinsert altruism into an increasingly individualised society.
This problem raises wider questions as to the manner in which competitive capitalism can adjust to the changes generated, in part, by the partial emancipation of women. Capitalism undermines the family form via its indifference to the “private” lives of the labour power it purchases; as Ulrich Beck has remarked, “The market subject is ultimately the single individual, ‘unhindered’ by a relationship, marriage, or family.” Indeed, Wolf argues that “One could interpret today’s feminist assumptions as reflecting the appetite of global capitalism for all talent, female and male, at the…