Dispatches From Enlightenment Now: Sweatshop Feminism


Steven Pinker loves hiding behind other people’s opinions. Remember the bit on voluntary chemical castration in The Blank Slate? Pinker is careful not to say that he’d like to castrate sex offenders explicitly, but by championing the argument and chastising others for not taking it seriously he’s able to promote the idea yet have someone else to blame.

Enlightenment Now is no different; at one point, Steven Pinker brings forward an argument that 19th century sweatshops were empowering for women.

The beneÔ¨Āts of industrial employment can go beyond material living standards. For the women who get these jobs, it can be a liberation. In her article “The Feminist Side of Sweatshops,” Chelsea Follett (the managing editor of HumanProgress) recounts that factory work in the 19th century offered women an escape from the traditional gender roles of farm and village life, and so was held by some men at the time “sufficient to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl.” The girls themselves did not always see it that way. A textile mill worker in Lowell, Massachusetts, wrote in 1840:

We are collected … to get money, as much of It and as fast as we can. … Strange would it be, If in money-loving New England, one of the most lucrative female employments should be rejected because it is toilsome, or because some people are prejudiced against it. Yankee girls have too much independence for that.

Enlightenment Now, pg 98.

This only makes sense if you completely ignore history. Back in the day, most women who worked in these sweatshops were actually girls from poor immigrant families. The paycheque wasn’t to empower themselves, it was used to keep the rest of their family alive. The moment they were old enough to marry, they’d be yanked out of the factory and spend the rest of their lives as devoted housewives. If their husbands landed on hard times, they didn’t return to the factory but instead did odd “female-compatible” jobs from home. This churn gave employers no incentive to retain employees, so wages quickly hit rock-bottom. Compounding this, women were usually paid less than men for the same-ish work.

Girls typically began to work in early adolescence, generally starting at age fourteen. Fifty-nine percent of the Italian working women surveyed by Louise Odencrantz, for instance, had begun working at that age. Moreover, large numbers of girls were undeterred by child-labor laws and truancy codes, and under-age employment was common in the years between 1900 and 1920. One-Ô¨Āfth of the 252 millinery-workers surveyed by Mary Van Kleeck in 1913 had begun work at age thirteen, and one-sixth of the Italian working women questioned by Odencrantz had been similarly successful in evading mandatory schooling laws. For the adolescent girls who thus entered the labor market, work was motivated by the prospect of immediate, short-term rewards. Envisaging limited career horizons, they sought work without regard to long-term earnings or employment possibilities. Similarly, re-current family crises conÔ¨āicted with the burdens of family-care to create a pattern of intermittent employment among married women. For these workers, labor-force activity did not involve a process of occupational selection. Rather, as Katherine Anthony concluded in her study of women workers on New York‚Äôs West Side, ‘The mother who must earn … is willing to ‚Äútake anything‚ÄĚ from the start.’

Waldinger, Roger. “Another look at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union: Women, industry structure and collective action.”¬†Women, Work and Protest: Century of United States Women‚Äôs Labor History¬†(1985): pg. 92

This is not a system of empowerment, it’s one of exploitation. No wonder women’s suffrage groups kept bringing up the gendered wage gap and tried to ally with unions. Hence also the associations with Marxism and other anti-capitalist movements, they and feminists all shared the goal of eliminating exploitation.[1][2]

But that truth is inconvenient, hence why Pinker turned to… who is¬†Chelsea Follett, come to think of it?

Chelsea Follett is the Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org, a project of the Cato Institute which seeks to educate the public on the global improvements in well-being by providing free empirical data on long-term developments. […]¬†She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government and English from the College of William & Mary, as well as a Master of Arts degree in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia, where she focused on international relations and political theory.

She’s not a historian, but Follett does share his Utopian view of progress and that’s good enough for Pinker to treat her as an authority. The Cato Institute is a libertarian think-tank with a history of promoting anti-feminist views, in the same embrace-extend-extinguish manner as Christina Hoff Sommers. Folett’s article has been examined and found wanting¬†by Jason Rhode of Paste Magazine, who offers a much more damning critique than mine.

When [Harriet] Farley wrote for the¬†Offering¬†in 1840, the mills of Lowell‚ÄĒ‚ÄĚthe City of Spindles‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒcomprised about eight thousand workers, three-quarters women. These factories were breeding grounds for the labor movement. The mill workers protested, went on strike, formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, the first group of American working women to band together for collective bargaining. Their newspaper,¬†Voice of Industry,¬†supplanted the¬†Offering. It‚Äôs a shame, but not a surprise, that Cato‚Äôs writers do not quote from other sources. One worker wrote into the¬†Voice of Industry, blasting the owners‚Äô propaganda. In a letter published on June 12, 1846, ‚ÄúJuliana‚Ä̬†explained that

Mr. Editor:
Those who write so effusively about the ‚ÄúBeauties of Factory Life,‚ÄĚ tell us that we are indeed happy creatures, and how truly grateful and humbly submissive we should be. … Very pretty picture that to write about; but we who work in the factory know the sober reality to be quite another thing altogether.
After all, it is easier to write a book than it is to do right. It is easier to smooth over and plaster up a deep festering rotten system, which is sapping the life-blood of our nation, widening and deepening the yawning gulf which will ere long swallow up the laboring classes in dependent servitude and serfdom, like that of Europe, than it is to probe to the very bottom of this death-spreading monster.

But again, read Pinker very carefully. Does he ever say explicitly that 19th century sweatshops were a form of feminism? Nope. His endorsement is implied, by granting the argument space in his book without providing a critique of it, but that fuzziness gives Pinker some plausible deniability should he get called out for endorsing “a deep festering rotten system.”


[1]¬†Hartmann, Heidi I. “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union.”¬†Capital & Class¬†3.2 (1979): 1-33.

[2]¬†Gemie, Sharif. “Anarchism and feminism: a historical survey.”¬†Women’s History Review¬†5.3 (1996): 417-444.