The gradual integration of American women into "the world of work" is interesting to think about when we put the needs of business first.
How much of the post-war, "50's housewife" idea of modern womanhood was driven by the need for uncompensated labor in the home, as well as a new market in "housewife wares?" In addition, confining women to the domestic sphere let men go to work knowing that they were that much more like the boss than merely subservient to him. Identification with "the people that matter" is one of those perks that never costs Wall St. a dime! Men at least had that much going for them: Just think of how many times you've heard people gripe about women doing "men's work" -- like being president or something. Is there nothing men can hold onto as their own? Actually, this is less the case now that most jobs been homogenized to the consistency of "sucks," with the "man's job" evaporating in the process. Men are much more progressive about women in the workplace now!
It's funny to think about this period arising without an explicit business connection, as if the 50's housewife could exist without an advertising industry prescribing her every need. I don't think society came out of World War II with the belief that women needed dish detergent that was "delicate enough" for the female constitution: No, somebody just made the shit up, because they were being paid to persuade people to buy their crap. What happens when you have an industry of people getting paid to "make shit up" and then broadcast said shit by every popular means is you get a culture that reflects all this shit. And that's not really very surprising when you think about it. After all, no one else is in a position "define womanhood" in prime time quite like advertisers or the programming they endorse.
The economic benefit of relegating women to domestic work came out of a situation with a particular historical profile. The work women did was viewed as necessary, but not to be compensated. US business would make concessions to their husbands, to some degree, if they had to make concessions at all -- which they did, thanks to unionization. So you got a kind of racist, sexist compact between white men on the factory floor and white men in the office suites: Yeah, we'll pay you so you and your family can buy our whole line of explicitly gendered products -- so you have to buy two of everything, and so on.
What's interesting is how this whole 50's ideal of womanhood broke down. On the one hand, it was challenged by brave women, and whatever allies they had among men -- which in the 60's is kind of a sad story, and I think continues to be a sad story, but more about that later. Anyway, that was called "feminism." On the other hand, the requirements of American business were changing, because the whole economic landscape was changing. Technology was changing the way products were made, which in turn changed the relationship between the people making those products and the interests that employed them. The white man's compact starts breaking down, with employers seeing an opportunity to beat the "labor aristocracy" back to the status of undifferentiated "worker." If you ever wondered what the "angry white man" phenomenon was all about, and why you get these people who think white men are oppressed by affirmative action, etc., you have to think about it in terms of working class white men being betrayed by those bosses they thought they had so much in common with.
Jumping forward to the present day, an awful lot has changed, but we can still understand a good deal by identifying in business its prime directive, which is to make money for investors. What business produces under capitalism is money for investors: it produces capital. It happens to do this through commodity production and exchange; but the point of capitalism is not to make products we can all enjoy or be proud of. Sometimes it does this. But that is not its point, and we see this all time, in the many ways that our economy produces things that are actually quite harmful. Capitalism doesn't care, because its purpose is not to conform to public expectations, but to investor expectations.
The relationship between women and business has to be viewed in this light. There is a lot of interest right now, converging in a variety of ways, on the question of how women can be integrated into these economic institutions which only care about investors. And that's why you get these op-eds which ask, "Why should we care about women in business?" -- because in and of themselves, women are not compelling. Business is the priority, so how can women contribute to that? If you can produce some study which shows that women can make some special contribution to investors, well then you have everybody's attention. But it's very important that you avoid the language of "rights." Women don't have a "right" to participate in economic decision-making; investors have the "rights." Women have to sell themselves as accentuating investor rights -- that's how they "earn" a place at the table. So we have to remember how these institutions are designed, and what purpose they serve.
As a man, I come to feminism from a unique perspective -- not as a man who is somehow especially clued into women, but as someone who is solicited both by women and by interests inimical to women for allegiance one way or the other. Within feminism, there is a real benefit to understanding how the "other side" works on men, and women can't always see this. So men have something to bring to feminism, which is different from what women bring. They don't need to be the same thing; I don't really understand how they could be.
Feminism means that we want women to participate in business because we want women to be a part of social and economic life. In fact, if we believe that women are people, and subsequently have "rights," then women have a right to be there just as much as other people do. And this ties into the larger point, which is that communities should be participating in business, with "investors" diffused into "stakeholders," not crystallized as a class. This is what we mean by "classless": responsibilities are diffused. If we are faced with institutions that preference class rights over human rights, then we need to decide which rights are more important, and throw our allegiance behind them.