Women’s Work I

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After receiving a number of kind messages, imploring me to continue this discussion, I have decided to ransack some old essays for more material on the question of women. If I do not respond to every writeback, it is because of lack of time.

It is a feminist truism that women have always worked.  Even the most “patriarchal” writers have not denied the significance of a woman’s work within the home.  But in speaking of a woman’s work or a woman’s place we have to be very careful about making distinctions.  The first and most obvious distinction is between the work done as wife and mother and work done for the primary purpose of making money.  Let us, then, turn briefly to the family household.

Families are unions of contrasts, male and female, young and old, parent and child, blood kin and kin through marriage.  In crude economic terms families represent a division of labor.  From almost the very beginning, men hunted game and pastured their flocks; women took care of the home, preparing the food, making and washing clothes, tending the kitchen garden and the poultry yard.  As social complexity made trade possible, housewives might sell their products and even their labor and invest the profits into the family’s common store.  As indispensable contributors to the household economy, wives and mothers enjoyed both power and respect, but it was typically the household where the most important economic functions were discharged (even in nineteenth century Europe!).[i]

In her domestic sphere woman reigned supreme, respected by her children and by her husband, who in other respects possessed what would come to be known as sovereignty, at least in theory.  The reality of human existence is that power relationships within the household, however strictly they might be defined by law, depend on the men and women who are called upon to exercise them.  Anthony Trollope’s Bishop Proudie is far from being the only man of authority who turned over the exercise of real power to his wife.

As an economic institution, the household combined both production and consumption functions.  Food was grown, stored, and prepared on the home place and items for exchange or sale were produced by family members working at home.  Some of the household’s economic tasks, obviously, had to be performed outside the home: Men and boys worked the fields or tended the cattle, and in their free time hunted and fished, while women took care of kitchen gardens or even grew grain.  Women might have to go abroad into the strange world of the marketplace to sell their surplus food or their handiwork, and in less than ideal circumstances different members of the family might be forced to work for another household as laborers or house-servants, but until recent times the ideal remained the self-sufficient household.

By the time Xenophon the Athenian wrote his dialogue on household management, the Oeconomicus, (in the early 4th century B.C.), Greek city-states were complex social and economic systems that anticipated some of the secular individualism of modern life.  Nonetheless, Xenophon, a mercenary soldier and former student of Socrates, viewed the success of individuals as inextricably linked with the efforts of the entire family.

As a student of Socrates, Xenophon had learned to look at first principles, and the purpose of the marriage bond “is first and foremost to perpetuate through procreation the races of living creatures and next, as the outcome of this bond, for human beings at any rate, a provision is made by which they may have sons and daughters to support them in old age.”[ii] Since human beings are not designed to live in the open, they require a house with a roof.  Males and females, though they have an equal stake in the success of the household, are designed for different functions: the male, to work outside, and the female, to work indoors where her greater affection for children also calls her.

Far from being a misogynist, Xenophon’s Socrates tells men to treat their wives with respect, talk with them, encourage their intellectual and moral development.  Wives should be treated as partners and not as children or slaves. “A wife who is a good partner in the home contributes just as much as her husband to its wellbeing; because the revenues for the most part are produced by the husband’s efforts, but the expenditures are controlled mostly by the wife’s management. If both perform their duties well, the estate is increased; if they perform badly, it is diminished.[iii]

Xenophon, like the later Aristotle, understood human social life in terms of autonomy.  Individuals cannot be autonomous because no individual can gratify all his needs—for food, shelter, procreation, social life– by himself.  So marriage, which results in a family, is the first level of social organization that satisfies basic human needs.  This is not to say that the mythical Cyclopes led an idyllic existence, each man tending his own flocks and giving the law to his wife and children.  Higher levels of social organization are more satisfying than the autonomous household, but the semi-autonomous household, in which men and women fulfill different functions, remains the basis of human society.

It is within this context that most of women’s work has been done, and if women say there are no longer satisfied with this arrangement, we must not be too hasty in assuming that this change of heart is a natural reaction to changing circumstances.  Capitalists have been trying to drive women into the workforce since the end of the 18th century, and it was capitalists who first proposed the principle of “equal pay for equal work” and who drew up the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment.

There is some force, however, to the milder feminist argument.  It is a long and not entirely relevant story to tell, how industrialization and mechanization reduced a women’s role in the 19th century household, eventually to the role of being an affectionate caretaker.  The Victorian doctrine of the “separate spheres,” of men and women was one response to this aspect of the industrial revolution.  But even within the confines of the “separate spheres,” women might have concentrated on study or the arts.  Instead, what has obviously happened is that woman’s primary role, as wife and mother, has been so devalued that women now have to define themselves by what they do in the workforce.  Otherwise sensible women are now ashamed to tell the truth, in answer to the impudent American question, “What do you do,” by saying simply “I am a wife and mother.”

Since the next installment will have to do with women in the workplace, I do not want to take up that question in discussing this piece.  Nor will I permit anyone to summarize and thus spin the argument that has been presented.

[i] Scott and Tilly

[ii] Xen Oec Vii …

[iii] Oeconomicus III. 10-15

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