“ . . . Zapparoni approved only of sexless workers and had solved this problem brilliantly. Even here he had simplified nature, which . . . had already attempted a certain ‘economical’ approach in the slaughtering of the drones.”
—Ernst Junger, The Glass Bees (1957)
When, in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, second-wave feminist Betty Friedan characterized the American suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp” for women, well under 30 percent of American women were employed outside the home. While many were teachers and nurses, most worked at what we would today call “pink collar” occupations—i.e., secretarial and clerical office jobs, many of them part-time. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62 percent of all women over 16 are part of the labor force. Obviously, that percentage includes high numbers of mothers. Between 1976 and 2007 the number of working mothers with children under six rose from 31.5 percent to 68.1, while the workforce participation of mothers with school-age children stood, by 2007, at 79.5 percent. Those percentages have taken a hit during the current recession, though women’s unemployment rates remain lower than men’s. But that is just part of the story. More importantly, as of 2011, 51.4 percent of all management and professional positions in the U.S. economy were held by women. That share of the employment market is bound to continue rising, since college enrollments have for some time been dominated by women. As of 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women now make up close to 60 percent of degree-seeking students. The gap between male and female college enrollments is especially striking among older “returning” students, where female enrollment is almost double that of males. (This may be accounted for, in part, by the staggering number of single mothers who are seeking more lucrative incomes.) Such figures are often emphasized in recent media reports about the emergent dominance of women in the American workforce, though rarely do these reports note that, when the percentages are broken down by class and racial grouping, the picture is somewhat altered. In fact, much of the discrepancy disappears when one focuses exclusively on middle- and upper-middle-class white enrollments, which remain at roughly a 50/50 parity.
Nevertheless, what we are witnessing in North America and in most of the Western democracies is an unprecedented historical shift. Putting aside dubious claims about the possible existence of matriarchal, egalitarian utopias in the ancient Mediterranean, it is safe to say that women have, since the dawn of human history, in virtually every society, occupied a subordinate social position. Their proper place was always the domestic realm, and even when the skills and qualities necessary for the management of the domestic sphere were upheld as, in some sense, morally superior to the masculine qualities necessary for public life, it was nevertheless assumed that the receptive and nurturing essence of the feminine would be brutalized by exposure to the male-dominated public sphere. One could find no better example of the exaltation of woman’s domestic role than John Ruskin’s 1902 essay “Of Queens’ Gardens”: “The woman’s power,” he writes, “is for rule, not for battle—and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, their places. Her great function is Praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly judges the crown of contest.” Such passages are easily dismissed today as florid effusions of Victorian sentimentality, yet note that Ruskin, a socialist utopian, goes further than most in according to women a power “for rule,” for “arrangement and decision.” And elsewhere, especially in Unto This Last, he hints at a socialist fusion of domestic and political economies that sounds strangely prescient. For today the economy of production has been replaced by a “knowledge” or “information” economy, and in this new regime, women’s traditional (and some would say natural) capacity for “arrangement and decision” have found new scope. In the corporate world women frequently dominate the ranks of middle management and have increasingly assumed positions of power in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy. In key areas of the new economy women are now clearly in the ascendant, especially in public relations, human resources, healthcare services, and design. In the latter area, according to Kay Hymowitz in her 2011 book Manning Up, women’s influence extends well beyond the corporate milieu and into the homes of millions of Americans. Women have always been the chief consumers in the postindustrial economy; now, writes Hymowitz, they are both “consumers in chief” and “designers in chief” of many of the products that Americans use each day—clothing, kitchenware, furniture, laptops, cellphones, and much more.
Recent media coverage of the feminization of the American economy has taken a decidedly celebratory tone. What is obscured by such triumphalism is the underlying nature of the transformation taking place in the corporate environment. Women, we are relentlessly informed, are changing the values of corporate America. They are, it seems, the bearers of a new and more humane vision of the exercise of power. Feminists Elinor Lenz and Barbara Myerhoff, for instance, argue that, while male power is essentially the exercise of domination and control—mediated through hierarchical structures—female power is nurturing, humble, irenic, and egalitarian. In the information matrix, women navigate with a facility that men lack, and they excel at collaboration, subordinating their personal aims to those of the group. Most importantly, women are communicators. Avid worker bees, they negotiate the intricacies of the corporate world with an empathetic instinct for personal relations.
However, there are problems with this “humane” vision of the emergent corporate culture. First, to succeed in the gynocratic hive, men must, in effect, neuter themselves. The “new men,” as one dissident feminist has noted, must become “women in disguise.” Second, corporate America remains the site of a Darwinian struggle for profit. Majority shareholders must be appeased. Mergers and acquisitions must be ruthlessly negotiated. Superfluous workers are not a human but a p.r. problem. Does anyone really believe that the women who climb to the top of the corporate ladder are likely to be any less ruthless than the men they displace? The new female power, a skeptic might suggest, erects a façade of feel-good egalitarian rhetoric, behind which the ineradicable human lust for domination operates all the more effectively.
Historically speaking, attempts to “domesticate” the American workplace must be understood in the context of a much longer struggle between capital and labor. As Nikki Mandell demonstrates in her fascinating study The Corporation as Family, between 1890 and 1930 capitalists and social reformers joined forces in an effort to defuse labor unrest by refurbishing the corporate environment on the model of the Victorian family. Powerful companies like Eastman Kodak embraced a progressive gospel of corporate beneficence, hiring “welfare managers”—many of them women—to direct a sweeping array of programs designed to inspire in workers a deeper loyalty to the company interest. Pension and savings plans, vocational instruction, improvements in job safety, exercise facilities, landscaped gardens—these and many more incentives were offered to employees, who in return were expected to moderate their demands for higher wages. While welfare managers achieved some successes, workers for the most part bridled at such maternalism, especially men on the factory floor. Mandell argues that, in keeping with much progressive thought of the era, welfare managers promoted a “new masculinity,” which was in essence a “feminization of men,” one that would divert their competitive drive toward an ethic of “service” to others. She admits, however, that the failure of the movement ultimately reflected a fundamental tension between capital’s profit-seeking motive and the service ethic promoted by welfare managers, who were perceived as the duplicitous agents of capital. For owners and boards of directors, welfare reforms were, in fact, a convenient strategy for expanding their control over labor, demanding not simply the acquiescence of bodies but of minds and hearts, as well. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that today an increasingly predatory corporate oligarchy has joined forces with mainstream feminist reformers brandishing Ivy League degrees. Both have a great deal to gain by the alliance, and little to lose. And if the boys get uppity? Well, that’s what sexual-harassment codes and sensitivity training are intended to forestall.
In the final analysis, the feminization of the corporate workplace is at least partially a function of the rise of managerial bureaucracies, in both the public and the private sector (if that distinction is still valid). As Max Weber argued over a century ago, the rise of modern bureaucracy is the story of the gradual rationalization of labor, of the triumph of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—a process brilliantly satirized by Charles Chaplin in his silent classic Modern Times. Postmodern bureaucracies have refined the technique, but Weber’s “iron cage” is still a cage, even if you call it a “campus” and equip it with daycare facilities and counseling services. If corporate America has embraced qualities and skills traditionally associated with women, it is not because there is anything inherently superior about those qualities but because they better serve, at this stage in its evolution, the imperatives of the bureaucratic order. Whatever is irrational is detrimental to the smooth functioning of the bureaucratic organism. Sexual differentiation is, at the deepest level, archaic and irrational, and while the corporate bureaucracy may tolerate some superficial manifestations of sexual behavior, and even promote qualities traditionally assigned to women, those qualities must first be uprooted from their murky biological and psychic depths and be recycled as effective business practice. In truth, then, while the postmodern corporation wears a gynocratic mask, it is in essence a sexless realm. While the corporation is certainly driven by the profit motive, its raison d’êtee is more sinister. For the intrinsic logic of the bureaucratic imperative appears to be leading us all toward what has been termed a transhuman condition, one stripped of all our old irrational associations, our attachments to particular localities, traditions, and loyalties, all the prejudices of blood and soil, and of any moral commitments—such as opposition to contraception or abortion on demand—that might hinder the growth of a system of power and domination now beyond the control of even those at the apex of the managerial hierarchy.
If this domination is to be resisted, it can only occur through secession from the system, an act which significant numbers of men are already committing, or through internal acts of rebellion that, should they reach critical mass, might result in its collapse. The latter possibility appears to be a remote one. We can hardly expect women to resist the regime that has “empowered” them, and the very qualities that make them such effective functionaries in the bureaucratic order—especially their pliability—inhibits their capacity for rebellion. Yet secession by men alone can only result in sterile failure. Men and women together must choose to build lives outside the parameters defined for us by the corporate regime, and seek to rediscover in a fresh way the ancient division of labor and the proper dignity accorded the work of each sex. This will not be a mindless or romantic attempt to resurrect an idealized past, but a pledge to the future—a future in which, we ardently hope, our granddaughters will rediscover the feminine mystique.