I got an email from a reader named Chris who asked me whether all of my emphasis on producing food and meeting our needs at home wasn’t antifeminist and pushing women back into the kitchen and out of the workforce, and thus, out of the public sphere. I’ve gotten this critique before, and I thought it was worth addressing. Chris kindly gave me permission to answer her question here.
There are three related questions here. First of all, is this work mostly going to devolve on women? Are we pushing *women* in particular out of the workforce?
The second is, is this anti-feminist, or bad? That is, are we disempowering women by moving them back into the kitchen, if more women than men end up back in the domestic sphere?
And the third is whether or not the domestic sphere and the public sphere are in conflict here – that is, they were in Victorian times – those who worked in the domestic world were also the disenfranchised. But is that inevitable?
Back in February I wrote a post about Sustainability and the “Mommy Wars” (here:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/02/home-economics-sustainability-and-mommy.html) in which I argued that honestly, isn’t just women who should stay home, that by both preference and necessity, both men and women should consider moving as much of their work to home as possible – seeking to need less, work from home, start home businesses and cottage industries, and to generally integrate domestic and economic life. I argued that doing so is good for children, good for one’s personal security and good for marriages, and that many of the things that get blamed on women working actually may be due to the absence of fathers for long hours. As you can imagine, the subject was fairly controversial. I feel very strongly that bringing as much as possible of our work into our local environments is essential – that both men and women need to spend more time at home – which may also be the workplace in many cases.
So I think we can safely say that my own vision of the future is not one in which the only people making yogurt and growing squash are female. In fact, I don’t carry those assumptions with me. I managed to grow up without much in the way of gender role expectations at all. My own parents divorced early, and my father had joint custody of his three daughters when we were 7,6, and a baby. He washed clothes, cooked dinner (well), ironed, cleaned (badly) and did exactly the same stuff around his job my mother did around hers. Even before the divorce, my father did all the cooking, and claimed my mother had known how to cook only salad and tuna casserole. In my mother’s household, because she’s gay, two women did everything – cooked, built bookcases, hung wallpaper, gardened, went to work, did laundry, tended kids. My generation was probably less encumbered by gender expectations than any previous one, and I probably less than average.
My husband also grew up in a divorced household, mostly living with a single parent (his mother), and grew up doing a great deal of the domestic work himself, once he was old enough to be home when his mother wasn’t. His father and step-mother also have a quite egalitarian marriage, so our own marriage came with few, if any, gender expectations.
So we both cook, we both clean, I do laundry (because I like it), he does floors (because it bugs him when they are dirty and I could care less), we both knit, we both sew (badly), we both work with wood (badly), we both change the oil. There are a few traditional divisions, mostly because of preferences (He drives, because I hate to, he fixes the lawnmower because I have, ummm…a generous figure and don’t fit well underneath in some spots ;-), we also have some atypical things – he changes all the diapers when both of us are present (we made a deal when I was pregnant with #1 that if I was in charge of “input” (nursing) he’d take full responsibility for output (diapers) – I’ve *never* changed a diaper when he was around), I climb up on the roof and deal with gutters since he’s afraid of heights and I’m not. Generally speaking, we have a pretty good balance. And not only do both of us believe in egalitarianism, but we are, unusually for people our age, the products of families that lived remarkably egalitarian lives for their era. This makes a huge difference in our assumptions.
All of which means that I’m always surprised when people assume that women are going to get stuck with all the scut work. But of course, I shouldn’t be – the reality of most women’s lives is that they work full time outside the home and come home to do a full day of domestic labor, childcare, senior care, etc… I tend to assume that most men are like my father and my husband, and do their full share willingly, on the assumption that it is their job. Unfortunately, that’s not true. But I think the example of my family shows that to a large degree, if we want it to be true in the next generation, a large part of that is what we model.
That is, if women tolerate husbands who don’t do diapers, if men tolerate wives who won’t learn how to manage the finances – we’re likely to see those same roles perpetuated. That doesn’t mean that every single person needs to do everything equally well – but there are basic competences that everyone should demonstrate, barring a deep inequality in how the work is done. That is, if Dad works 14 hour days driving a long-haul truck so that Mom can stay home with the kids, it is perfectly reasonable to expect Mom to do 14 hours of work herself taking care of the kids and the yard and the domestic work. Work should be evenly divided – period. I’ve met men who work 50 hour weeks who come home and do all the farm work, while their spouse rest, and women who work 8 hours a day and come home to another 8 hours while their husband watches tv. And ultimately, the responsibility for fixing this problem – for themselves and in the next generation – lies in the participants.
Because household work generally devolves on women, it is no wonder many of them are notably unthrilled at the notion that they could be lucky enough to have to make all their kids’ clothes too. And I don’t blame them one bit for that. I admit, it is honestly hard for me to fathom a marriage in which labor falls so disproportionately on women, but that is often the reality. The majority of American women do more than 20 hours of household labor and childcare each week above and beyond their paid jobs. The majority of American men do 9 hours. That’s a big difference.
So the odds are good that a call for a return to domestic life will fall heavily on women’s shoulders, unless both women and men negotiate cultural changes to ensure otherwise. This is, of course, much of the project of feminism. But I think modern feminism has yet to acknowledge how much of its goals and structure were created by cheap energy, and a product of that peculiar, unique and historically unlikely to be repeated abundance. By this I mean that much of what was possible for the women’s movement was made possible by cheap energy. For example, the movement of women into the workforce while they had young children was to a large degree as much about refrigeration, electric breast pumps and industrial formula as it was about equal representation in careers. This is hardly the only example of this.
Feminism has, I think, fallen into the economic trap of “externalizing” other costs -for example, while in principle we may care about the rights of poor women, many women who have taken the “go out and work” message are unconcerned about the realities of the poor women and men they employ to mow lawns, clean houses, tend children and care for seniors. The moral responsibility of these acts shouldn’t fall only on women – the message that the Nanny’s poverty is the sole responsibility of a woman who gets a job, and none of her husband’s is nonsense. But there is a reality that when women moved out of the home they left no replacement, leaving the marketplace to provide poorly paid people with few benefits and few comforts to meet the needs both men and women left behind. To feminism’s right and credit, feminism has taken up the cause of these women – but it has not always fully credited its impact in creating their situation.
Just as we have to stop externalizing the costs of oil, we have to stop externalizing the costs of the domestic sphere – because these costs are ours to bear. The failures of child nutrition, for example – Americans are documentably getting shorter and less healthy because there is no one there to cook dinner, and industrial agriculture has gained much of its power because we rely upon them to feed us these inadequate foods. Our fossil fuel usage has gone up steadily, in part because we’re going places all the time – to work, to daycare, to preschool, to school and etc…
Overwhelmingly, the feminist message was that we should move the dull, rote jobs of domestic life out of the home and into the public economy – to daycare centers and cafeterias and other public utilities. Part of the failure of this project was the failure of government participation – when ordinary people were stuck putting their domestic world into the public economy on their own wages, they got what they could afford – not much. But part of the problem may have come from the notion that political power for women mostly derived from participation in the public sphere in an economic sense – that is, that everyone was best served by getting as many women and men out doing “important” jobs as possible.
There have always been multiple feminisms, so what I am speaking here is of the dominant discourse, which is necessarily watered down by, as Tom Lehrer said of folk songs, “being written by the people.” But the dominant discourse of feminism has valued the professional over the private, the money-earning over the work of not needing money, and found political pwoer there. And by pushing both women and men further out into the capitalist economic sphere, and saying that power is to be found there, we’ve been sold an anti-democratic bill of goods – the notion that the marketplace will fix all of our problems if we all just go out and make enough money to buy solutions has, of course, eroded our democracy.
Someone has to go home, if we are to cease externalizing our costs and deal with the hard realities. In some cases, that may not be possible – the very poor who have to take what work they can, single parents who have no one with whom to share domestic work, etc… these people have few choices. But many of the people reading this blog are not among them – most are middle class or better working families, and many do have better choices. And someone has to go home and stay there, simply because it is manifestly the case that turning domestic work over to the industrial economy is destroying us.
It is worth noting here that one of the reason capitalist feminism succeeded so well while other feminist discourses were lost is that I doubt growth capitalists could have found a way to be happier if they’d commissioned a study. Over a few short decades, nearly every able bodied adult stopped doing work autonomously for themselves, stopped running the home economy (the word economy itself implies home management, not public life) and thus practicing things like frugality and getting along without industry, and started to create new businesses subcontracting out domestic work into industry. While feminism manifestly succeeded in creating more justice in some areas, in others, it simply managed to expand the creation of a new underclass, doing the unpleasant domestic labor we were all being “freed” from – the jobs we did at home, where no one told us what to do or how to do it.
Now I would strongly prefer that there be no distinction here between men and women -in my own marriage, for example, I do the majority of childcare and domestic work during the academic year, when Eric is teaching, and he does it during the summer when I am writing and farming. But this is not feasible for many families, and there are a number of factors, economic (men generally make more money than women), cultural (we have a prejudice against having men care for young children) and biological that are likely to lead to more women being at home than men, particularly younger women and women who choose to have children.
Historically speaking, women with young children who could not afford wet nurses did “women’s work”. A famous paper in anthropology by Judith Brown, “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” observes that generally speaking, whether a lot of women do something in a society depends on its compatibility with childcare, whether the work met the criteria, which Brown defines as “…such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration…they are eaily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted…they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.” Making cloth and clothing, cooking, gardening, tending small animals, gathering wild foods… this was women’s work to a large degree.
That is not to say that women didn’t do other work. But generally speaking, traditional women’s work was designed to accomodate the realities of having young children for a decade or so of a woman’s productive adult life. No society could afford to lose women’s productive labor during the period of childbearing and rearing young children, so the society emphasized that sort of work. Nor could any society afford to lose children to the illnesses and death that faced those who were weaned early. There are other sorts of labor that are also child friendly – many cottage businesses, or even keeping shop, if the shop contains child space are suitable. Indeed, many more jobs could be made child friendly if we wanted them to be, and feminists have for years fought and lost this battle.
In many ways, our present society is even more insistent that we cannot “afford” to lose the productive labor of women during pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood. Because of that, industrial substitutes like formula and heavy-duty electric breast pumps are created so that children can be left with other women, and women can return to work that cannot be interrupted easily. With science doing its best to ensure that the consequences to children are less evident and longer-term, we have come to believe that breast is best, but only a tiny bit better, and that best of all is a little breast feeding, lots of attaching yourself (on your break time) to a pump machine and the eventual transition to formula, rather than, g-d forbid, not feeding the growth economy.
Thus, women who stay home with their children are often castigated for being unproductive, or wasting their educations and training, or it is often implied that they are unusually wealthy, and doing so is a luxury that ordinary people cannot afford. And, in fact it is often a luxury. Staying home with your children usually implies a two parent, fairly stable family, a single provider who can produce both income and benefits, and other bits of good fortune. That said, however, it is working class families, more than wealthy ones that are most likely to have a stay at home parent, for both cultural and economic reasons. For example, a disproportionate number of homeschooling familes have stay-at home parents (for obvious reasons) – and yet the average homeschooling household income is under 30K. There are far more stay at home parents in my working class, rural area than there were in the affluent urban area I lived in for almost a decade.
Imagining a future in which more of us are poor and fewer of us can afford the $1500 dollars annually that feeding a baby with infant formula requires, or the electricity for breast pump and freezer, it seems not unlikely that many women will spend more of their lives doing labor that can be done with small children about. Even in a society with a strong one-child emphasis, this is likely to take up some years of a woman’s life – most poorer societies practice extended breastfeeding, because the nutritional value of women’s breastmilk cannot be foregone, and the added benefits to women’s health, longevity and sibling prevention (which does not work for me in any sense 😉 are also important. The average age, worldwide, of weaning is 4. If school buses in our regionalized school systems cease running (and they already are in some places) because of rising transport costs, more of us will have to homeschool. While this job doesn’t have to be done by women, it is contiguous with extended breastfeeding, and often is.
So for at least a little while in the lives of those women who have children, there will be a strong biological pressure towards “women’s work.” But that’s hardly the end of the conversation. In one child society, where women are encouraged to put off childbearing until their late 20s or early 30s (there are significant demographic benefits to encouraging later childbearing, but any later than this is probably unlikely in a society that can’t afford expensive and energy intensive infertility treatments), that means quite a few years of productive adulthood, 3-8 years (assuming one or two children) “out” and then she’d be free to go back in.
But, of course, it isn’t so simple. Women are heavily penalized in the labor market for time taken out to care for children, and in a society without fast food restaurants to provide dinner, gardeners to mow the lawn, dry cleaners to clean the clothes, daycare providers to tend the children and nursing home aides to tend grandma (or in which all these things exist but most of us can no longer afford them). And since the burden of elder care has generally fallen on them (for reasons that have nothing to do with biological necessity), a woman who trains for a career until she is 30, leaves the workplace for 9 years to bear and nurse 2 children and then returns, who has parents who had the same approximate schedule, will, in her mid-to-late 40s in many cases find herself with elderly and increasingly frail parents who may also require her time. Men can do these jobs – but they won’t unless we change our culture, and rapidly.
And the biggest barrier is cultural. Many men have resisted doing their full share, and women have held on to their responsibilities (“You don’t do it right…it is easier to just do it myself”) while feeling resentful. And if domestic work has to be done, and women are to be out of the workforce for some time, the logical thing would be to have them, when they return, trade positions with their spouse. But this tends not to work in a society that rewards consecutive experience, is particularly unsupportive of men who do childcare and domestic work, and generally pays men better than women anyway.
Barring some major cultural changes, I’d have to say that the answer to question #1 is that, yes, the reality is that any push to a lower energy society that doesn’t envision a much more communal life, probably will mean women going disproportionately back to domestic life. While I strongly encourage egalitarianism, the forces that affect ordinary families mean that generally speaking, it is easier for women to leave the conventional economy than for men. We can and should work to change this, but it is unlikely to succeed before economic difficulty strikes.
So now we come to question two – is this a bad thing for women and their rights? On the surface of it, the answer would seem to be “yes.” Certainly, fewer women would enter the highly trained professions, and most of those who entered them would either be older when they entered (ie, past their childbearing years), have an unusually egalitarian marriage, or have no plan to have children. Few households in a poorer society will be able to take out tens of thousands in student loans for law school, only to have women work for five years and then leave the workforce for a time.
Many of these things are true now. For example, highly placed women in the business world have children less than 50% of the time. When they do have them, they have fewer and later. Many of these women who wait until their late 30s or later are only able to have children after extended medical intervention, and would probably have none at all if infertility treatments were not available or were unaffordable.
The academic field I trained it was remarkable for the number of women involved – and yet in my department, of the women faculty, the vast majority had no children at all. Of the two female faculty members in my department who did have children, one had had hers before entering academia, another had her two children in her late 30s and early 40s. Despite the fact that English Literature was considerably more woman friendly than most other areas of academia, my observation was that comparatively few women had children, and that it was extremely difficult to accomodate the two jobs. This is also true of many other fields.
So what we would likely see is an exaggeration of current situations – professional women would be less common, and the old “career or kids but not both” scenario might rule. Or we might adapt, making it normal for women to train for a second career after their children are older. But the most likely scenario, because of economic and cultural pressures means that there would be fewer highly educated women, fewer women in professional jobs that require extended training, and, since most political figures are taken from professional jobs, potentially fewer women in politics. The women who were in these jobs are likely not to have children, and thus likely to lack the particular understanding of family issues that many mothers have.
So in that sense, this might be bad. But on the other hand, a poorer, less energy intensive society is likely to have some changes in male occupations as well. For example, unless we make colleges more universally available and free to most people, most men who would now have these jobs won’t be becoming doctors, lawyers or academics either. The reality is that college and graduate school are feasible now only because we are rich, and people are willing to beggar themselves for decades taking out loans to get higher salaries in the long term. This system is already starting to break down, as books like _Generation Debt_ document – they are creating institutionalized economic inequities that can’t be overcome by people who have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and will spend most of their most productive years paying them off. A recent study shows that almost 35% of all young adults 35 and under are receiving financial aid from their parents. I’m sure some are lazy schlubs, but most of them are receiving it because there are tremendously institutionalized economic disparities being created by the cost of education.
This system can’t continue, and it is unlikely to. And there are good reasons to want to see it gone. For example, as studies demonstrate, economic mobility is disappearing the US – those people who are likely to become our important women politicians after their years in law school? Generally speaking, they are rich folks, who were priveleged from birth, and thus “tracked” from early on for success, and for power. Yes, it is nice that some of the powerful have breasts but what we’re not getting from this system is a great deal of real diversity of viewpoint. Most of our leaders are taken from a particular class and culture. And while education is generally a good signal of progressive policies in the US, the sheer crappiness of the education many people are mortgaging themselves for suggests that we could do better, cheaper – period.
A society in which fewer people go to college (or better yet, in which college is subsidized as it is in much of the world) is one in which more leaders are going to have to come from everyday people – including those who work from home, on a small scale – farmers, chatelaines, homeschoolers, owners of home businesses.
This was precisely what Thomas Jefferson argued for – that is, he felt that independent householders who could supply most of their subsistence needs at home were the best possible participants in a democratic society. So perhaps the problem is us – the perception that law school and business are the direct lead-ins to running the country is simply screwed up. We should be looking for leaders in people who have fed themselves, clothed themselves, cared for their own, done their own share of ordinary work. Changing that will require a major alteration of cultural priorities, but it does mean that women who are doing their work from home or whose primary work is domestic labor need not be disenfranchised – and that there are powerful cultural incentives to value both men and women who do not have expensive educations and don’t drive to fancy offices. There is no reason to believe that taking more women out of the professions will return us in any short time to the notion that women should simply stay home and tend to their knitting. In fact, there’s some reason to think that we might take our knitting (or our small engine repair, for that matter) with us into the halls of power better if we began looking for qualifications not to be found in a law degree.
I think there is some danger that #2 is true – that moving women out of the public sphere and back to the domestic could be a problem for our power in the world, but that’s not insurmountable. And the reality is this – that our *hope* of taking back political power from corporations and from those who have claimed it lies mostly in our not needing those folks – that is, being able to meet our own needs. It is not merely rhetoric or condescension to say that “the hand that stirs the pot or rocks the cradle rules the world.” This is likely literally true right now – we may have more women in the public sphere right now than before, but ordinary men and women are less powerful because of our externalizing of our needs than we could be if men and women were to take them back.
And this is a good portion of the answer to number three. Feminism should be proud of many things, but one of its great failures has been the prioritization of the public, capitalist, economic sphere over the domestic, private one. The reason we did this was an understandable thing – we let antifeminists define the terms of the discussion from early on. The question of women’s basic rights was always phrased as a conflict between private and public, and many feminists (not all) took on this distinction as a cause – let us get women out into the world. The problem, however, is that “private” and “public” are not such clear dichotomies – the private sphere of the home and its labor can never be fully seperated from the public implications of that role. By encouraging women to enter the workforce, and to regard work under a boss in an industrial job as preferrable to working autonomously (not under a repressive spouse) at home meeting one’s needs outside the domestic sphere, we also encouraged the demise of all private, domestic life – with real consequences in health, resource use and dehumanization.
Much of the environmental movement has been the realization that not only is “the personal the political” but vice versa – that is, much of our most important political work must operate on the personal level, that the private is the public. It may ultimately it matter less whether women get to be brain surgeons (which is important) than what we eat for dinner. It does matter who cooks it – there are compelling arguments for fairness and justice in this realm – but it does mean that someone has to be there to do the cooking. The things that most influence the state of our lives are domestic and “private” – but, of course, the private is the public here.
One of the most heartening things I see in the peak oil and climate change movement is a remarkable number of people stepping out of their traditional roles. I see women who have mostly worked on the sidelines feeling that they need to stand up for the future of their children. I see men who have never touched a pot talking about how they baked bread. The reality is that this conflict, unlike all prior wars, is being “fought” on a unified front – the “home front” – that is, instead of dividing up for war, or for capitalism, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers have every incentive to come together to make changes in world they most need security in – the private, the domestic, the literal home front.