EducationO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

Being a Woman is Work

How capitalist society (de) values 'female' labor

This is essay is part of the OOPS course Law and Sexuality.

The current division of labor has been perceived as equal for many, but remains impractical in the long term, especially in our contemporary capitalist America. The challenges that come with capitalism, such as inflation and recession, has forced each member of the family to work. Women are under increasing pressure: they are expected to be wives and mothers while at the same time being career driven individuals working their way up. In this essay, I critique how capitalism drains our working wives and mothers with unmanageable demands.

Fundamental to the problem is the exploitation of women’s domestic labor. Some people believe that women are biologically predisposed to caring and nurturing others in order to fulfill their innate desire to be a mother. These sort of presumptions can explain why domestic labor in the home is predominantly demonstrated through house work and child care. It is taken to be the wife’s responsibility to take care of the children and household matters, ultimately making the care of her husband the top priority, while care for herself is last. So it is that the traditional nuclear family structure places extraordinary demands on the mother. It may not seem possible — especially under our current administration — to find a solution to these problems, but to begin, we might focus the conversation on the institution of marriage and why women feel compelled to marry in the first place.

My maternal grandmother and grandfather took care of me daily until I was old enough to go to school while my mother worked in a traditional office setting 9-5. My father worked from home, which was considered uncommon. At the time it was still rare for male parents to be available to care for children. Although he was home, his work was his main focus and he could not look after young children, but he did substantially support the housework and overall care of the family. This was convenient for both my parents: it was convenient for my mother to have had children with a man who enjoys working from home and being more domestic than many would expect a man to be. If my mother had chosen not to have children, society would have seen her as an unfulfilled woman: she would be thought of as unhappy or incomplete. She often still is seen this way because of her work, and still faces the challenge of balancing her work life with domestic responsibilities. She has told me stories of being guilt-tripped for not being in the PTA, not being able to attend as many parent-teacher meetings or outside school events as she wanted to. But she understood her work life to be part of her responsibility as a mother: as a provider, she did her job every day in order to come home with what we needed as a family.

I wish to change this narrative for the working woman. I want to be able to find a way for a woman to pursue what she wants to do while fulfilling her desires to be a mother. But I am also aware that this is not realistically possible, and it is malicious to give women the false hope that they have the means and the time to do everything they want to do; this has become a popular trope amongst so-called working moms, many of whom also happen to be sitting on family fortunes. I am not trying to sound like a dream-killer for women; I intend, rather, to be practical. My mother constantly told me that it is unrealistic to be in a demanding job while being completely present for your children. Within the constructs of our society this means that women have to make this difficult decision, but men are not faced with the same challenges. This presents the double standard that women are expected to make motherhood a top priority while men are never criticized for putting their careers before their children. On the other side of things, mothers who have to work may experience a deep sadness at not being able to devote as much time to their children. Working in the home and outside of the home is doubling the labor one is expected to do. This means women are expected to do double the work of their male counterparts.

In Leah Lakshmi Peipzna-Samarasinha’s article entitled “A modest proposal for a fair trade emotional labor economy,” in Bitch Media Issue No 75, she suggests that, since care work and emotional labor are not regulated the way physical labor is, it becomes difficult for women to express their needs and often feel as though their work is being reciprocated or adequately compensated. Peipzna-Samarasinha writes about the realm of care work as not only including child and elderly care, but also every ounce of the ‘giving of oneself’ that happens in tiny moments continuously within the lives of women. Because this work is not regulated, it is easy for women to feel as though they are being taken advantage of in a field where they are the center of the means of production. Society has been conditioned to believe that this field of work is inherently feminine and should be done by females, but in many cases this work is also done by males. Yet, on television and in the media, women in the household are most commonly portrayed performing domestic tasks, while husbands are shown working at a job outside of the house.

This dynamic was most commonly seen in the United States beginning in the 1950s with the nuclear family. This “balance” became a part of the American dream, almost as if it was in response to or in competition with the communal ways of raising children that had been practiced in communist and socialist communities once many women began to take work in the factories. When women began working in factories they worked long days with little rest at home. Their duties at home included cooking and cleaning, as they were expected to complete these duties in addition to the work they were doing outside of the home. Working all day meant not being able to raise children as closely as women wanted to, or were expected to. In many communities, women were able to acquire help from other family and community members with child care,  making it possible for the woman to work. Women were obligated to work and, therefore, had no choice, but to put their children in the care of someone else. But this was also a source of embarrassment, as not being at home with your young child was often seen as shameful and wrong. Clearly, some expectations have changed since women were included in the workplace with men. It goes to show, however, that communal child-rearing could be a solution to one of the working woman’s biggest problems.

Communal child rearing would break down some of the patriarchal aspects society that America is built on. The division of labor would be drastically changed, particularly since agriculture is generally the center of societies that employ communal child-rearing practices as a system of care exchange. This means that while women and men work on the farms or other parts of the community, there would be a designated group of other men and women who took care of the children while the parents were working and contributing to society in whatever ways they are capable. In this way, the adults in the community would have time to work while not having to neglect their personal passions or their children. This is how certain socialist societies have already been functioning in countries outside of America. Most importantly, it goes to show that the division of labor in America is not equal. It is not based on our desires as human beings, but on how gender roles are rigidly performed within society.

 

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Judith Elster

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