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Women’s History Month: Let’s Talk about Sexual Division of Labor

Feminist linguist Deborah Cameron’s new book isn’t out until May, but we’re giving you a sneak peek in celebration of Women’s History Month. Feminism: A Brief Introduction to the Ideas, Debates, and Politics of the Movement is broad in scope but refreshingly concise. It’s perfect for anyone who needs a straightforward primer on the complex history of feminism, a nuanced explanation of key issues and debates, or strategic thinking about the questions facing activists today. This excerpt is (appropriately) from ‘Chapter Three: Work’.

Most human societies appear to have had some kind of sexual division of labor, with some tasks assigned to women and others to men. In small-scale traditional societies this arrangement has often been described as egalitarian: the two sexes are economically interdependent, in that each needs the products of the other’s labor. There do not seem to be many forms of work that are universally reserved for men or women: the same task—for instance, cultivating corn—may be a man’s job in one group and a woman’s job in another.

In larger and more complex pre-industrial societies, like those of medieval and early modern Europe, historians have pointed to elements of both hierarchy and reciprocity in the organization of men’s and women’s work. Before the Industrial Revolution, most production was based in the household, and much of it was for use rather than for sale. This mode of production required the labor of both sexes: for instance, men might tend the cattle, but women butchered and preserved meat, churned butter, and made fat into candles. A woman married to an artisan or merchant often learned her husband’s trade and assisted with his work; sometimes she acted as her husband’s agent or took over the business after her husband died. This arrangement cannot be called gender egalitarian, because marriage was not a relationship of equals. In England (and later its colonies), married women were subject to coverture, a legal provision stipulating that a wife had no existence independent of her husband: her property, earnings, and services all belonged to him. Wives who worked alongside their husbands were not equal partners. But the fact that their contribution was needed gave them some leverage: the dependence was mutual rather than all one way.

The Industrial Revolution changed this. Most production gradually moved out of the household and into the factories and mills where men, women, and children worked for wages. Domestic labor then became a primarily reproductive rather than productive activity. Instead of producing the things the household used, like food, beer, clothing, and candles, the housewife performed the domestic services, like cooking, cleaning, and laundry, that enabled members of the household to keep going out to work. The wages they earned could then be used to buy what would once have been produced at home. Providing domestic services did not so much become as remain a female responsibility (the tasks involved were ones women had done in the past); what changed was the conditions in which this work was done. In the new industrial economy, home and the workplace became distinct domains. A woman who worked for wages was now obliged to carry out domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning when she was not “at work”; in effect she was required to work a second shift.

Many women did enter the industrial workforce, but their wages were always lower than men’s, and this led to conflict. Men argued that they should not have to compete with women, who were cheaper to employ, or settle for lower wages themselves. The idea began to gain ground that men should be paid enough to support a family, while women should prioritize their domestic responsibilities, ideally working outside the home only to supplement the wages of the family breadwinner. This “male breadwinner with dependent housewife” arrangement is what people today usually mean when they talk about the “traditional” family or women’s “traditional” role—but historically speaking it is not really traditional at all. Nor was it ever a universal norm in practice. However, it has been argued that it came to be seen as the ideal, not only because it suited men, but also because it served the interests of capitalism. Women whose main occupation was understood to be in the home formed a cheap and convenient reserve army of labor—a Marxist term for a group of un- or underemployed people who can be pulled into the workforce when they are needed (when the economy is booming, for instance, or in wartime, to replace men who are serving in the armed forces) and then pushed out again when recession, or peace, makes them superfluous. In the case of women, this could be justified by saying that they already had a job at home, and that their paid jobs were needed by men with families to support.

But there’s a reason why I’ve been using the past tense. The current neoliberal and globalized form of capitalism offers other options for reducing costs and maximizing profits: for instance, recruiting foreign workers who are willing to accept lower wages, or putting workers on contracts that require them to be available for work yet do not guarantee them any. Companies can also move some of their operations to parts of the world where costs are lower, or they can invest in technology, which lessens their dependence on human labor. The workers whose position has been most dramatically affected by these practices are not women but first- world working- class men: the industrial manufacturing jobs they once held have moved overseas or been automated, while most newly created jobs are less secure, lower- paid ones in the female- dominated service sector.

These changes have made the old model of a working man supporting his wife and children on a single “family wage” increasingly remote from most people’s real-life experience; but it remains powerful in the cultural imagination. The recent surge of right- wing populism in the United States and many parts of Europe has been fueled not only by racism and xenophobia, but also by nostalgia for the golden age of the male breadwinner. Part of Donald Trump’s appeal to American voters (especially less-educated white men) rested on his promise to bring back the well- paid, secure jobs that once gave men authority in their homes and status in their communities. The same nostalgia is clearly visible in a letter written to a Utah newspaper in 2017. The writer, a local Republican, called on state legislators to reject a bill mandating equal pay for men and women on the grounds that men “need to make enough to support their families and allow the Mother to remain in the home to raise and nurture the children.” This argument presupposes not only that it is desirable for women to be dependent on a male breadwinner, but also that all women have that option. In reality, many do not: whether because they are single (unmarried, divorced, widowed) or because the men they live with are unemployed, they are obliged to be breadwinners themselves. This was also true in the so-called golden age—and indeed for hundreds of years before it. There have always been households that depended on women’s earnings. Paying women less than men condemns many of those households to poverty. That is one reason (the other being the basic principle of fairness) why feminists have long supported laws like the one the Utah writer opposes.

Want to read more? Pre-order Feminism on our website and get it as soon as it arrives in May!

Connect with the author on Twitter at @wordspinster or read more of her work on her blog—language: a feminist guide.