For millenia, labor division was sex-based and crystal clear. Men mostly worked to create things or for wages: farming, blacksmithing, soldiering, trades. Women, once they were married, raised children and worked in the home, cooking and cleaning. It was the sensible division, since women prior to reliable prophylactics were very often limited by pregnancy or infant care in what they could do. Men, without the responsibility of direct care for babies, were more free to range away from the home.
There were women who produced things, clothing or household goods, medical products, and foods, or who took over their husbands’ work when he died or was disabled. But most women did work that was crucial for keeping the family fed and clothed and healthy. Why, though, is this work so undervalued? Why does the women’s rights movement seek primarily to free women from “drudgery,” instead of empowering them to take pride in this unpaid but oh-so-important role?
The answer is simple: labor economics.
Without technology, humans are limited in the amount of work they can do. A man can only plow so much field in the course of a day, and a woman can only plant so many vegetables. Even when the family’s children were pressed into service, there was a limit to how much they could do. The first solution for alleviating this limitation was slavery. A man could nearly double his plowable field area if he employed a slave to do more labor for him. A woman could get more housework done if she had a slave, too.
But the difference was in scalability. A man with a thousand slaves could run an immense estate efficiently, producing resources well in excess of what he could use. With this excess, he created wealth, which gave him power; through largess or trade, his excess wealth allowed him to lead groups or cities or countries. The wealthiest men often became kings.
A woman with a thousand slaves to help with her work, on the other hand, would have been hindered. While housework is hard work, it is not scalable. There is a limit to how much can be done, and when you have “help” beyond that limit, the help gets in the way and becomes a hindrance that consumes resources. Women, therefore, could measure their slaves in tens or less, and often found that daughters or daughters-in-law provided more than enough extra labor to run the home effectively. Only in household tasks that resulted in a product – dairy work, for instance – was extra labor efficiently scalable.
This set a historical pattern: men who controlled more men had power and continued working. Women who controlled more women had a limited amount of power, and were often able to become idle or to support their husbands’ powerbuilding in social or material ways. We see this today among the wealthy, where husbands work for high levels of resources while wives entertain or network, their seeming idleness often adding real value to their spouses’ work – but, as so often happens with women’s work, invisibly.
Because of this pattern, women’s work has been historically devalued. Domestic workers are paid minimally for physically demanding tasks, and those we entrust with the care of our children often earn minimum wage. Part of this is due to the economic necessity of valuing labor in terms of money – resources generated. Jobs that generate more resources are generally more valued. Women’s work rarely generates resources, and therefore it’s devalued. Part, however, is just social habit.
The result, in terms of feminism, has been the wholesale rejection of traditional female values and work in favor of men’s values and work. For a couple of decades, women who chose to stay home and care for their families felt shamed by the women’s rights movement, as if they were failures as women. Even today, there are women’s rights activists who sneer at women who choose this path. Instead, women are encouraged to take on male roles, working for resources and building power in traditionally masculine ways.
This has a multitude of effects, not all of which can be seen yet. First, by devaluing women’s work, we are discouraging men from taking on those roles as women move into masculine roles. Women, as a result, have a few choices: do both their own traditional work AND work in a resource-generating career; hire help; do less domestic work and instead outsource some tasks, like cooking, to modern resources like restaurants or frozen prepared dinners; stay single; or take on the even-more-thankless-today position of traditional housewife.
Like dominos, these choices lead to more results. Women who work essentially double roles are less able to do either. Child-rearing suffers, and women are at a disadvantage compared to men in their professional positions. This is one of the main reasons, I think, that women often make less than men – because they are less able to take advantage of opportunities or work later, they are less likely to advance or earn collegiate respect. Add that to time taken off for childbearing or child care, and women are at distinct professional disadvantages not of anyone’s making.
Women who outsource cooking often eat less healthy; since the family generally eat what Mom brings in, the whole family tends to be less healthy. Women who outsource child-rearing are less involved in their children and more likely to have weaker maternal bonds – and I don’t care what studies say, this is an obvious truth. Women who outsource home cleaning have to spend resources they’ve earned to pay wages, and because of generally lower statuses at work, the resources they must spend are often a relatively high percentage of their incomes. Women who stay single do not give us that next generation we depend on to carry our civilization forward and care for our elderly.
In short, by devaluing women’s work and encouraging women to be more like men, we’ve short-circuited our entire civilization. Many of the things that are breaking down today are due to the mismanagement of the women’s movement by people who did not think ahead.
I’m not saying women who work outside the home are bad; I was one of those women for years, and today much of my work in-home takes just as much time away from my domestic responsibilities as work outside the home would. What I am saying is that we need to reassess what we’re doing here. Women’s traditional work is much more valuable to all of us than we have been led to believe. We need to find ways to value it more as a society and as individuals.