Thursday, August 12, 2010

Entering the work force: a liberal sham

In March, Nina Power posted the text of her presentation at an event called "The Equality Gap". It basically boils down much of the material included in her book One Dimensional Feminism. She is talking about work and equality and the feminization of labour and so on. As with the book, most of what she says I have no problem with. But I'm interested here in her closing paragraph:
Feminism has often seen work as the opportunity for women’s emancipation, and historically there have been few long-term social revolutions with more impact than women’s mass inclusion into the workforce. However, if we remain uncritical of the exploitative dimensions of this work, then there will be no gender equality for anyone.
Which echoes this passage, from One Dimensional Woman (again, my mini-review is here):
No discussion of the current fortunes of women can take place outside of a discussion of work. The inclusion of women into the labor force has brought about unprecedented changes in the way we understand the 'role' of women, the capacity of women to live independent lives and the way in which women participate in the economy more generally. Of course, women have always worked, that is to say, raised children, tended to the home, grown crops, etc., and how different the history of the world would have been had this been from the start been regarded as labor to be rewarded. Nevertheless, as Marx notes, it is only when women enter work 'outside the sphere of the domestic economy' that transformations in relations between the sexes, the composition of families and so on, really start to happen.
No doubt this sounds uncontroversial and is orthodox Marxism and widely held to be the mainstream of feminism, but I'm confused by the assumption that it is entering the workforce that will lead to the emancipation of women. Emancipation from what? Liberation from what? Presumably from being tied to homemaking and childrearing. Except that it's not as if entering the workforce has meant that women, on balance, have not remained primarily in charge of maintaining the home and of rearing children. Their work there has remained under-valued, indeed has been increasingly devalued, only now they very likely have some other crap job on top of it (or possibly even a "good" job, most things considered, but even so). It seems to me that entering the workforce has had the collective effect of reinforcing the liberal order, particularly since too rarely have the "exploitative dimensions" of the work in question been examined, and since it has been without a necessary revaluation, a correct valuation, of reproductive work. The fact is, when it became necessary, capital was perfectly happy for women to "enter the workforce", knowing full well that the revolutionary potential for the move was minimal at best.


J.R. Boyd said...

I think the idea is just that women have to move toward greater independence.

It's true that women still do a lot of the same work they have always done, but by establishing a direct relationship with employers, they have a measure of freedom that wasn't possible when that relation was mediated by a husband.

I suppose we could say that one layer of dependency has been stripped away: women can have lives independent of men-as-partners if they want.

Of course, the dependency that remains on men-as-employers never fails to point to this fact as evidence of its progressive character.

Richard said...

That's a good point, J.R.; thanks.

I suppose my questioning of the principle is in its advocacy from the left. This move towards greater independence is framed as a step in a potentially revolutionary direction, when it seems increasingly clear that it is not. In the context of forever maintaining the capitalist system, more relative independence is better than less, of course. And it's not as if I would advocate that women should not be permitted do certain work.

In any event, few women have had the choice not to work outside the home.

M said...

How is it *not* emancipatory and liberating that women be released from the bounds imposed on them by their fathers and husbands? It is not that women have been liberated from homemaking and childrearing in the sense that they no longer do any of it, but in the sense that they are no longer limited to that exclusively. The reason this is advocated from the left is that you cannot fight against class oppression, while at the same time maintaining one gender as the underclass.

Richard said...

You're right, ASP. I don't mean to suggest that that's not the case.

I can see that I'm not articulating my problem clearly. I'll have to revisit in a later post when I can devote my full attention to it.

M said...

I understand, and agree, that this is still problematic. It has not emancipated the worker, and still in many cases it has not liberated the woman. In Croatia there is currently an initiative under way to equalize the age when men and women retire (currently women can retire five years earlier). As many have noted and criticized, this move replicates previous moves that attempt to achieve "equality" between genders merely by further burdening the woman, because there are no initiatives to unburden her of some of her work at home or examine how housework and child rearing are treated. All that is being done is imposing more duties on the woman without reference to all the roles she already takes on and whether they are shared in any significant measure by men, which they are not. However, this is still the right direction to go in. I don't believe it is possible to emancipate the worker without emancipating the woman. But you are right that work as emancipation is more problematic and serves to uphold rather than dispel oppression more than many perceive, and this should be emphasized. I do agree with you in some degree. But if we look a bit back in history to see how women were mostly entirely dependent on men for sustenance, and much more limited in their endeavours and pursuits, then the questions you ask -- "Emancipation for what? Liberation from what?" -- I think are answered.

Richard said...

I agree that those questions, seen in isolation in this post, seem sort of silly when placed alongside your (and J.R.'s) points about dependency. I should say that my reasons for highlighting reproduction perhaps prevented me from seeing the dependency issue as you frame it, but may also make it clearer what I'm trying to get at in the various posts on capitalism here.

My questions about the workforce are in the context of thinking about, and finding problems with, the Marxist tendency to see the move to capitalism as a positive, necessary, step in the eventual move towards communism. It seems to me that women, having had more control over reproduction pre-capitalism, lost a lot of relative power in the move to capitalism (and became more dependent on men). Capitalism being what it is, absorbs everything and adapts to everything, so that it seems that everything we do seemingly in our own interests manages to strengthen the system we despise. Understanding the history is crucial to me as a way of trying to figure out what was lost, and how we can change our predicament.

J.R. Boyd said...

I meant to respond to this a long time ago, and it's too late in the evening for me say anything of substance now; but I just wanted to say that I see now how I might have missed what you were driving at the first time around.

Often times I think about your posts at length without comment. Just letting you know I am still thinking about it.