Women Could Own the World

by | February 6, 2011
filed under Feminism

I’m pleased to present this post by our newest guest contributor, Gerald Hodge. In addition to being my Dad, Gerald is a former director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus. His most recent book is The Geography of Aging: Preparing Communities for the Surge in Seniors. He lives on Hornby Island, BC.

At least that’s how I remember the May 2010 Report on Business headline about the enormous value of household commodities that women have the major say in purchasing. It triggered two memories; one of an oft-repeated radio comedy routine of the ‘40s where the MC asks a male guest:

MC: “Who makes the decisions in your house?

Guest: “We both do.”

MC:  “Tell me how this works.”

Guest:  “She decides on the food we eat, which fridge and car to buy, the kind of house we live in.”

MC:  “And you?

Guest: “I get to decide who’ll win the war, who should be President, and the colour of the car.”

It also reminded me of Ivan Illich’s penetrating social history, Gender (Pantheon, 1982), about the devolution of traditional gender roles of women into women as simply “the second sex” in today’s commodity-driven economic age.  His analysis, I believe, is still relevant today. He describes that transition starting nearly a millennium ago:

“… [from] the reign of gender (where the household obtains its subsistence from the apportioned tasks accomplished by sets of non-interchangeable hands) to the regime of industrial economics (where genderless hands produce commodities in exchange for pay).”

Illich’s aim is not to yearn for the past, rather to track the long-term changes in the economic roles of women and men and their material world. His starting point is the eleventh century in Western Europe when shared village commons began to be enclosed and transformed into scarce resources (for the lord’s sheep) along with the introduction of money as a scarce means of exchange.  Over the ensuing 5-600 years, came the evolution of the economic role of the conjugal couple from one of producing for their own subsistence needs into producing commodities for a market. Into this new milieu entered the Catholic Church and the State: the first to declare matrimony a sacrament, define sin (enforcing the Sixth Commandment, adultery), and regulating conscience (through confession). The State saw the couple as a taxation unit further eroding traditional gendered household tasks and adding, in the late- eighteenth century, the policing of childbirth.  Images of “man” and “woman” changed into sexist ones in industrializing countries  ̶  equal as sinners and economic contributors.

Equality between the sexes did not result, as we know. But a myth of it did, especially after the mid-nineteenth century when technology revolutionized (mostly men’s) work out of the house to the factory or office. For women also came the opportunity to work outside the home, which they did increasingly, but the household still remained for them to tend. And since our society has become more and more commodity-driven women have had to add “shadow work” in the household to any outside work. This is Illich’s term to describe the labour by which a consumer transforms purchased commodities into useful goods for the home. Example:

“When a modern housewife goes to the market, picks up eggs, drives them home in her car, takes the elevator to the seventh floor, turns on the stove, takes butter from the refrigerator, and fries the eggs, she adds value to the commodity with each one of these steps.”

This common scene is brought to you by an industrial, economically-developed society, whether it is Japan, France, or Canada, pressing households to invest in highly capitalized production goods such as cars and electrical appliances. Often the pitch is presented in the guise of the household becoming self-sufficient when the aim is really to have it do shadow work. Most of which, it turns out, falls to women. Back to Illich: “they are tied to more of it [than men], they must spend more time on it, they have less opportunity to avoid it, [and] its volume does not diminish when they take outside employment.”

Thus, industrial society discarded relative gender equality, substituted two sexes in producing its commodities and thus became sexist. It constructed a world where women are only “the second sex” with, as he frequently notes, “the man always on top.” No amount of amelioration through access to education and professions, anti-discriminatory legislation, goodwill, or feminist struggle has reduced the exploitation of women anywhere. His ultimate point: economic development is inherently sexist and exploitive of women. So, maybe women could own the world, but at what cost to them?



, , , , ,