Friday, February 24, 2006

Multiplication of Labor

For quite some time now, women (and men) have been fighting for equality. The feminist movement, spurred by the noble goals of equal treatment and equal opportunity, has made tremendous progress. But there's still a long way to go in the fight against patriarchy. Then again, maybe the reason there's still a long way to go is because the opponent - "patriarchy" - doesn't really exist in the first place.

I realize that statement can be a bit of a shocker, but before you pass me off as some nutcase, hear me out: Patriarchy is the idea that there is absolute control, over all aspects of life, by men. The implications of the word "patriarchy" are basically that men benefit from the arrangement, and women suffer from it. What I object to is a fight against "patriarchy" in this sense - I object to people holding the idea that men have "kept women down" as a way of keeping themselves up. The reason I object is because I think that men have suffered from this social arrangement, this "patriarchy" too. And if men have suffered too, then it's not really a patriarchy after all.

Now, none of this is meant to in any way diminish the suffering that women have endured. By saying men have suffered too, I don't in any way mean to compare it to the suffering of women, which I think was far worse than what men face/faced. The fact that women were kept out of the political and economic spheres of life is nothing short of historical tragedy. The fact that they still make less money for the same tasks is equally abhorrent. I am completely and unequivocally for equality between the sexes. And that's why I have a problem with a fight against patriarchy. Because I don't think patriarchy is the right term, I don't think it really exists, and I don't think a fight against patriarchy does justice to equality.

Now I confess, historically Western society has sure looked an awful lot like a patriarchy - at least at first glance. But when you look deeper, you can see that maybe it wasn't really patriarchy after all. Consider for a minute the formation of society, when people first delegated "political" and "economic" duties (i.e. protection and food-procurement) to men, and "domestic" and "formative" duties (i.e. home maintainence, health, and childrearing) to women (formative is kind of a grey area, because as male children got older they were presumably taught more and more by the men). Why did this division of labor happen? A basic economic analysis is enough to make sense out of the arrangement. Economics teaches us that specialization - the idea that those who are best at a task should perform that task - is the most efficient distribution of duties, and allows society to maximize it's constructive output.

So why this particular arrangement? Given the general natural differences between men and women, it made sense for men to protect the group and secure food because they were better at it. And it made sense for women to raise children and maintain the home because they were better at that. So this particular division of labor made sense because it allowed the groups to secure the best possible combination of political, economic, domestic, and formative goods. In short, because it let the groups prosper.

Over time, these arrangements became embedded in society. The breakdown of these arrangements, largely beginning with the industrial revolution, is well documented, and I won't go into it here. Suffice it to say, that by this point in history, instead of being strictly a division of labor based on specialization, the arrangements took on a social form all their own; women, regardless of ability, were kept out of economic and political ventures, and men were kept out of the domestic and formative ventures.

Ok, with that history behind us, I can get to the main thesis of this post: that patriarchy is not an accurate description of this society. Why do I say this? Because both men and women benefited and suffered from this arrangement. What do I mean when I say "benefited and suffered"? I mean that in some ways this arrangement was good for men and bad for women (this is the most obvious part of the calculus - clearly men had economic and social power (men benefiting), and women did not (women suffering)). But in other ways this arrangement was good for women and bad for men.

For example, spending consistent and quality time with your children is a wonderful thing. Therefore, those who fulfill the formative role are the recipients of a benefit, and those who are excluded from the formative role suffer because of their exclusion (just think "Cats in the Cradle"). The same can be said of the domestic duties. I can say that because I enjoy cooking, and baking cakes (even heart-shaped cupcakes). I know first hand the benefits of domestic duties. Plain and simple, from these parts of the arrangement, women benefited and men suffered.

Now to complicate it a little more: there are those (especially today) who would reject the idea that childrearing and domestic duties are wonderful things. Usually they're reacting against the "traditional" role of the housewife, and would argue that the benefits of the childrearing and domestic duties pale in comparison to the benefits of economic and political influence. They'd also point out that maybe domestic and childrearing duties aren't such a benefit after all - maybe they're a burden. It is hard work to raise children, to keep a house orderly, to do the dishes. These are things that, with great repetition, can really kill a person's spirit. These folks would say that by giving the childrearing and domestic duties to women we've actually put another burden on women, not conferred a benefit.

Some people would straight up disagree with these folks, and would say that the benefits of childrearing and domestic duties outweigh the harms. But I wouldn't disagree at all. I think they've got a point. And it's an important point: ultimately, too much of any one thing is bad. Too much childrearing turns the children into burdens, and at times outweighs the benefits of being an attentive parent. Too many meals to cook and dishes to do takes the joy out of preparing a fine meal. And, too many days at the office or plowing the field makes economic influence a "rat race". And the joy of political power can easily get lost when that means you're dying in a war.

Ok, back to that original point. Remember, the concept of patriarchy very strongly implies that men benefit and women suffer from the social structure. So if the societal division of labor both confers benefits and causes suffering in each division of labor, then it can't really be a patriarchy, can it? If both women and men suffer and benefit, (even if at unequal levels (i.e. considering that women have historically suffered more)), then patriarchy isn't the right word. The problem isn't that society is arranged as a patriarchy, and therefore we don't have equality, but rather that society is arranged into a division of labor at all.

The fact of the matter is that each of the aspects both confers benefits and causes harms. In this way, specialization has failed. The ideal isn't total specialization, but rather the opposite - completely shared labor. If men and women could share time in domestic, economic, childrearing, and political duties, then the benefits would be felt by all, and the suffering would be mitigated. Sure, someone would still have to do the dishes, but they'd only have to do them half as much. And that means doing the dishes wouldn't be quite as awful. Sure, someone would still have to go face the pressures of the working world, but they wouldn't be the sole bread-winner for the family, and those pressures would be a lot smaller. Ideally everyone could have both a happy career and a happy family life.

In ancient society, when survival was an open question, specialization made sense. In modern society, when survival is all but assured, specialization makes no sense. In our society we've more or less eliminated the reasons for specialization. Men can do an excellent job caring for children. Women can participate in the workplace equally well. We can all share in each others' tasks. A flexible society, in which both parents can work and be home, in which duties are shared, is the ideal. But even more important, with a proper focus, a flexible society is achievable.

If the goal is equality, a fight against patriarchy cannot work, because patriarchy isn't really there at all. Instead, we've got to fight against specialization, because that's the problem that got us started down this ugly road in the first place.

That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means


the marvelous patric said...

"multiplication" and "labor"? is this some sort of code for laura being preggers?

joel. said...

Welll, isn't this convenient? Matt, our favorite humorist blogger just posted on this very subject today. You may have seen it already, but everyone else probably hasn't. A link for all...