The campaign season in the US brought a depressing parade of prognostications: about the magical power of vaginas (thank you also, Naomi Wolf), how easy it is to rape sluts, and how we shouldn’t be mean to Mrs. Romney by implying that she doesn’t work.
Alongside this Victorian discourse, the media was full of reports about some mythical majority of female breadwinners who were emerging victorious from the post-recessionary economic slugfest.
This was a curious juxtaposition: women were at once reducible to their reproductive parts and at the same time, as The Atlantic put it, on the verge of global economic dominance. This latter line of reasoning merits more than passing attention.
I confess. I’ve contributed to the productivist mentality in my profession. I say this with more sorrow than pride. As a first generation college student, I thought that I’d always have to work twice as hard to prove myself. When I was coming up the ranks, in a department that had not yet tenured its first woman, I believed that I had to be twice as productive as the men in my department in order to get promoted. This belief was confirmed when the second woman to go up for tenure was denied it (she didn’t have a book) and a man — who never did any administrative work, didn’t supervise graduate students, and was difficult to work with – got tenure (he didn’t have a book, but his supporters argued that his manuscript hinted at a kind of philosophical gravitas that the woman ostensibly lacked). I still feel badly about that situation, in which male faculty members used my productivity to deny tenure to another woman.
I’ve been thinking about why women are being asked to do more administrative work — to take on “leadership” roles – at a point in time when the ranks of tenured faculty are dwindling and there’s more and more work for fewer people. What is it about how women work (or how men think women work) that’s behind this?
Marx said that there are two ways to create surplus-value. Increasing productivity is one way to create surplus-value. But the second way involves extending the working day. Marx argued that there were concrete limits on the latter:
It cannot be prolonged beyond a certain point. This maximum limit is conditioned by two things. First, by the physical bounds of labour-power. Within the 24 hours of the natural day a man can expend only a definite quantity of his vital force. A horse, in like manner, can only work from day to day, 8 hours. During part of the day this force must rest, sleep; during another part the man has to satisfy other physical needs, to feed, wash, and clothe himself.
Ah, the natural day of a man! A man for whom the public and private spheres are imagined as distinct spheres of human activity. Men ate, drank, slept, fought, had sex, and engaged in leisure time activities during the hours they did not work. But the nature of women’s labor within capitalist economies has been quite different, except for the upper class. Whether they worked in the waged economy or not, women labored in the home, attending to many tasks at once – washing clothes, cooking, farming, caring for the sick and the elderly, minding children, mending clothes. For these laborers, even necessary tasks can be deferred because of something else that demands immediate attention: someone interrupts, a toddler moves too closely toward danger, animals and children need to be fed, a pot is on the verge of boiling over – the list goes on. Women’s work outside the waged economy, that is, never conformed to a discrete work “day” or night in which the needs of an isolated laborer (much less a middle class worker with a door he could close) were paramount. Women’s working days were elastic: children and the elderly get sick; you sleep when and where you can. And when women didn’t have enough daylight hours to tend to this expansive and physically and emotionally expensive caring labor, they labored well into the night.
So, for generations at least, most women have been socialized to multitask, to prioritize, to take into account the needs of others through forced collaborations. It isn’t as though our magic vaginas make us “natural collaborators.” Rather, we’ve collaborated to survive, developing skill sets that enable the many activities that go into effective collaborations, resting when and if there’s time.
As a professional woman in the first half of the twentieth century, a woman who understood the nature of women’s work better than many, writer, producer, director, and actor Gertrude Berg remembered her grandmother’s work in the similar terms:
When I learned in school that Gaul was divided into three parts I remember thinking of my mother. My mother was divided into three parts. Or, even worse, she was three people – a wife, a worker, and a mother. I’m a wife, I’m a mother, and I’m also a worker but at least I have washing machines – one for the dishes and one for the clothes. To be a wife and a mother is a pleasure – to be a worker around the house I can do without. You want to know why? Because it never stops! If it’s not the dishes, it’s the beds, after the beds it’s the floors, and then the windows, then the furniture, then the clothes. And when you stop it’s only to rest up so you can start all over again in the morning. If that sounds like complaining, it is. (1961, 47-8)
Susan Faludi made a similar point in Stiffed, that women becoming the favored labor force of global capitalism isn’t cause for celebration. Maybe a feminized adaptability to shifts in work schedules and increased hours is generating more labor for corporations and institutions hungry to do more – and make more – with less and less? To paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, perhaps the End of Men discourse is nothing more than making a virtue of a necessity?