New Internationalist

Sisterhood’s Success

Issue 090

The recent growth of the movement for women’s equality has been a bright light on the horizon of change. Wayne Ellwood uncovers the roots of the division between the sexes and charts the movement’s progress.

The fact that a man is writing this introductory article in a New Internationalist issue about the achievements of the women’s movement shows the fight for sexual equality still has considerable ground to cover.

Photo: Jill Posener
Photo: Jill Posener

If little real progress has been made over the last decade the issues are at least clearer. The goals of the movement - to escape the shadows of male dominance and hack away the ties of dependency - have been recognized in principle if not in fact. That in itself is a great success, but only a first step towards genuine equality. The discrimination and exploitation that women suffer is too bald and overwhelming to be ignored. In education, health, employment, decision-making and in the family the facts have been diligently documented, compiled, analyzed and published. In that sense our last issue covered familiar territory. The roots of women’s oppression are buried deep in a complex mix of myths about their rightful place in society. In Western countries the first important battles for the vote opened the door to demands for equal pay, equal rights and equal power. Within the family it has been taken for granted that women are ‘by nature’ better qualified to take charge of domestic duties - childrearing, housekeeping and all the sundry tasks between. The boundaries between men’s and women’s lives were strictly demarcated. She was to stay home, mind the kids and make sure supper was on the table; he was to take charge of the world outside - the ‘real world’ of industry, finance and commerce.

Photo: ILO
Women are more organized and more united in their demands for equality in the work force. Photo: ILO

That was the theory. In practise the division of labour between men and women was not only unnatural, it was in every sense of the word man-made. It had less to do with biology than with the new demands of the marketplace sparked by the industrial revolution. What had emerged was a totally new way of organizing work. Before industrialization, home and workplace were the same. Husband and wife had different responsibilities, but in general they worked together to produce what they needed to survive. Children were cared for by father and mother and other members of what was an extended family. When machines began to produce many of the goods produced in the home - whether foodstuffs, clothing or furniture - the sexes began to drift into isolated worlds. He was separated from the intimate routines of daily life; she became totally dependent on his earnings. Women found themselves confined to a kind of half-way house. They became consumers removed from producing any of the material necessities on which survival depends. In exchange for this dependency the jobs of housewife and mother took on a new status. Women were to be the spiritual and emotional glue to hold the ‘new’ family together. The division was enforced by powerful stereotypes. Women were portrayed as the moral caretakers of society and the hardworking defenders of the good and decent. ‘A woman’s work is never done,’ a man might nod. But at the same time ‘occupation/housewife’ became debased currency. Important, but not ‘real work’,

The economic importance of household work is undeniable. The home provides a private place of refuge and solace outside the world of cut-throat competition. Caring for home and children requires interminable hours of backbreaking, repetitive work and also huge amounts of patience, love and dedication. But it can also be tedious, petty, boring and isolated.

Even the rewards of raising children can be muted by the lonely chaos of a bleak Monday morning.

Photo: Mark Edwards
'Inivisible' work of Third World women Photo: Mark Edwards

In the Third World a similar division of labour between men and women is only now coming to a head, stimulated by Western ideas of economic growth. There is growing evidence that the introduction of cash crops like tobacco, sugar and bananas are benefiting men at the expense of women. Most of the best land is used by men while growing food to eat is women’s work. And though a wife may plant, fertilize, weed and harvest the crop, it’s her husband who gets the money at the end of the day. Family income may increase but ‘it requires more than a statistician to explain why nutritional levels fall while wristwatches, transistor radios and bicycles (all largely used by men) find their way into the household’, says economist Ingrid Palmer. And while tractors and combines make men’s work easier they can end up increasing labour-intensive work like weeding and transplanting, traditionally left to women. In Gambia, Ester Boserup discovered the average working week for women in agriculture doubled from 10 to 20 hours when modern techniques were introduced. Researchers from the International Labour Office found that family nutrition in Upper Volta decreased during the rainy season because women were exhausted from working in the fields. Modernization can also reduce a woman’s chances of making any cash off the land. Cheap machine-made clothes and crafts replace hand-made goods leaving another avenue for earning money blocked. In Indonesia and many African countries, women control much of the small retail trade. But even that is being gradually taken over by larger companies and government trading organizations.

The parallels between Western and Third World women are deeper than they first appear. What’s most striking is the same process of ‘domestication’ pinioning both in the household. But despite the barrage of propaganda floated to support the myth that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ the segregation has never been more than partially successful.

In rich nations working class wives, unmarried women and widows have always worked outside the home to support themselves and their families. But because men were considered the main ‘breadwinners’, women’s wages were seen as pin money - a mere supplement to a husband’s income. That assumption has been used to justify every kind of discrimination: women don’t need to earn the same wages as men; it doesn’t matter if they’re laid off; women’s education isn’t important because their real career is wife and mother.

So in the US women earn an average 40 per cent less than men. According to the OECD, even in jobs with a high proportion of female workers like textiles and clothing manufacturing, a woman takes home only three-quarters of a man’s pay cheque.

When labour is in tight supply and the economy booming women are recruited at lower wages to fill just about any job going. And when times are tough they’re the first to feel the squeeze - pushed back into the kitchen, or into part-time work or the dole queue. ‘Last hired, first fired’ is the familiar saying. They are unemployed out of all proportion to their place in the labour force. In Italy for example, in 1976 women were 60 per cent of the unemployed but less than a quarter of the work force.

The economic dependence of women on their husbands or lovers has been the primary focus of the women’s movement because that’s precisely where women’s inequality is felt most deeply. More and more women have decided to seek fulfilment in employment outside the home over the last three decades. And not just single women - there were nine times more working mothers in the US in 1975 than in 1945. It’s now the norm for both husband and wife to work outside the home. The hard economic fact that most women have to work has led to a shared understanding that they want to work -and finally that it is their right to work. Having scored that victory many women are questioning the nature of work itself in an industrial society. How can men take up their responsibilities in the household? And how can work outside be made more satisfying and humane?

Photo: ILO
Cleaning house - the bleak chaos of a silent Monday morning. Photo: ILO

Equal pay for work of equal value’ has been a rallying point for women in every Western nation. That basic demand has been followed closely by efforts to dismantle the walls that segregate them into job ghettos. Although more are working most still have to settle for low paid, low-status employment in traditional female jobs: office work, social work, nursing, teaching, child care, cleaning, sales clerks or textile workers. Closely linked to the struggle for economic equality has been the fight of women to understand and control their own bodies. ‘Reproductive rights’ - the freedom to choose whether or not to bear children - is a key demand of the women’s movement. Anti-abortion laws have been under attack everywhere with important victories in Italy and France. Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective has become a run-away best seller in half a dozen languages. Its popularity is a barometer of women’s drive for self-respect and the need to confront a male-dominated medical profession. Women who know their own bodies can accept them and move away from self-loathing. ‘If women are to be better valued by men, they must first value themselves more highly,’ says Germaine Greer. The separation of women from larger society has led to a virtual male monopoly of all the institutions of power - whether in law, politics, industry or the media. Feminists use the term patriarchy to describe that entrenched power. It’s a kind of shorthand, an abbreviation that ties together all the loose threads of a world run by and for men.

The image of woman as a sexual object to be manipulated, abused and degraded is closely linked to our patriarchal system where inequality and dependence are such crucial cornerstones. That’s why crimes of violence like rape, wife-battering and assault have prompted massive demonstrations by angry women. Groups like Women Against Violence Against Women have sprung up in many countries including Canada, the US and the UK. Rape Crisis Centres staffed largely by volunteers have appeared in dozens of cities. And pornography, a pernicious form of sexual debasement, has come under heavy criticism and debate.

Women’s growing sense of themselves as workers both inside and outside the home is strengthening their feeling of equality with men. In the Third World where the gulf between power and powerlessness, material prosperity and wholesale deprivation is greatest, the struggle of women to alter their lives has taken a slightly different twist. The primary focus is poverty and how to alleviate it. Yet even in these countries women are discovering that economic growth is insufficient for equality. In Guinea-Bissau, Stephanie Urdang writes of women’s understanding of ‘two colonialisms’ - the rule of the Portuguese and the more subtle domination by their own husbands.

For many men the women’s movement has been a crippling blow. Male self-image and the innate superiority we are bred to believe we possess are both threatened. So the quest for women’s equality demands that men re-evaluate themselves as well. It is forcing us to examine the basic power relationship within the family - the bedrock of all social relationships. It’s also leading us to develop deeper, more profound emotional ties with our children and to reassess our receptivity and openness to change.

In trying to understand male dominance we can come closer to uncovering the inequalities that exist elsewhere. Even admitting that women’s grievances are valid can be a painful realization. The relationship between the sexes is a foundation stone to larger social and economic structures. If one of the blocks is suspect, there is good reason to believe the whole building is tragically flawed.

Editor, Wayne Ellwood

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