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Gender, the home, and how we define "work"

June 21st, 2010 | 4 min read

By Jake Meador

Cross posted at Notes from a Small Place. This post is part of an ongoing series of posts I'm doing regarding issues related to the body, gender, sexuality, and self identity. It will be going online later this week at Notes... but if you're interested in the conversation, you're welcome to stop by and join us. It's still pretty early so you haven't missed much!

One of the main arguments made by both Naomi Wolfe and Luce Irigaray is that a major area in which women are oppressed in our culture is that of work. In the past 50 years many women have joined the workforce, but their work load around the house has not lessened in any way. As a result women are now doing twice as much work as men (at least) while receiving payment for only half of that work. And the payment they do get is considerably lower than the wage a man would get for the same work.

These subjects routinely get book-length treatment. Indeed, a good many women's studies scholars have built careers on analyzing Irigaray's ground-breaking work. So I'm going to limit myself in this post to tackling the ideas of the home and work.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the conception of work within the family was radically different. Men and women alike worked in the home and often-times the home included a work space for the father to ply his trade. This meant that the typical 9-5 workday did not exist, the family's "work" was about far more than simply generating income, and the husband was just as present in the home as the wife. While opinions about the desirability of such an arrangement differ, both conservatives and liberals agree that the Industrial Revolution caused a sea-change in how families understood the relationship between work and gender.

With industrialization, men began to work outside the home. Additionally, the changes brought about by industrialization overlapped with the rise of Victorian culture, a culture whose sexual dysfunction gave us the terms "white and dark meat" (so they wouldn't have to say "leg" or "breast"), the rise of table-clothes (so they wouldn't have to look at something as scandalous as a table leg), and Sigmund Freud (self-explanatory). Within Victorian culture the factory work places for men were seen as base, vile, and devoid of any sophistication or civilization. A woman's job, therefore, was to make the home a place of domestic tranquility where men could retreat from the barbaric outside world and maybe even acquire some level of sophistication themselves. (It's not hard to see how we arrived at Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin when the Victorians are our starting point.)

Since men and women now worked in separate spheres with radically different roles in those spheres, we developed two divergent definitions for "work." For a man, work was what he did from 9-5 (or, before work reform bills, 7-7 or thereabouts) to generate an income for his family. A woman's work, meanwhile, happened in the home and was done with the goal of creating a domestic castle, a haven for a man to come to at the end of his exhausting day.

The point to focus on as it relates to Irigaray and Wolfe is this: There are two competing definitions of work on the table. One is done for monetary gain, one is done for a less tangible gain - the good of your family and the peace and viability of the home economy. If I'm understanding them correctly, Irigaray and Wolfe would have us all adopt the former definition. In their minds, work is only valuable if it receives monetary compensation. But I would argue that we ought to all adopt the latter definition of work. In an ideal scenario, husbands and wives would work out of their home together and all the tasks of the home economy - growing and preparing food, doing laundry, generating an income, cleaning, raising children, would be shared.

My fear is that Irigaray and Wolfe's solution actually exacerbates the problem. When I look at the issue of work the primary problem I see is not based in gender, but based in our understanding of "work." So when Irigaray and Wolfe propose that our solution concentrates on the issue of gender, I worry that they're not really solving the problem. In fact, if my intuition is correct that the real problem is our definition of "work," then they're making the problem worse. The problem is an industrialized definition of work as "what I do to make money." The cure is to redefine work as "what I do because I'm human."

Obviously, within this context we do need to have many conversations about the role gender plays in this issue. We do need to acknowledge inequitable work conditions for men and women. But I can't stand with Irigaray and Wolfe in suggesting that we fix the problem by making housework a job for which women receive monetary compensation. Besides the question of it's economic viability, that just reinforces the division between men and women, reinforces the notion that marriage is ultimately nothing more than two careerists sharing their resources for as long as they want before going their separate way. We'd be far better off to insist that all work is done for the good of those we love, that the work of generating income is no better or different than the work of preparing a meal for the family, and that all of the work should be shared amongst the family.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).