Tuesday, July 06, 2010

More on the variable humanity of women

The gradual integration of American women into "the world of work" is interesting to think about when we put the needs of business first.

How much of the post-war, "50's housewife" idea of modern womanhood was driven by the need for uncompensated labor in the home, as well as a new market in "housewife wares?" In addition, confining women to the domestic sphere let men go to work knowing that they were that much more like the boss than merely subservient to him. Identification with "the people that matter" is one of those perks that never costs Wall St. a dime! Men at least had that much going for them: Just think of how many times you've heard people gripe about women doing "men's work" -- like being president or something. Is there nothing men can hold onto as their own? Actually, this is less the case now that most jobs been homogenized to the consistency of "sucks," with the "man's job" evaporating in the process. Men are much more progressive about women in the workplace now!

It's funny to think about this period arising without an explicit business connection, as if the 50's housewife could exist without an advertising industry prescribing her every need. I don't think society came out of World War II with the belief that women needed dish detergent that was "delicate enough" for the female constitution: No, somebody just made the shit up, because they were being paid to persuade people to buy their crap. What happens when you have an industry of people getting paid to "make shit up" and then broadcast said shit by every popular means is you get a culture that reflects all this shit. And that's not really very surprising when you think about it. After all, no one else is in a position "define womanhood" in prime time quite like advertisers or the programming they endorse.

The economic benefit of relegating women to domestic work came out of a situation with a particular historical profile. The work women did was viewed as necessary, but not to be compensated. US business would make concessions to their husbands, to some degree, if they had to make concessions at all -- which they did, thanks to unionization. So you got a kind of racist, sexist compact between white men on the factory floor and white men in the office suites: Yeah, we'll pay you so you and your family can buy our whole line of explicitly gendered products -- so you have to buy two of everything, and so on.

What's interesting is how this whole 50's ideal of womanhood broke down. On the one hand, it was challenged by brave women, and whatever allies they had among men -- which in the 60's is kind of a sad story, and I think continues to be a sad story, but more about that later. Anyway, that was called "feminism." On the other hand, the requirements of American business were changing, because the whole economic landscape was changing. Technology was changing the way products were made, which in turn changed the relationship between the people making those products and the interests that employed them. The white man's compact starts breaking down, with employers seeing an opportunity to beat the "labor aristocracy" back to the status of undifferentiated "worker." If you ever wondered what the "angry white man" phenomenon was all about, and why you get these people who think white men are oppressed by affirmative action, etc., you have to think about it in terms of working class white men being betrayed by those bosses they thought they had so much in common with.

Jumping forward to the present day, an awful lot has changed, but we can still understand a good deal by identifying in business its prime directive, which is to make money for investors. What business produces under capitalism is money for investors: it produces capital. It happens to do this through commodity production and exchange; but the point of capitalism is not to make products we can all enjoy or be proud of. Sometimes it does this. But that is not its point, and we see this all time, in the many ways that our economy produces things that are actually quite harmful. Capitalism doesn't care, because its purpose is not to conform to public expectations, but to investor expectations.

The relationship between women and business has to be viewed in this light. There is a lot of interest right now, converging in a variety of ways, on the question of how women can be integrated into these economic institutions which only care about investors. And that's why you get these op-eds which ask, "Why should we care about women in business?" -- because in and of themselves, women are not compelling. Business is the priority, so how can women contribute to that? If you can produce some study which shows that women can make some special contribution to investors, well then you have everybody's attention. But it's very important that you avoid the language of "rights." Women don't have a "right" to participate in economic decision-making; investors have the "rights." Women have to sell themselves as accentuating investor rights -- that's how they "earn" a place at the table. So we have to remember how these institutions are designed, and what purpose they serve.

As a man, I come to feminism from a unique perspective -- not as a man who is somehow especially clued into women, but as someone who is solicited both by women and by interests inimical to women for allegiance one way or the other. Within feminism, there is a real benefit to understanding how the "other side" works on men, and women can't always see this. So men have something to bring to feminism, which is different from what women bring. They don't need to be the same thing; I don't really understand how they could be.

Feminism means that we want women to participate in business because we want women to be a part of social and economic life. In fact, if we believe that women are people, and subsequently have "rights," then women have a right to be there just as much as other people do. And this ties into the larger point, which is that communities should be participating in business, with "investors" diffused into "stakeholders," not crystallized as a class. This is what we mean by "classless": responsibilities are diffused. If we are faced with institutions that preference class rights over human rights, then we need to decide which rights are more important, and throw our allegiance behind them.


Jack Crow said...

I have a difficult time seeing the "participate in business" as anything but as an invitation to be bad to others, and call it work.

Regardless of the gender of the participant.

JRB said...

Well, we're accustomed to using the term "business" to mean work done on behalf of investors.

However, if work was done on behalf of other groups, like the communities in which "business" operates, the class implications are pretty straightforward, whatever people want to call it. Women are part of the community, so I don't have any problem supporting their preferences against those used by investors to exclude them.

Personally, I think there's reason to believe that the content of business is likely to change before we abandon the concept itself; it's just too ingrained in the culture -- not to mention the fact that there's nothing else to replace it. That's why you have to attack the content in ways that resonate with people's concerns. Most people aren't "anti-business," but they are pro- not destroying the planet, for example, so you have to present an argument which brings out the class character of what business does as presently constituted.

I say "you," of course, meaning me, in my conversations with whoever I happen to come across.

drip said...

Lending laws changed in the '70's to allow unmarried women to hold mortgages and use credit cards. Most people are "anti-bank" now, too. This is another way to to show the class character and content of business, and the social arrangements that seems to resonate.

ASP said...

Very interesting post, J.R. I read it yesterday and was mulling over this idea why women need to prove to investors that they will be better for business, why this resistance to women -- is it a reflection of a general attitude in society, or has it more to do with business, or what. I've come to the conclusion that the resistance stems from the fact that the capitalist system as a whole, if not every individual business, profits from continued inequality between women and men in the workplace -- because it makes women more exploitable, so it has interest that it remains so. On the one hand, inequality allows that women (who make up almost 50% of the workforce in US and UK) be paid less than men, on the other, it also allows bosses to demand from women more work and effort, to prove that they are equally valid as their male counterparts. (Women who've risen to higher positions, whether in business, politics, academia etc, often recount how they had to work much harder than their male colleagues to prove they're equally worthy of advancement.) So capitalism profits from perpetuating inequality and perserving women as a sort of working underclass, and this affects negatively not just women but men also, both directly and indirectly. Directly, because the more exploitable workforce will be more employable in times of recession, which means men will be more likely to loose their jobs, and indirectly because greater demands from women at work puts strains on the families, and consequently men in those families. So neither women nor men as a whole profit from the continuing inequality between women and men in the workplace (or in society, for that matter). In the end, what stands to gain most from this is the capitalist system itself. At least, that's sort of the conclusion I came about after thinking about this for a bit. I don't know. What do you think?

JRB said...

drip: The change in lending laws is also very interesting. I don't know enough about it: an alliance between feminists and big finance, perhaps?

ASP: I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to the question of how capitalism and patriarchy interact. They're both dynamic systems -- patriarchy even more so than capitalism, I think; it's not so limited by material contradictions, and reproduces itself in every age!

You've posed some good possibilities, very well thought out, relating to our present circumstances. Personally, when I assume the view of the typical manager, I think the conscious concern is going to be more about minimizing costs and disruption to my work group than seeing a positive opportunity in discrimination -- even if this amounts to the same thing in practice.

The explanations given by business as to why women don't rise to positions of influence is that they "choose" to put their careers on hold when they have children. The paradox for me is that business isn't so much opposed to treating men and women as equals as it is unwilling to respect their differences: it treats them as "equals" in spite of their very different situations. Men are the better investment because they don't face the same kind of conflicts in their professional lives, which in this case owe to their biology.

Of course, this ties into patriarchy in the broader society, since reproductive responsibilities are predominately placed on women -- not men, not business, and not society in general. Because capitalism just wants to assure that resources aren't diverted to any other purpose than capital, it doesn't want to be part of any effort shift responsibilities away from women, thus perpetuating discrimination.

Anyway, this is how I am thinking about it right now. I think all your points about how capitalism benefits from having women in a subordinate position are very much in play, and I suspect that is the end result of capital's perception that women pose an economic threat that men don't. If women didn't pose that kind of threat -- like if society took on some of the responsibility for human reproduction and women weren't faced with the choice between kids and career -- then it's an open question in my mind whether a two-tiered gender structure at work would be as pronounced. I suspect it's more of an opportunity capital is taking advantage of under the circumstances that prevail now, secondary to what is really driving those circumstances.

I hope this makes sense as a response to your thoughtful comment!

drip said...

I had always taken the looser credit laws to be an aspect of the expansion of consumerism, much as the opening of higher education to women was an expansion of the labor pool. My thoughts, however, lack the deliberate analysis you always present here. If I said more, they would lack the clarity.

ASP said...

J.R., that's more perceptive and insightful than what I was thinking about. Thank you.