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Inequality, Exploitation and Gender
As I write this account I am reminded of the continued salience of these issues in the popular mind; especially where feminism is concerned. Listening to Radio National in the morning on the Life Matters program I was earbashed by yet another smiling anti-feminist who pretends to be unable to understand why she is causing a fuss. She has discovered that fully 80% of women (in the United States) who are mothers of children under 18 years, would prefer to stay home as full time housekeepers or at least to work less than a full time job. How can feminists keep ignoring what it is that women so plainly want? She goes on to say that figures show that men whose wives are at home are earning more (as much as 50% more) than men whose wives are working; in fact the amount men are earning declines constantly as their wives take on more hours of paid work. Clearly we need to affirm women’s rights to stay at home and help their husbands to make a good career. The feminist movement has done a good job in giving women choices and the 20% of mothers who want to choose a career should go ahead and do so while the rest of us mothers go on doing what comes naturally!
I fulminated at home listening to this and came up with a few points in reply. Firstly, the main problem is the original survey. Of course people in general want to do less hours of paid work. Who wants to work for someone who is constantly telling you what to do and being paid a lot more than you are to boss you around? The survey question is very likely to provoke an answer to this implied question – how would you like to work fewer hours – and still get the same amount of income (which your husband will miraculously provide)? If you asked men the same question – how would you like to earn the same and work less hours you would probably have no trouble getting 80% yes to that question as well.
The reality is that 80% of mothers of children under 18 are not staying out of the labour market to be full time housewives. Why not? Because they think they need the money to live the lifestyle that they consider adequate. So, the woman answering the question holds that issue in abeyance – if she does not do this she cannot see the point of the question. The interviewees answer the question in an implied framework in which there are no monetary disincentives to staying out of the work force. Even then 20% of mothers say they would prefer to work full time and an unknown number say they would like part time work!
The second issue is this. Women in work are still paid less than men and generally have worse jobs. Then as well, looking after children and doing the housework is close to a full time job in itself – or more if the children are under five. The reality is that women who work are working what feminists have accurately referred to as the “double day”. Men do not take on the housework and childcare if women work and in fact their hours of housework hardly alter at all in relation to their spouses’ hours of work (Bittman). The obvious outcome is that most mothers are run off their feet and feel massively overworked (Darab). This is very far from a situation in which women and men share paid work and housework evenly. The massive discontent and sense of being exploited comes up in any study which starts to ask working women about these issues (Bittman and Lovejoy; Darab).
In this context it can come as no surprise that most women would like to do less work – assuming that there will be no financial cost to the household. Of course the hidden issue for women is that unless they maintain their work status through motherhood they lay themselves open to the poverty of single parenthood if the marriage fails – an extremely likely scenario in terms of divorce statistics. So again, no wonder some women would like to work less – if only they could guarantee that their husbands will remain loyal and that the marriage will continue to work for them. On Radio National the commentator blandly solves this problem by suggesting that women make pre-nuptial agreements with their husbands so that their dedicated service is financially compensated in the event of divorce. Well, pull the other leg really; it is hard enough to get ex-husbands to give the kids some emotional support after divorce, let alone pay out a decent alimony and childcare – and that is when the matter has been legally settled to the wife’s satisfaction.
All of this speaks to the failure of the feminist movement to achieve many of its most central objectives. The anti-feminist backlash always acts as though the feminist movement has been a great success and that we all go around now in fear and terror of stepping out of line according to some feminist party line. Well really. Most husbands do not seem to feel this pressure; they are not in fact sharing an equal amount of the housework and childcare when their wives are working. The women who are pressured into work despite the cost in harried time-poor lives are doing so because they do not have much of a choice – whether because they want a decent income for their household or because they want to retain some kind of economic power in their relationships. And of course, yes, women are doing so because of the pleasure of being part of the public world and having some influence, no matter how fraught this situation is in capitalist work places. The reality is that the central features of capitalist patriarchy are still operating despite some successes of the feminist movement. Women are still earning only about half what men earn over the whole life time. They are still effectively dependent on men’s earnings when the children are young. They are still doing the lion’s share of the unpaid work. It is no surprise in this situation that mothers can respond to a survey by saying they would like to do less than a full time paid job – they are far from reaping the benefits that men can get from their full time work.
But of course, the central theoretical issue raised by this kind of argument is whether it is possible for people to be “exploited” when they themselves believe that they are happy; that their choices are voluntary and that they are doing well under the circumstances. The other major sphere of social life where this question is pertinent is in relation to social class in late capitalism. Here as well, the very structures of society suggest that inequality is something that is chosen as giving the best possible outcome from a range of social options. In late capitalist rich countries everyone has the right to vote, and apparently chooses one of another pro-capitalist party rather than anything more radical – parties that want a revolution or anarchist movements are hardly flavour of the month with the populace. Most people seem to believe that capitalism is the best system possible and that egalitarian movements of the past have been proven to be ineffective at creating any kind of utopia. In fact the reverse – the attempt to create equality has been an unmitigated disaster whenever it has been tried out. In this context of opportunity, choices and support for the status quo how can sociologists speak of exploitation or inequality – though people may not choose their own station in life they nevertheless give their full support to the system that has allocated that position. No one hopes for the end to this system as such; only that they themselves might be lifted up. In this, capitalist democracies present themselves as making a radical break with class societies of the past – slaves of the ancient world and serfs of the feudal era were clearly exploited and did not choose their fate. We cannot say the same of today’s “citizens” of democratic societies.
Overall, I will argue in this chapter that the best answer to these questions is to develop a concept of exploitation that is robust enough to deal with situations where power, in the sense of a contest of wills and coercion of one party by the other, is seemingly missing.
One approach to inequality, which refuses to assimilate it to power exercized in a clash of will is the Weberian one. For Weber, inequality is a difference in life chances. He thinks “status” and “class” are mechanisms which allocate life chancese differently – what they have in common is an inequality in life chances. Like the concept of exploitation, Weber’s concept of differential life chances aims to allow cross cultural comparison of inequality and to deal with situations where power (as a clash of wills) is just one factor. To have poor life chances is not just, or only just, to be told what to do, but can be to have a boring and pointless work situation or a lack of adequate food and shelter or whatever. The concept of life chances is maybe a bit vague but it certainly does allow these kind of criteria to be brought into play.
An obvious objection to Weber’s theory is that the concept of unequal life chances suggests inequality could be measured across any social gap – the inequality of life chances between a Roman centurion and a United States janitor. But surely that is not what we are talking about as an inequality? What is assumed is some concept that we are all part of the same society – that unequal life chances are a social product.
Weber does indeed have something to say about this. My best analogy is that Weber treats society like a glass of mud and water mixed with sand, dry leaves, oil. You can stir it up and as it settles you will see the strata separate out – dry leaves on top, oil next, then water, mud, sand or whatever comes about! So there is something in every social order that takes the part of gravity in sorting the various strata in society. In other words, for stratification, life chances must be ordered socially into strata by some kind of social force that operates in society as a whole. Weber actually believes that in the broad sweep of history these come in two kinds. Most stratified societies are organized by social status; this implies a social order organized by an evaluative consensus so that those who are valued the highest (have the highest status) are the ones with the best life chances. This kind of idea informs later functionalist treatments of class. Inequality in life chances functions for the social good (we are told) and different kinds of society have different principles of evaluation by which they judge some people of more value and reward them (with life chances) accordingly. At least in this account the causality of this process is made clear. It is ordinary people who by their evaluative choices allocate life chances to the ones with highest status. But unlike later functionalists, Weber believes that status as a basis for stratifying life chances vanishes with the advent of capitalist societies. In this new social order, life chances are allocated by the market. So that performs the role of “social gravity” where capitalist societies are concerned.
My problem with Weber’s account can be stated in several ways. On the one hand it seems unlikely that capitalist societies are not stratified by status. Behind every system of status Marxists will tend to see a “ruling class ideology” – a set of ideas that allocates higher value to the ruling class in one way or another and functions to persuade people that the system of inequality is inevitable, the best that can be hoped for or the absolutely right way to do things, no questions asked! So in Feudal societies there is the “great chain of being” which leads from God down to the angels and then to the king and then the nobles and ultimately the peasants and from that to every blade of grass – with a few other steps in between. Not hard these days to see that as an ideological view of things. The rule of the king and nobility sanctified by an imaginary creator and friend to humanity.
Yet, as Marx famously points out, capitalist society and the market itself can be seen as a similar con game. He focuses on the purchase of labour power. People sell their labour to members of the capitalist class. This is not an option since the capitalist class owns the means of production which produce the goods which make material existence possible (food, housing and so on). In the great mythology which is capitalism, this exchange seems like an exchange between things of equal value. Just as the ratio of monetary exchange between apples and bananas can be seen as a fair ratio, so the ratio between hours worked and money paid in wages can seem fair. Marx takes this as ideology – actually in the hours worked the workers produce more value than they are paid. The difference in value is a surplus value. Capitalism mystifies itself as different from class societies of the past in which surplus product is tribute paid to the owners of the means of production (priests, lords, kings and the like) or a direct appropriation of the products of work produced by slaves, people owned as property (by slave owners, free citizens and the like). But actually it is not all that different. If we are comparing class societies on a broad spectrum we can see this capitalist ideological device as a kind of status – the greater wealth of the ruling class is mystified when it is portrayed as the result of a fair exchange and hence as not really an inequality at all, since at no point has any unequal exchange taken place. The ruling class has a “right” to its superior wealth, since they have earned it through fair exchange and anyone else can do the same, given the right market choices and the willingness to work hard. There is no doubt that adherence to this ideological view of things is at least part of what holds capitalist society together. In that way it is a “status” society itself, despite what Weber says about it.
The second problem with Weber’s account is that these different forms of social gravity (status and the market) just appear in the categorization of social inequality but their origin remains a mystery. But clearly, if we look at how Weber goes about his sociology in relation to other topics such mysteries are readily solved. In the Protestant Ethic, as I have explained, it is people acting as social groups, animated by particular ideas and interests, who produce social change. So if the market appears and dominates stratification, it must come about as the result of some similar process. Nor does it take long to find a set of historical events which fit the bill. There is the enclosure movement which deprived peasants of their access to common land and enclosed this land as privately owned – forcing peasant subsistence farmers into wage labour. There are the civil wars and revolutions that deprived the nobility of “monopolies” – in other words, of rights to make money through privilege of birth rather than the market. There is the protestant ethic itself which validated rights to wealth so long as they could be seen as the products of hard work in the context of a fair market exchange.
Yet if all this is true, why not have a concept of social inequality that refers to these social actions more directly? This is the concept of exploitation. Long term structured inequalities arise out of processes of exploitation, by which one group of people gets benefits from its interactions with another group, while they get losses. As E.P Thompson points out “classes” are made through social processes and actions; they cannot be seen as simple categories mapped onto some de-personalized abstract scaffolding of class positions. As Connell more recently argued, we need to get away from “categorical” models of class and adopt “generative” models. Class is a social reality generated by actions and maintained in constant and repetitive interactions.
How women “choose” their role – the standard reply to feminists
In 1990, Leonie Kramer, at that time head of English at Sydney University, reviewed the feminist sociological analysis of fairy tales as gender construction that had been carried out by Bronwyn Davies. Why is it, she wrote, that although parents and school teachers want to raise children in a non-sexist way, all their efforts are frustrated because girls seem “to be very much into being little girls, and boys into being boys”?
It does not occur to Davies or to those theorists she follows, that children (and the women they turn into) might actually enjoy being female – and be perfectly aware of the various roles they can play in their lives. They’re not as dumb as she might think.
The problem is Davies’ view that girls are trapped in their “supposed powerlessness”. It all comes back to the feminist conviction that “power resides in the male”. In fact, if we look at Henry Lawson’s stories of Australian pioneer existence they show women who are strong characters, like the drover’s wife. These were women who
… endured alongside their men, the hardship of pioneering life, bore nursed and educated the children and sustained the household.
There are of course, she admits, men who oppress women and women who oppress men. In fact men are a lot less powerful than is usually admitted. Women have weapons of their own:
… the courtly tradition of cruel, heartless women, torturing their unfortunate lovers into subservience.
We can suggest two arguments in this approach. In the first, it is suggested that the two genders both have spheres in which they exercise power. Women have sexual power over men and they have a powerful role in being the ones responsible for childcare and domestic work. How can we say that the spheres in which men exercise power are more significant than these feminine spheres of power? How can we compare power across different spheres of authority? Surely it makes more sense to throw up ones hands and just to admit that power is variably exercised depending on the context. This is the first argument. The next is to reinforce this suggestion by arguing that women actually prefer their feminine role. How is this possible if women have less power than men?
Oakley – acceptance of the housewife role
In going on to look at the way feminists actually deal with these conundrums I will be taking Ann Oakley’s early second wave study of housework as a primary source (1974). To begin this discussion let us note that Oakley gives evidence to support at least some of Kramer’s premises, though in other ways her research refutes this position. She interviewed 40 London housewives, staying at home with children under five years old. The general tenor of their discussion of their roles showed much discontent:
Seventy per cent of the women interviewed came out as ‘dissatisfied’ in an overall assessment of feelings expressed about housework during the course of a long depth interview. (Oakley 1974: 182)
Despite this there was a generalized acceptance that “being a housewife” was the right thing for women to be doing and the role that as women, they preferred. They made a distinction between the daily practice of housework, which they disliked, and the role of the housewife as part of their psychological identity as women.
Women locate their orientation to the housewife role within the context of a general view of feminine and masculine roles, according to which the place of each sex is clearly and differently defined. (Oakley 1974: 185)
These views were clearly revealed when interviewees were asked a question about the possibility of roles being reversed, with their husbands doing the housework and childcare while they went out to work. They were very negative about this option. Thirty of the forty women rejected this option. Some typical responses from women in various class positions were the following:
Oh, that’s ridiculous – it’s up to the woman to look after the kids and do the housework. It wouldn’t be my idea of a man. I think a man should go out to work and a woman should look after the house.
I certainly wouldn’t like to see my husband cleaning a room up. I don’t think it’s mannish for a man to stay at home. I like a man to be a man.
Oh no, I wouldn’t think nothing of that – I’d say he was a henpecked husband. They should help but not take over. (Oakley 1974: 156)
This negativity was extended to feminism as a social movement. Eight had not hear of the feminist movement (this was in 1971). Other interviewees were generally negative. For example an ex-secretary married to supermarket manager responded as follows when asked whether she had heard of the “women’s liberation movement”:
Yes, I have. I agree with some of their ideas, but I think they’re going a bit far. I don’t think women were made to be completely equal. Most of us like to be feminine, and feel that someone is going to give up a seat on the bus for us!
A plasterer’s wife was even more trenchant on this topic:
I think it’s ridiculous. Well, I always think it’s a man’s place to be head of any family, and what they’re trying to do is put the woman up above the man and it’ll never work. It’s degrading to the man, isn’t it? I mean the way it stands at the moment, a woman’s not degraded by being the level she is – I mean, I don’t feel degraded because my husband goes out and earns a higher wage than what I do. (Oakley 1974: 190)
As you can see, Leonie Kramer could have a field day with such interviewees and it is amazing that feminists have persisted despite such lack lustre support from the women whose exploitation they aim to relieve. Before I go on to detail the ways in which Oakley constructs a picture of social inequality from such unpromising material I will engage in a brief theoretical diversion to present some ideas which were being floated at the same time to explain how capitalism can be considered exploitative despite public support in all the rich countries.
Stephen Lukes’ Radical View of Power
I will not go into Lukes’ own view very thoroughly. As the reader will become aware I solve the problems with these issues somewhat differently. Nevertheless it is a very good starting point. He distinguishes various dimensions of power. What he calls a “one dimensional view of power” is that which was enunciated fairly clearly by Weber.
A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. (Lukes 1974: 11-1)
This is the view of power implicit in Kramer’s discussion and in all similar arguments of the anti-feminist backlash. How can women be oppressed by men when most women are doing exactly what they prefer to do? As Lukes points out, this is all very well but according to the Marxist concept of ideology, it is typical of ruling classes to dominate the sphere of production of ideas as well as the production of material objects. This puts them in an ideal position to promote ideas which, when they are effective, convince the working class (or in this case women) that their own interests are best served by the system of inequality that exists. As later Marxist writers following Gramsci have pointed out, this makes working class adherence to ruling class ideas seem a bit stupid and it seems hard to combine this disrespect with a supposed project to liberate the working class (or women). What these later writers point out is that there is a combination of ideas derived from the ruling class with an understanding of the realities of daily life and the constraints of the situation that already exists. “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” is on the one hand a slogan that masks the exploitation of the capitalist system but can also be a sensible strategy to get on with things under the conditions that exist now. In any case, this is the way Lukes describes this second dimension of power, where A exercises power by shaping B’s actual wants:
… is it not the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they can accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural, and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial. (Lukes 1974: 24)
So in relation to Oakley, what she is arguing is that it is an ideology of patriarchal society that the domestic and public roles in a family are split by gender and that one role is that of the leader and the other that of the follower. The idea that this is “naturally” ordained, which comes through so strongly in her interviews, is a perfect example of what Lukes is talking about. This is an ideology that actually benefits men as a power block. Its hegemony in society at large and with women in particular is an effect of patriarchy which has had plenty of time and resources to convince women that no other arrangement can work and that resistance will be futile.
This is all very well but what we also need to look at is how we can define an inequality of power if it is not going to be defined in terms of a clash of wills with one party being forced to accept what they do not want? When this is absent what do we mean by inequality? Lukes resolves this problem to his own satisfaction by supposing a philosopher’s hypothetical choice. If the oppressed knew what were the real options and what they could gain by another arrangement they would surely see through these ruses of the powerful and demand a better deal. An inequality exists when this hypothetical situation can be truly said to exist – a situation in which there would be a clash of wills if only the oppressed understood (as the social analyst must) the real possibilities for change. I do not know about anyone else but to me this solution seems to just float into air like a puff of smoke. Surely there is something more robust than this. What is the social scientist actually looking at when they are trying to work out whether this hypothetical situation exists? What makes the social scientist decide that, if people truly knew what the options were, they would understand that they were being ripped off?
Second wave conceptualizations of gendered inequality
What we can find in Oakley and other feminist writers of the second wave is a much more grounded response to these issues. Since this is a book of social theory I am going to gloss this response as a combination of the analyses of Weber and Marx in their very different theorizations of inequality. But of course it actually came out of the work of consciousness raising groups and the interview studies conducted by feminist sociologists coming out of that experience. What this theorization takes from Weber is the idea that inequality is an inequality of life chances. I am going to argue that it makes sense to specify these a lot more clearly than Weber ever does. Life chances relate to the old set of desires and capacities that make up human nature that I have already spoken of. To have good life chances is to realize the desires and capacities that make up human nature. And here is the crunch in terms of the anti-feminist backlash. To get what you want at any given time is just one of the desires which make up human nature – it is the desire for autonomy. A picture of inequality or “power in general” must take into account the satisfactions and frustrations of all the basic desires of human nature.
So that is the first part of the theory. From Marx comes the idea that inequality involves exploitation. Marx discusses this as “surplus product” – the idea is that the hard work of the oppressed class produces a surplus which they do not use themselves but which is appropriated by the ruling class – without any equivalent return. Feminists generalize this account of exploitation to take all the satisfactions of human nature into the picture. Patriarchal exploitation takes place when men get their satisfactions through activities and situations that work to the disadvantage of women – and there is no equivalent return. So women produce a surplus of satisfaction that is appropriated by men. It is the detail of this account that feminist works of the early second wave and sociological works following in these footsteps emphasize. There is a categorization and cataloguing of the disadvantages suffered by women across a whole range of pleasures that adds up to a picture of inequality and exploitation even when women declare that the situation as a whole is what they prefer, or expect or what nature makes inevitable.
As always with grand theory I am going to retrofit the discussions of these issues in the literature to fit the procrustean demands of my analysis! Using Oakley’s work as an example I will detect a discussion of the basic pleasures of human nature in reference to at least some of the following:
- creativity and its frustration in boredom and monotony
- sexual pleasure and its absence or frustration
- social pleasures such as friendship and respect and their opposite in stigma, isolation, enmity
- physical comfort and health and its absence in pain, cold, hunger, sickness
- autonomy or getting what you want and its opposite in coercion
As emphasized in other chapters, these are broad categories and their delineation is socially specific – so the realization of any pleasure is always an admixture of autonomy with the basic desire. It is satisfying one’s basic desire for food, sure, but it is also having what you have been brought up to enjoy as a meal. What is the extent of the re-writing I am about to perform? Well, definitely writers of this early second wave do not defend their analysis in terms of human nature. On the other hand, the unpacking of this idea in relation to issues like autonomy, creativity, isolation and the like is certainly present. As are terms such as “oppression” and “exploitation” or synonyms.
The housewife role as exploitation
As a lack of autonomy
As indicated above, Oakley makes a general comment about her interviewees – they are “dissatisfied” with housework. Seventy percent expressed this feeling in a long in depth interview. This is a generalized lack of autonomy. The implication is surely that these women are not getting what they would like out of housework. So, although they also argue that this is a preferable role for women, this understanding of the appropriate social order is tempered by a personal sense of dissatisfaction. What also must be mentioned in this regard is that one of the few things that the interviewees liked about housework was the fact that they organized their own time. Compared to paid work, there was no one telling them how to spend every minute of the day. On the other hand, much about the interviews implied that housewives did not feel that they had the option not to do the housework, or even to lower their standards below a certain point that they considered necessary. In that way, there is a feeling of being compelled even though that is not necessarily coming from any particular other person. A lorry driver’s wife expressed this as follows:
Why do I clean the kitchen floor twice a day? Well, it’s because she’s all over it, isn’t it? I mean it’s not nice to let a child crawl on a dirty floor – she might catch something off it. (Oakley 1974: 44)
An ex-computer programmer expressed a similar viewpoint:
The worst thing is I suppose that you’ve got to do the work because you are at home. Even though I’ve got the option of not doing it. I don’t really feel I could not do it, because I feel I ought to do it. (Oakley 1974: 44)
There is a sense that housework has to be done and the lack of autonomy comes out of the fact that they are the ones who have to do it; there is no way out:
It’s not that anyone’s going to whip me if I don’t do it – but I know there’s going to be double the quantity tomorrow, so really I’m just beating my own brow.
Six of the housewives mentioned this dimension of their role as the worst thing about being a housewife:
Having to get up every morning … you think ‘Oh heck I’ve got to do the place today and I’ve got to do the dinner’ – that’s something I can’t stand, thinking I’ve got to do the dinner. (Oakley 1974: 44)
Oakley clearly treats this as an issue of autonomy. The housewife:
… is exempt from supervision but not wholly free to choose her own activities. (Oakley 1974: 44)
Another issue of autonomy clearly revolves around the extent to which husbands tell their wives what to do. The results of the study are not entirely clear on this point. There are some obvious examples of patriarchal authority normalized and taken for granted. Two cases were in reference to decisions about how many children a couple should have; clearly an issue of great significance for the interviewees:
Tony says we won’t have any more. Number one reason it keeps me tied to the home too much. When people say to me ‘when are you having the next one’ he says to them ‘Mary’s not standing behind a kitchen sink for the rest of her life’. (Oakley 1974: 168)
The sense that the husband is making this decision without any question of his right to do so is remarkable. In the next case the wife presents her decision as more of choice to do what the husband wants:
My husband wanted more children. I was content with two. People kept telling me ‘you’ve got one of each, you don’t need any more’. But I think I should think of my husband first, and I thought, ‘well, if I’m going to have them, I’m going to have them when I’m young.’ (Oakley 1974: 169)
In other examples Oakley writes of women whose husbands refused to change nappies or set standards for the housework that their wives were expected to do. But there were also some examples of the reverse; of wives persuading husbands to some course of action or other.
So far this is a somewhat mixed picture of issues of autonomy. Firstly, the interviewees of Oakley’s study for the most part “choose” or at least “accept” their role. What I mean is that they think that it is necessary for someone to do almost all the housework and stay home without an income to look after young children and that it should be the woman, not the man. This fits exactly with Lukes’ analysis in so far as gender inequality is naturalized to the point where those who are oppressed have come to see their situation as good or at least inevitable.
However beyond this there is a lot of discontent with many aspects of housework – so these particular tasks and situations are not liked and in this they do not fit the will of the interviewees. There is a certain amount of autonomy in the daily experience of work as a housewife; at least in comparison with other jobs. On the other hand, housework itself, up to a certain standard which is clear to the interviewee as a social norm, is experienced to be obligatory – it has to be done whether you like it or not and it is your responsibility as the wife to do it. Finally in conflicts of will between husbands and wives, husbands usually dominate and often this is totally normalized even in relation to issues which have a primary impact on the wives themselves – however there are certainly cases where wives get what they want or where husbands do not make demands.
Of course what I have left out here – mainly because it does not feature directly in Oakley’s account – is that within the framework of capitalist patriarchy it is men’s control of money which is the primary means of enforcing their will in relationship to women and in gaining a relative advantage from their transactions with women as wives. As noted by second wave feminist sociologists such as Heidi Hartmann, Delphy and Leonard, and Pateman, while wives are staying at home looking after the house they are not being paid. In Oakley’s study these women were found to be doing an average of 77 hours of work a week (housework) while husbands were doing about 50 hours (paid work and travel to work) at most. But of course the husbands are being paid a wage for their work. This is autonomy in the sense that husbands command the labour of others indirectly when they use their money to buy things. In relation to their wives it is authority in the sense that women are economically dependent on their husbands; the economic consequences, even after the single parent benefit, are much more severe for wives if they separate than for husbands. On average, in the whole life course, taking absences from the labour market with low wages for women, women are earning only half of what men are getting. Looking at this as a transaction between husbands and wives, women are working 77 hours a week and doing this are enabling their husbands to gain all the autonomy that a wage allows them; while they get nothing in return except for board, lodging and whatever else the husband in question thinks is a fair thing, so long as the marriage holds together. The transaction is producing a surplus of autonomy that is being appropriated by men. Both are carrying out (more or less unpleasant) tasks that are necessary for the good life of the couple but only the husband is being rewarded with a wage for this work.
This is a structural institution of capitalist patriarchy; a kind of inequality and exploitation that is unique to this form of patriarchal society, created through various historical events and processes from the seventeenth century onwards that are quite readily traced (Hartmann, Weinbaum). Although this situation has been set up through various political and social acts by men in the past it is now institutionalised as a social fact that appears completely natural. The financial disadvantage that women experience through staying out of the labour market to do housework is so much taken for granted that remedies are always couched in relation to women spending more time in paid work or making a choice to accept this financial inequity for the sake of the “good life” of the couple and the well being of the children. That domestic work and childcare is socially necessary and should be rewarded with autonomy comparable to that coming out of paid work seems completely utopian in this context.
So autonomy is a complex issue here. On the one hand there is no clash of wills setting up the conditions for the inequality to be called an inequality in power according to Weber’s definition. Yet there are also many ways in which the situation advantages husbands in terms of autonomy at the expense of their wives. What Oakley also does, and in this her analysis fits with much of the writing of the second wave, is to detail a vast list of other ways in which women’s work as housewives frustrates their human capacities and is in relation to this correctly seen as “work”, which is exploited by the husbands, who are the other side of this transaction. I will now go on to these matters.
An absence of creative pleasure in work
There are several issues that touch on the experience of housework as work. First, that housework is experienced as work, which I will take to mean that it is regarded as unpleasant; the opposite of leisure. The second monotony. The third fragmentation and the fourth excessive pace. It is Oakley’s intention to compare these responses with those of industrial workers questioned about the problems of their work. I am going to take it that all these responses relate to the human capacity for creative enjoyment in work. They reflect the absence of this enjoyment and are what Marx talks about as an alienation from work.
In comparing their own situation with that of their husbands, the interviewees did not hesitate to describe their own activities as “work” and argued that their work was actually harder than the paid work their husbands were doing. Part of the reason for this is the longer hours they are working compared to their husbands:
Housewives work harder. My husband’s always coming home and saying ‘Oh I sat down and talked to so-and-so today, or ‘we had a laugh today with so-and-so …’ I don’t do that, I never sit down.
I always say it’s harder, but my husband doesn’t say that at all. I think he’s wrong, because I’m going all the time – when his job is finished … Sunday he can lie in bed till twelve, get up, get dressed and go for a drink, but my job never changes. (Oakley 1974: 45)
Dislike of the actual work of housework as boring was a common complaint. When asked, “Do you find housework monotonous on the whole”, thirty of the forty respondents said “Yes”. A cinema manager’s wife and a toolmaker’s wife expressed this feeling:
I like cooking and I like playing with the children, doing things for them – I don’t like basic cleaning. It’s boring, it’s monotonous.
It’s the monotony I don’t like – it’s repetitive and you have to do the same things each day. I suppose it’s really just like factory work – just as boring. (Oakley 1974: 81)
So housework is experienced as a frustration of creative capacity and hence as boredom. Yet of course, it seems a bit grandiose to claim this as inevitable and part of human nature – as though no human being could ever find housework as anything other than boring! Or that this comes from its repetitiveness, with the implication that a repetitive task done every day must be experienced in this way. Clearly there can be a meditative stillness in a well known repetitive and necessary task. Yet this kind of mood could well depend on a life taken as a whole in which there is a sense of creative control; the repetitive task being seen as part of a whole picture in which creativity is expressed. But such is not the case here. What is expressed is a sense of being trapped in the mundane and meaningless. Along with this are expressions of extreme dislike of particular aspects of housework. Three quarters of the sample had a negative reaction to ironing:
I loathe ironing. It’s just standing there, and you take one [garment] from the pile and stick it on the ironing board and iron it, fold it, and put it down, take the next one – and it’s as though it’s never going to end.
It’s a boring job – ironing. Moving the iron back and forth the whole time. (Oakley 1974: 49-50)
Another disliked task was washing up – 70% had a negative attitude:
It’s never ending. You’ve no sooner done one lot of washing up than you’ve got another lot, and that’s how it goes on all day.
If you could have paper things … sometimes it seems to be putting out fresh plates, eating off them, washing them, and then putting them out again … some days you seem to be at it all day long. (Oakley 1974: 50-51)
Social pleasures and stigma
Another human capacity that Oakley’s discussion touches on constantly is the capacity for and enjoyment of social pleasure. This desire is frustrated firstly by the low prestige of housework. Some housework tasks are themselves experienced as low status and denigrating in themselves. An ex fashion model attacked washing up as follows:
I hate it. I dread it. I just can’t bear mucking around with dirty greasy things. (Oakley 1974: 50)
Another discussion commented on their husbands’ failures to do those jobs that are socially regarded as demeaning and stigmatizing. One question asked whether a husband would change a baby’s nappy. Replies indicate the low status of the task and that of the gender that performs it:
No! He absolutely refuses. He says ‘no thank you, goodbye, I’m going out!’ If I’m changing a nappy, he runs out of the room, it makes him sick. He thinks its my duty. (Oakley 1974: 154)
You’re joking! He says ‘I’m not doing that – it’s a woman’s job.’ (Oakley 1974:50)
The interviewees also commented on the way that their work was not appreciated. A shop manager’s wife commented on cleaning as a task:
… just like working in a factory – you dust the same thing every day and it’s never appreciated. I mean I could get this whole place so tidy and the kids come home from school and it’s like a bomb’s exploded and nothing’s appreciated about it, whereas if you’re decorating or teaching children there’s something always gained out of it. (Oakley 1974: 51)
A large part of the sample (24 of 40) said that their husbands only commented negatively on the housework and they were never appreciated:
I think if you haven’t done something, it’s noticed. That’s always true isn’t it? I mind. I once said to him ‘if you can’t pay compliments, don’t insult’. I think they should do both. (Oakley 1974: 105)
These feelings were generalized to a broader understanding that housework was not appreciated by society as a whole. In other words, they were not being given social pleasure by having their work, necessary as it is, appreciated and esteemed by other people:
I only think of myself as a housewife when I have to fill up a form. Sometimes I’d like to put something a bit more interesting. I think it’s a menial sort of job – people look upon it like that. (Oakley 1974: 47)
I think of myself as a housewife, but I don’t think of myself as a cabbage. A lot of people think that they’re housewives and they’re cabbages; I don’t like to think I’m only a housewife … I usually say ‘I’m a wife and a mother and I’ve got a part-time job’. People look down on housewives these days. (Oakley 1974: 48)
Another frustration of the capacity for social pleasure is the social isolation of the housewife in the home; clearly a central issue in how every aspect of housework is experienced. This exclusion from social life and the absence of even the company of other women is something unique to capitalist patriarchy. Being forced to occupy this role in the social order is a key part of what makes up the exploitation of women in capitalist patriarchy. Another text of early second wave feminist sociology “The Captive Wife” by Hannah Gavron (date) explored this with interviews that concentrated on this problem for mothers with young children. Oakley’s interviews also turned up much relevant to this. Twenty two of the women said that they felt on their own too much of the day. However there were actually some quite different patterns of social connection; many would only see one or two people in a week while others would see two or three in the course of a day. I will take three interviewees who felt very isolated first and then one who did not:
Although I’m quite happy to be indoors and getting on with my work – I don’t say I’d be outside gallivanting everywhere – it’d be nice to know people. I’d like just to pop round to my sister’s – that sort of thing … The only person I really see is my neighbour next door. I suppose I see her once or twice a week – she comes in for a cup of tea, or I go to her. She’s got one child at school. My other neighbour’s working. I don’t like this area at all – you just don’t know people. My mother comes once a week for the day. She phones me every other day. I look forward to my husband coming home in the middle of the day – it makes a break, breaks the day up. Normally I don’t see anyone till my husband comes in – it is lonely really. When I first got married I got terribly depressed, because coming from a big family there was always something going on at home. I somehow regretted getting married at first. I couldn’t get used to it at all. I used to hate coming home here. I’d wait till he came home, and then go to my mother’s … it sounds childish, doesn’t it. (Oakley 1974: 89)
(Do you ever feel you’re on your own too much in the daytime?) Yes. The last couple of months it’s been dragging: you feel ‘I wish I could talk to somebody’ … not knowing anybody else you tend to get this feeling that unless you go out and talk to someone you’ll go stark raving mad …
(Do you ever feel you’re on your own too much in the daytime?) Yes. Very often. I could be murdered here and no one would know. When the milkman comes it’s an event. (Oakley 1974: 91)
It is worth noting that not all interviewees experienced this kind of isolation:
I suppose I have a friend in to tea nearly every afternoon – that is, a friend with children. We come back from fetching the children together, and then she’ll stay till about 6.30. I get tea for all the children. Then there’s a friend next door I see an awful lot – every day certainly. My children play in her garden. About twice a week I go to lunch with a friend, and again about twice a week I have someone to lunch here. (Oakley 1974: 89)
This interviewee also takes a neighbour shopping on a regular basis, takes her daughter to dance lessons and is a member of a young wives’ group that meets every fortnight!
Oakley gives a number of explanations of the isolation of these mothers. One is that for most of them their most likely contacts are with their kin. Without a car, they have little chance of taking their children across town to visit relatives. Waiting till the husband comes home and then going out to visit by themselves while the husband minds the children is seen as putting “too much strain” on their marriage. From my own experience being a volunteer at a counterculture child care co-op in the seventies I could say that two issues made this solution unlikely for women from other backgrounds – the difficulty of getting access to a public space to conduct social relationships between a number of mothers and their children. We squatted in a disused house with a large block next door for outdoor play. The other is unwillingness to trust unrelated women to mind your children. Today I am writing this in Bali where a young Balinese wife is looking after two children under five and has few social contacts during the day. The husband is absent from 7 am till 10 pm at night – working. I am struck by how isolated this is compared to traditional village life for women in Bali. The same factors that Oakley talks about are operating. The suburban house in town is separated by an impossible transport gap from kin ties.
More broadly this is an aspect of capitalist patriarchy in so far as it initiates and institutionalises the separation of home from work. Each household is its own economic unit and competes with every other household to maintain or enhance its economic position; a situation symbolized by the family home, established wherever work or housing is available to represent the economic level and capacity of the couple, rather than near to kin or friends of the housewife. While this is an institution of capitalism, the assignation of women to this lonely domestic role is an aspect of patriarchal oppression; an exploitation of women’s lives that works to the interests of men who are enabled to earn money, to participate in the public sphere and gain at least some social contact in their daily work experience.
Clearly, the great majority of Oakley’s interviewees saw their housewife role as both natural and inevitable. So we cannot readily see this inequality as oppression, with an underclass ready and willing to throw off their shackles, but forced by superior power to kneel.
On the other hand we can regard it as exploitation related to three aspects of human nature. There is a surplus product of pleasures produced by wives and appropriated by their husbands. For both sexes, a certain amount of the week is spent in what is defined as “work” – something regarded as necessary to live adequately, but largely unpleasant. As noted above, Oakley found the average hours of work of women to be 77 compared to 50 worked by husbands, meaning that we could regard the couple as having to do 132 hours of work. If both were appropriating the products of this work equally (a comfortable house, socialized children, goods and services bought with money) an equal exchange would be 66 hours of work each. Beyond that, wives are doing another ten hours that is appropriated by their husbands.
Further to that, we can note other aspects of this situation in detail that spell out what is “unpleasant” in particular about the work of women.
In regards to autonomy, a glaring difference is the way men’s 50 hours of work allow them a control of money and thereby of access to the work of other people. Women’s 77 hours of work is not financially compensated, and does not produce any kind of access to what other people have produced. This produces dependence on their husbands for financial support, a massive difference in life chances and autonomy that arises out of the way these two kinds of work are tied into larger social structures. These differences in autonomy are reflected in the power of husbands to make decisions in their families and control even such things as the number of children that the couple will raise. Beyond this are all the ways in which interviewees spell out the sense that what they are doing is not what they want to do, what they enjoy, what makes it work, a loss of autonomy. They stress the sense that what they are doing is necessary and has to be done regardless of whether they want to do it or not. Clearly, and as is often said, paid work in a capitalist economy is no picnic either, but wives want to stress that what they are doing is equally work. In other statements, they suggest that it is actually worse than paid work.
These comparisons are strongly made in reference to the monotony of housework as a task. Housework is claimed to be a denial and frustration of the desire to express yourself creatively. It is monotonous and is experienced as such. Whereas the work done in paid labour can be monotonous, these interviewees stress that their work is almost invariably monotonous, there is little diversity. Clearly such comparisons depend on the kind of paid labour with which housework is being compared, but some of the previous jobs of these interviewees certainly allowed a lot more creative expression than they are finding in their housework; similarly many of the jobs undertaken by their husbands are more interesting than housework.
These comparisons of tasks also relate to social pleasures and social stigma. The loneliness of housework is compared to the social contacts that most jobs, and men’s leisure pursuits, allow. For example, interviewees talk about how their husbands come home talking about social contacts they have had during their day, about how their husbands go out for a drink while they are tied to the house and so on. In relation to social stigma, interviewees perceive being a housewife as a very low status task; being a housewife is seen as being a “cabbage” by society at large. Particular tasks are regarded as especially demeaning – cleaning greasy dishes or changing nappies – and these are just the kinds of tasks which husbands are least likely to carry out in their “helping”.
It is this complex picture of tasks and detailed comparison of work that creates an overall picture of the relationship between husbands and housewives as an exploitation in relation to central desires of human nature. The surplus product comes about because the work being done is not equivalent – women are doing more hours of work and less pleasant work to contribute to the shared life chances of the couple. Furthermore the rewards coming out of their two working lives are unequal; men are getting benefits from their work that have no equivalent for their wives.
This is just one example of early second wave feminist analysis of inequality. In similar analyses, authors compared men and women’s paid work (Game and Pringle), looked at the media reinforcement of men’s high status and powerful role in society (Millett), and analyzed sexual transactions which gave women less sexual pleasure than their male partners, were unwanted or did not express respect or affection (Koedt; Hite).
What is the site of household exploitation?
An objection to the detailed analysis of housework considered above is to point out that the benefits men are getting out of their paid work do not come about because of the surplus extracted from their wives. A man living alone will still be getting an income in paid work. The income of the married man cannot be regarded as a surplus product of the wife’s work in the way that cooked meals can be.
This is a tricky issue and one response is to say that the picture of exploitation drawn here through a study of household labour is only one aspect of a more comprehensive picture of patriarchy in some part of contemporary society. We could deal with this by treating the household transaction itself as a separate exploitative transaction – and putting to one side the question of paid work. Men and women are doing an unequal quantity of household work. In fact in Oakley’s account men are doing very little at all. Both parties are sharing the benefits of this household work and childcare. This is the nature of the exploitation. Yet this is not a very satisfactory solution since what is generally understood is that the husband’s work brings income to the family and is exchanged for the household work of the wife, leading to a complementary supply of life chances for the couple. To consider this, it becomes necessary to look at the nature of this transaction too, as I have attempted above. If this is the nature of the exchange, the husband is working fewer hours to provide the life chances of the couple, his work is more social and usually more creative, and it comes with the added bonus of effective and even legal power over the shared income of the couple – a great advantage in terms of the autonomy of the husband vis a vis his wife.
Of course what also makes sense is to try to get more of a handle on the extra-household aspect of the transaction and its connection to an overall pattern of exploitation. For a start, even at the level of the individual couple, the woman’s work at home can be considered to enable the husband to pursue paid work and to get a well paid full time job. So her household work and childcare is exploited to enable the husband to gain access to the labour market in a way that she cannot. So we can consider his access to the labour market as part of the surplus product that her work produces for him. But what about the man living alone? He has access to this paid work despite the absence of a surplus product of household labour. Well, for a start, it is actually not that easy to replicate men’s access to the labour market without support for childcare – single mothers are notoriously overworked and impoverished. Even single men living alone have been raised by mothers.
But more broadly, it is useful to note this process as part of an institutional structure of contemporary rich country patriarchy. It cannot be theorized without going outside the exploitative relationship of the couple by itself and looking at how this all operates as a social and political process at large. As has been observed, men establish patriarchal power by operating as a class. In other words, by operating politically with other men in various combinations to secure power and enable the exploitation of women. The household operates as part of a cycle. The power of the head of the household and the commitment of women to household labour reduces women’s political participation (their ability to change the rules of the economic game) and their access to the labour market. This leads to lower pay for women, which leads to dependence on men which in turn leads to less power in the household and more household labour. This can be regarded as an ongoing process but it is also a historical account of the creation of capitalist patriarchy (Hartmann; Weinbaum). Men made use of the power which they had already established in previous modes of production to ensure that men would be paid more in capitalist industry. They made use of trade unions and organization through parliament (a cross class alliance of men) to create the conditions in which the power of men in households that had been established in feudal society was translated into power in the new capitalist market economy. They organized actively to prevent a situation where the rational interests of the capitalist class in paying workers according to productivity was overturned and instead instituted an economically irrational gendered differentiation of pay rates.
What we can say about this overall is that men made use of the social and household institutions of patriarchy established during feudal patriarchy. This was a process of enacting decisions that served them more than women – a case of the the exercize of power in its most obvious Weberian meaning – where power means being more likely to get what you want. They used this to establish a situation of exploitation; a set of unequal transactions in which women produce a surplus product of pleasures for men – in autonomy, sexual satisfaction, regard, affection, comfort, creative work, good company and so on.
Clearly, there are two questions implicit in this analysis of contemporary patriarchy in rich countries. Can such an analysis of gender inequality be extended to other societies in which the second wave feminist movement did not have its home? Does this kind of analysis fit inequality based around social class, which has traditionally been the topic of social science?
The argument against extension to other places and times
One way of looking at these issues is to argue that any idea of a “timeless, eternal human essence” is naïve. Worse, such an essentialist humanism can mask “the totalitarian ambitions of a particular, privileged subjectivity committed to the universalisation of its own will and interests” (Johnson 1994: xi). Pauline Johnson agrees with these criticisms of humanism but goes on to argue that the ethics of feminism can nevertheless be put forward as a particular project of modern society, something which we would be naïve to attribute to other times and places in history.
The radical humanist defends the value commitments of modern humanism as historical and, hence, contingent ideals which have, nevertheless, acquired an essentiality for us. The modern humanist ideals of self-determining autonomy and authentic self-realisation which have an historically acquired essentiality; these are the commitments of a cultural project through which we moderns seek to prosecute the desire for a good and rich life and to evaluate the character of specific forms of social relations and institutions … the value ideas of humanism are no gift of nature, eternal and inherent, but have come through the course of modern development to now claim a universal status. (Johnson 1994: 11)
I have considered a similar point of view in reference to Weber’s writing on ethics and the social sciences in an earlier chapter and will not recapitulate that argument here. Such an analysis can become the basis of a refusal to examine gender inequality by the same criteria which feminists use to understand it in Western cultures – when you are dealing with a different culture. The anthropologists Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz defend this viewpoint in their study of the Chambri in Papua New Guinea. They situate their analysis in reference to an incident which took place. Deborah had spent much time with the informant Yorundu. “She had sat next to him in his men’s house, had tape recorded his esoteric ritual secrets and seen all – she thought – of his ritual paraphernalia”. She was surprised and disturbed that he invited Frederick and not her to view especially powerful ritual items. After she protested, Yorundu did allow her and Frederick to view these items together, but only after his wife, daughter and several kinswomen had been excluded from the house.
These women were far from disconcerted by their exclusion and continued to chat with each other, somewhat bemused by Yorundu’s preoccupation with ritual items. (Errington & Gewertz: 2-3)
The two anthropologists use this incident to argue a more general point. In our culture, worthiness is judged relative to universal cross gender standards related to money as an abstract universal evaluative principle. In that context it can make sense to see women as being dominated by men if they cannot meet standards of worthiness that apply to both genders. This occurs in cases where women are primarily seen as belonging to the category “woman”, and are because of this unable to become truly “individual” and worthy in the only way possible in our society. However for the Chambri, gender roles are so distinct that men and women are not in competition and women cannot be compared unfavourably to men via any universal criteria of worthiness. So they are not dominated by men. As they write:
Dominance … is that which impedes or prevents an individual from following the strategies necessary to meet the cultural standards which define personal worth … Because the strategies of Chambri women are completely different from those of Chambri men they are not inevitably in competition with men … Because they do not compare unfavourably to Chambri men, and are not denied access to cultural standards of worth, Chambri women are, in general, not dominated by men. (Errington & Gewertz: 139).
The reader should note that this theoretical analysis of the situation is seen as quite compatible with a number of descriptions of the situation on the ground which feminists would tend to take as fairly obvious examples of patriarchy. One is the habit of men to beat their wives if they cross them. An example of the way these issues are viewed is the following description of events.
Bibi had been beaten following a visit to her clan brothers. One of these brothers reminded her husband, Pekur’s group of their obligations. She should not be beaten merely for visiting her clan brothers – she was accorded this right. It should not be assumed that she had been visiting them to have an affair – in which case of course a beating would have been entirely appropriate. One of Pekur’s clan replied that Bibi had been acquired by their clan at considerable cost:
Because her family had accepted such a large bride price, they had abdicated their right to interfere when she and her husband fought. Indeed, he continued, so high was the bride-price that her fathers and brothers had, in large measure, already been compensated if she were to be killed by her husband during a fight. (Errington & Gewertz 1989: 104-105)
To argue that a culture like this is not patriarchal and that women are not “dominated” sacrifices a lot of the descriptive power of social science in order to defend the validity of different cultural norms and to attack essentialist humanism and its supposedly totalitarian ambitions. As the reader must be aware, it is really just another version of the argument mounted by Leonie Kramer. There are plenty of women in the societies from which second wave feminism comes who also believe that a woman’s role is ordained, natural and just the way things are. There are many of these defenders of the status quo who also claim that women’s choice to occupy this role shows that they are not dominated. But this has not prevented feminists from arguing that patriarchy is a structure which exploits and dominates women in Britain, France, Germany, Australia and the United States. I have considered in detail how such an analysis works. Other feminist writers in the second wave, as well as anthropologists, have not hesitated to describe patriarchy as a transhistorical and cross cultural phenomenon (Firestone, Friedl, Chodorow, Rosaldo). What does it look like if we extend an analysis of exploitation, such as that argued for here, to another very different culture?
The Munduruçu as a patriarchal society
The Munduruçu of Brazil were studied in the mid seventies by the anthropologists Robyn and Yolanda Murphy. This couple had been clearly influenced by feminist thinking from the second wave and their account of gender reflects the kind of analysis of patriarchy that was being accomplished in the metropole at that time. I will first describe the absence of social class in this situation and then the kinds of patriarchal power and exploitation that also exist.
As an egalitarian stateless polity
The village the anthropologists studies contained about ninety people. There five separated dwellings for the five households of the village and a men’s house which was shared by all the men of the village. Each household was constituted by a group of adult women who were related to each other, and their children. Both men and women recognized the fact that women were the effective organizers of the household, although, formally, there was a male head of the household. Husbands and sons of the household visited, kept their private possessions at the house and received cooked meals from the women of the house. Husbands went to the house for intercourse with their wives. In so far as it makes sense to speak of these houses as being owned at all, they were owned by the group of women using them. Similarly, the men’s house was owned by the men. Villages were moved about once every ten years and the whole village turned out to make the houses for a new village. Gardens were linked to these households:
At the end of every rainy season, plots of jungle land are selected by household heads as future gardens; if the house has many people, two or more of its members may initiate gardens. The gardens are each only two or three acres in size, but all the men of the village take turns in clearing each other’s plots, making this task truly communal. (Murphy & Murphy ref 204)
The person who initiates the garden has use rights to it but he does not own the land while it is yielding crops and he does not control any future access to it. Another piece of productive property is the farinha shed in which the women grind, pulp and roast manioc tubers to make flour. This shed is used by all the women in the village and to that extent is owned in common. The places in which people hunt and fish are not privately owned either and in fact the language has no word for private property. Instead people refer to the person who takes the initiative, who starts a particular project and organizes it (ref 205).
Private property is recognised only in clothing, utensils, weapons, tools and other portable objects. (Murphy & Murphy ref. 206).
In even these objects, it is not a good idea to own more than other people and alienate oneself from the community. If someone wants something that another owns they will just ask for it, and if they are persistent enough they will get it. So the hunting land, the forests, the men’s house and the farinha shed are owned by the village as a whole, are not seen as owned at all or are used in practice by the men as a group or the women as a group. Gardens and dwellings come under the charge of those who use them but it is the village as a whole that creates them. Private property is only recognised in portable and personal objects – and only then if you do not acquire more than other people.
When we look at other aspects of daily life, this picture of communal cooperative ownership and distribution is even more striking. Men hunt together and each brings his catch to his wife. The women of the household divide it up, sending approximately equal parts to each house in the village! So a man who has an unlucky hunt will miss out on prestige, but neither he personally nor his family will eat any the worse for this. Although each household has its own garden, the planting, gathering and distribution are organized more communally. A house that is making manioc flour will draw helpers from women in other households. At different times in the process, most women in the village will have helped. When the process is finished the household “will give at least a token gift of a calabash or so of the meal to other households” (ref 207). When a household runs out of flour, they depend on other households for flour until they take their turn in making a new lot for their own house. As well:
If through misjudgement a cleared garden was not fired before the rains, or if armadillos have destroyed part of a household’s crop, other houses will feed the unfortunates from the yield of their own gardens. (ref 208)
Yolanda and Robyn Murphy sum up the situation:
It would perhaps be an idealization to say that the rule is ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his need’, but this is indeed the stated value. (Ref 209)
Strong public pressure is applied to anyone who is considered to be avoiding their fare share. People are expected to work together and share produce even when it is neither necessary nor efficient.
This egalitarian access to property and egalitarian distribution goes along with an egalitarian polity; at least for each gender block. Yolanda and Robyn Murphy claim that some men attain high status through their hunting skill, ritual knowledge or success in war. But men with high status “do not form a class of any kind, nor does respect bring power over others” (Ref. 210). Each village has a chief who is ideally the oldest son of the previous chief. Since the chief usually keeps his own sons in his village when they marry, while men from other households go to live in their wife’s village, the chief’s household is the most cohesive in the village and has a certain amount of influence through that. Nevertheless, no other privileges accrue to this office and even this influence is quite limited, with the chief performing as a first among equals:
He does not make decisions on his own, nor does he give orders to others. Instead, decisions affecting the entire community are made in the course of conversations in the men’s house with most of the adult males present and the older and more prestigious men exercizing the most weight. The chief acts as a manipulator of the consensus, guiding the discussion and seizing upon the moment when compromise is possible (Ref. 211)
A similar situation exists for the women as a political block. The oldest woman in the household tends to organize the labour of the others but decisions are made as a group. Women who are considered lazy or promiscuous are brought into line by gossip directed against them.
Despite this egalitarian control of the means of production and distribution and this egalitarian polity, there is a very definite inequality between the sexes. Men dominate and this dominance is expressed in arrangements which favour men at the expense of women, and in men getting what they want – against the wishes of women.
The gendered division of labour
The division of labour favours men. Men do less obligatory productive work than women. Men have more time free from necessary subsistence activities. They spend this time in leisure or in religious activities in which they enjoy creative expression. The work that men do is in itself more exciting and less monotonous than the work that women do; and this fact is recognized socially in the prestige given to men’s hunting and the shared interest in stories of the hunt. The product of men’s work – meat – is considered the most valuable food so men receive social pleasure in being the providers of meat. The flour that women produce through their work does not have the same status and their work in childcare is not highly regarded as children are not seen as “products” of this work. Boys between the ages of five and fourteen have a life of unobligated leisure while girls in the same age group are made to do various chores.
A few major tasks, such as clearing the gardens and building a new village, are done by men and women working together. Other tasks are segregated by sex. Men hunt, women do the gardening, gather the products of the garden, process these products and the products of the hunt, and do the cooking for both sexes, and for children of all ages. In addition, women do most of the childcare of kids under five while men sometimes play with children. Yolanda and Robyn Murphy comment on the pattern of men’s hunting, which is sporadic:
If enough game is taken, everybody will eat for two or three days, and the men will spend most of their time working in the men’s house, talking, visiting or just idling. The women’s work goes on steadily at such times, as it seems to do always. (Ref 212)
Later they extend this analysis:
The work of men tends to be sporadic. They expend enormous energy in spurts of hunting, fishing, or garden clearing, with intervals of rest that may last two or three days. The women, on the other hand, work far more steadily on more days per week and for longer hours. Some of their labours are light and pleasant, but other tasks involve drudgery. The most important and time consuming of the latter is farinha processing. (Ref 213)
Manioc tubers are harvested by a group of women and carried back to the village. They are soaked, then grated, dried and roasted in the farinha shed. This process takes a full day and women work late into the night. During a whole day it is common for all the women of the village to be involved, and at any one time over half the women of the village will be working at this. Farinha flour is made on most days. Women themselves see the gendered division of labour as inequitable, so this is not just a judgement made by the western anthropologists:
Munduruçu women are quite congnizant of the fact that their share of the work is often dull drudgery and that they work longer hours than do the men. (Ref. 214)
The main burden of childcare falls on women. For the first six months or so the baby is the mother’s total concern. She sleeps with the child till it is two years old. It is breast fed till at least three years. As the child emerges from early infancy “other women in the house increasingly share the burden” (Ref ???). By the time the infant is six months old, “the little girls of the household are pressed into service” (Ref ???). Descriptions of the women’s work in the Murphys’ account continually refer to women who are delegated to look after a child while another woman gets on with a job. The women’s houses are continually beset by the noises and demands of children while the men’s house is a much quieter place. Men do take an interest in their child when it gets to the toddler stage and may drop into their wife’s house to play with the child. Up to eleven years old, children of both sexes sleep in their mother’s house. After that the boys leave for the men’s house.
The authors describe a typical day. At the end of the day the men are in the men’s house enjoying music and quiet conversation. A few men go to the walled off chamber in their house to play the sacred flutes that women are forbidden to see. The women are still working in the farinha shed:
Many of the little ones were becoming cranky from tiredness, and their mothers caressed them, or nursed the infants. (Ref. 216)
When men have free time, which is often, they spend it lying around chatting, resting or playing musical instruments. In times past when the culture was more intact the men organized religious ceremonies for which women were mainly passive spectators. Within the religion of the Mundurucu it is hunting which is regarded as important and full of spiritual meaning:
The essential male activity is hunting. The men think of themselves as hunters, not as gardeners or fishermen, the religion is oriented towards hunting, and the spirit world is closely associated with the species of game. It is the skilful hunter who is honoured, not the industrious tiller of the soil. Hunting is central in the Munduruçu culture because it is men’s work, and not vice versa. In actuality, gardening provides a larger portion of the sheer bulk of Munduruçu food intake and is the subject of the greatest labour investment, albeit largely female labour. (Ref. 218)
Both men and women see meat as the favoured food.
Women’s labour as service
Women’s labour involves them in various forms of service to men. These acts of service create a social pleasure for the recipient. In this case, they are closely tied to various expressions of men’s autonomy and women’s subservience – ritualized patterns of interaction which give men a comfortable feeling of being in control. Munduruçu women wait on their husbands, serving them food or water, washing their clothes, weaving their hammocks and performing other small services. The women as a group cook the food and take it to the men’s house where the men eat it. Men eat first and then the women, in their houses, eat. Women also sit behind the men in any gatherings of both sexes and walk behind the men when they are walking together (ref 220). An example comes in the description of a typical day. The men had been hunting and the women were at the stream, getting water for the evening meal. The sound of a horn was heard:
The women quickly filled the water containers and shooed the children ahead of them as they hurried to get back to the village before the hunting party … Borai went to her house and placed more wood on the fire, put the baby in the hammock, and waited for the return of her husband. (Ref 221)
She was waiting when he walked in with a wild pig. She brought him half a gourd of water and some manioc and they discussed the hunt.
It may come as no great surprise that men seem to enjoy sexual relationships more than women in this culture. Intercourse is in the missionary position, with the man on top:
Orgasm is sometimes reached by women, but it is our impression that in most cases climax is experienced only by the male. The sexual approach of Munduruçu men reflects ideology. Women are subservient to men in sex, the wife has no choice but to accept her husband’s advances, and male satisfaction is the goal. There is little foreplay, and sexual encounters are brief in consummation … The woman, then, usually derives far less satisfaction from the sex act than does the man, but she also understands that sex is the means by which one gets a husband and then holds him. (Ref 222)
Women are subject to enforced sexual relations outside of marriage as well. If a woman leaves her village on her own she can be accosted by any man and required to have sex with him. In such a situation the woman is not expected to resist – she has placed herself in a situation where intercourse is expected. The authors tell of a fourteen year old boy who made use of this rule. At the start of every day he would climb a tall tree near the village and wait to see if any couples met in the woods to have intercourse. When it had finished he would accost the woman and demand intercourse. The other men in the village were merely amused even though:
… they knew he was taking a second turn with their lovers and, perhaps, their wives. (Ref 223)
Gang rape is used by men to control women. This punishment is frequently used on a woman who has persisted in promiscuous affairs. So although each man as an individual is keen to have adulterous liaisons a promiscuous woman is punished by men as a group. She offends them by being an initiator of sexual relations rather than a passive recipient (Ref 224). Women then, receive less sexual pleasure than men and have less autonomy in the sphere of sexual relationships. Unlike men, they must use their sexuality to keep a spouse.
Men’s political dominance
Men control all of the sphere which we may regard as political; that is they organize all of the relations with people outside the village. In the past one of the chief of these was war. Up until four decades before the Murphys’ visit, war was an obsession with men. Men looked back on these times with nostalgia. War parties of men travelled, often for many months, launched an attack on a village at dawn, and killed the adults. Children were taken home as captives. The taking of trophy heads was considered the goal of war. Men who had been to war and had trophy heads were accorded very high status:
The warrior exemplified the principal values of Munduruçu culture. He was valiant without being boastul, cordial while maintaining reserve, and he was fierce while observing restraint and peacability at home. (Ref. 225)
So again we find that men gain social pleasure (regard, prestige) from activities from which women are excluded. As well, war was obviously a form of intertribal politics. In times past the Munduruçu extended their land by conquering new territory and wiping out the previous inhabitants. A situation in which war was endemic meant that women had to depend on men for protection. The classic good cop/bad cop of patriarchal power. Fear of war parties kept women close to the village while men roamed around freely. Men’s control of weapons meant that they could control women by force if necessary. Domestic violence was in fact rare though gang rape was used to control women. Men were the political leaders of the village and negotiated contacts with other villages. The Murphys see this as a system of spatial zones: the village is the inner circle; the next circle of ten miles radius is an area in which women can move but beyond this is the domain of men – “the arena of hunting and warfare, of intervillage relationships, of contacts with the Brazilians, or the outer extensions of society” (Ref. 228). So men’s activities always had the potential to make really drastic changes to the life of the village.
The religious beliefs of Munduruçu culture can be considered an ideology of gendered power relationships and in that stigmatize women and reward men with social pleasure. Their mythology also implies a recognition of the advantaged position of men and the importance of their power over women. The myth of the sacred flutes has it that it was a woman who discovered these flutes in the first place. She and the other women gained immense power by holding these flutes. They devoted their lives to the flutes and abandoned their husbands and all housework. The men had to carry firewood, fetch water and make manioc cakes. The women forced the men to stay in the houses and forced them to have sex with them. However a problem arose for the women when the flutes demanded to be fed meat. Because only the men hunted, they were able to take the flutes from the women. The women wept at their loss. The story presents men as dominant and sees women as having lost a struggle for power.
This official ideology of the society gives men higher status. Women may not always accept this but have to make a show of complicity in according men importance. For example, a ceremony involving the moving of the sacred flutes involves the men walking around the village to hide the flutes from the women who have to remain in their houses. The women wail in grief, that the flutes, which in myth were originally theirs, are being taken from them. The anthropologists had the impression that the women did not actually take all this mythology very seriously but they had to appear to.
This myth notes the autonomy of men – their power to get their own way in relation to women.
Confrontations over gendered inequality
As I have argued above that it may be possible to present some instances of gendered inequality (as in Oakley’s study or as in the account of Errington and Gewertz) as accepted by women – not a situation where women put up with, but dislike, their lot but a situation in which they regard their lot as acceptable and proper. It could even be argued that in one sense of the word, women are not “oppressed” in such situations. It is these cases that force one to consider more generally the nature of inequality. I have been doing this through developing the concept of exploitation – a situation that includes autonomy as one issue but also looks at other aspects of unequal relationships and the transactions which create them. However it is also interesting to note that in the study of the Munduruçu there are a number of reasons for thinking that what is being described is both oppression and exploitation – gendered inequality is recognized as such and either celebrated (by men) or regretted (by women).
The Murphys report that women grumble about their harsh lot as women while the men do not complain about being men. Yet the women cannot get the men to lighten their load. The authors report an event in which this conflict came out into the open:
The women one day were making farinha while a number of men were lounging in the men’s house. Yolanda jokingly suggested to the women that the men should help them, bringing the usual retort that the men were too lazy. Encouraged, one of the older women called out to the men to help, a cry that was echoed by Yolanda and others. The demands became rather insistent, and two of the men shuffled over to help grate tubers half heartedly and with great embarrassment, until the laughter of their comrades made them give up. The women then began to shout at the men in earnest, to be greeted with hostile and stony silence from the men’s house. (Ref. 231)
There are many other aspects of the culture that also indicate such gendered clashes of will. For example, women resent the men’s house, and would prefer individual family dwellings, as occur in some nearby villages.
Gang rape, as mentioned above, is an institution of the culture and a clear example of men’s power over women and how it is maintained. In itself, it is a case of men’s autonomy, of power in its narrow meaning, but resentment of this institution is also a recognition by women that they are oppressed. Men make frequent joking references to this practice, as one man said, “We tame them with the banana” (Ref. 233). A woman who deeply offends against men is dragged outside the village and raped by up to twenty men. Women who are seen as too promiscuous will be treated this way, likewise a woman who tries to see the sacred flutes. Any act threatening men’s power may be punished. A girl who ran away from a mission school was raped as punishment; they were not concerned with the fact that she had left the school but with her show of independence. Women are extremely annoyed by this practice:
They may not approve of the behaviour of the victim, but they regard the punishment as oppressive, cruel, and arbitrary, a threat to each of them, as it is meant to be. (Ref. 236)
Other situations also demonstrate the autonomy of men and the restriction of women’s options. Divorce is harder for women than men. A man just goes back to his village and is cared for by his sisters or mother. A woman has to try to get the support of her whole household, as they will all suffer if he does not bring food from the hunt.
The absence of autonomy for women is expressed in body language. Women eat after men and sit and walk behind them. If something amuses a woman she is supposed to cover her mouth when she laughs:
An open mouth is like an open vagina to the Munduruçu men. And a proper woman does not look directly at a man, nor would she ever engage his eyes. This is considered to be a rank and blatant invitation by the men, and, of course, by the women as well. (Ref. 238)
Spheres of control and advantages for women
This picture of patriarchal power and men’s advantages is not unrelieved. For a start there are spheres in which women have recognized control and authority – in their own households, in their own work in the gardens and in the distribution of the food that they cook, including the distribution of meat collected by men in hunting. Women have a large say in who they marry, though they have more need of a spouse than men. Women sometimes win arguments with men, though the reverse is more usually the case.
In one area, women definitely seem to have an advantage and their transactions with men could be taken as rewarding them more than men in this one respect. They are more emotionally secure and less anxious about themselves. They have more real, friendly support from the other women than the men get from their male friends. The analysis of this account fits with the theories of Chodorow and Dinnerstein regarding men’s socialization and the perils of competitive masculinity that come out of men’s absence from nurturing childcare. Men fear female power because they associate it with their mothers. Although they dominate women they are also slightly fearful of them. There are jokes and myths in which a woman’s vagina becomes a dangerous biting thing. While the men move to a new village on marriage the women stay socially secure with the people with whom they have grown up. Little boys are in a bit of a social limbo from the ages of 5 to 14. While they do not have any chores, unlike the girls, they are also deprived of adult company. In Chodorow’s analysis this fits a pattern in which boys want to become like men, yet are deprived of close attachments and loving relationships with adult men that they can imitate. They are forced to break off their childhood ties with women yet do not gain any substitute warmth from other men (Ref. 240).
I would argue that these disadvantages are the price that Munduruçu men pay for their exploitation and domination of women. They come about because of men’s absence from childcare – an absence that frees men from ties that would hamper their ability to take power and frees men from work. They come about from the need men have to distance themselves from women if they are to control them. In the process they distance themselves from male children, who come to believe that masculinity is to be achieved by emotional separation from women and by competition with other men – to prove masculinity. For the Munduruçu the ultimate expression of this is in dangerous killing raids on other villages.
As gendered exploitation
We can sum up this account of the Munduruçu by considering how it fits a general account of inequality. I have been arguing that inequality can first be considered as an inequality in life chances, defined in terms of basic desires of human nature – for autonomy; creativity, sexual pleasure; physical comfort and food. It is secondly to be considered as a system of exploitation, of transactions which are at the expense of the life chances of one party while they contribute to the life chances (or pleasures) of the other party. Another way to talk about this is to use the term “work” for obligatory and necessary chores that take away from life’s pleasures as they are being performed but through their product contribute to life’s pleasures. In this wording, a “surplus product” and exploitation comes about because the work being done is not equivalent – women are doing more hours of work and less pleasant work to contribute to the shared life chances of the society as a whole. Furthermore the rewards coming out of women and men’s working lives are unequal; men are getting benefits from their work that have no equivalent for women.
For the Munduruçu, advantages in autonomy and social prestige for men are achieved through interactions with women. Women’s extra work in childcare, gardening and cooking frees the men for other activities; including the domination of political and cultural life. Men’s work in hunting occupies less time, is more exciting and less monotonous and is rewarded with more prestige. Women’s praise of men and their service to men rewards men with approval. Their lack of autonomy occurs when men make decisions that they dislike. Men gain sexual satisfaction in situations in which women are unsatisfied or actively unwilling.