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Women as workers

from Jayati Ghosh

One of the enduring myths about capitalism that continues to be perpetuated in
mainstream economic textbooks and other economic pedagogy is that labour supply is
somehow exogenous to the economic system. The supply of labour is typically assumed
(especially in standard growth theories) to be determined by the rate of population
growth, which in turn is also seen as “outside” the economic system rather than in
interaction with it. The reality is of course very different: the supply of paid labour has been very much a result of economic processes, not something extraneous to it. Throughout its history, capitalism has proved adept at causing patterns of labour supply to change in accordance with demand. Migration – whether of slaves, indentured labour or free workers – has been instrumental in this regard. The use of child labour similarly has been sanctioned and encouraged or disapproved and suppressed in varying
economic conditions. But nowhere has this particular capacity of capitalism to generate its own labour been more evident than in the case of female labour. 

Women have been part of the working class since the beginning of capitalism, even
when they have not been widely acknowledged as workers in their own right. Even when
they are not paid workers, their often unacknowledged and unpaid contribution to social
reproduction as well as to many economic activities has always been absolutely essential
for the functioning of the system. All women are usually workers, whether or not they are
defined or recognised as such. In all societies, and particularly in developing countries,
there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as cooking, cleaning and other
housework, provisioning of basic household needs, child care, care of the sick and the
elderly, as well as community-based activities), which are largely seen as the
responsibility of the women. This pattern of unpaid work tends to exist even when
women are engaged in outside work for an income, whether as wage workers or selfemployed workers. These processes are also integral to capitalism: the production of
both use values and exchange values by women is essential for the accumulation process.

In contemporary capitalism, this integration of women’s work in both paid and unpaid
form has also become an essential means of stabilising economic systems through
downturns, when the costs of recessions and/or austerity policies are passed onto to
unpaid labour within families. If anything, this reliance has become even more marked in
recent years.

Gendered Labour Markets and Capitalist Accumulation

  1. Helen Sakho
    May 23, 2019 at 12:38 am

    It really has become more marked in recent years. It is estimated that it will take a few more decades for the two sexes to share an equal distribution of domestic work. And at the rate we are going backwards in our collective conscious, many more for women to reach equality in paid jobs, let alone in making it to senior positions without prostituting their integrity. This is the picture globally.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    May 29, 2019 at 10:06 am

    Since culture, rather than biology, defines the roles, rights and duties of men and women, the meaning of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ have varied immensely from one society and culture to another. French King Louis XIV’s portrait shows a figure in long wig, stockings, high-heeled shoes, dancer’s posture – and huge sword. In contemporary Europe, all these (except for the sword) would be considered marks of effeminacy. But in the 18th century Louis was a European paragon of manhood and virility. In the 21st century, dominant men have never looked so dull and dreary as they do today. During most of history, dominant men have been colorful and flamboyant, such as American Indian chiefs with their feathered headdresses and Hindu maharajas decked out in silks and diamonds. Throughout the animal kingdom males tend to be more colorful and accessorized than females – think of peacocks’ tails and lions’ manes. Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies. It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social revolutions and economic transformations. Egypt, for example, was conquered numerous times over the centuries. Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Mameluks, Turks and British occupied it – and its society always remained patriarchal. Egypt was governed by pharaonic law, Greek law, Roman law, Muslim law, Ottoman law and British law – and they all discriminated against people who were not ‘real men.’ It seems likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing. The most common theory is because men are stronger than women and have used their greater physical power to force women into submission. This doesn’t fly since in human societies there is no direct relation between physical strength and social power. Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from strength but from aggression. Millions of years of evolution have made men far more violent than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence. Therefore, throughout history warfare has been a masculine prerogative. Women are often stereotyped as better manipulators and appeasers than men and are famed for their superior ability to see things from the perspective of others. If there’s any truth in these stereotypes, then women should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders, leaving the dirty work on the battlefields to testosterone-charged but simple-minded machos. Popular myths notwithstanding, this rarely happened in the real world. It is not at all clear why not. A third type of biological explanation gives less importance to brute force and violence, and suggests that through millions of years of evolution, men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies. As men competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile women, an individual’s chances of reproduction depended above all on his ability to outperform and defeat other men. As time went by, the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most ambitious, aggressive and competitive men. A woman, on the other hand, had no problem finding a man willing to impregnate her. However, if she wanted her children to provide her with grandchildren, she needed to carry them in her womb for nine arduous months, and then nurture them for years. During that time, she had fewer opportunities to obtain food, and required a lot of help. She needed a man. In order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine genes that made it to the next generation belonged to women who were submissive caretakers. Women who spent too much time fighting for power did not leave any of those powerful genes for future generations. The result of these different survival strategies – so the theory goes – is that men have been programmed to be ambitious and competitive, and to excel in politics and business, whereas women have tended to move out of the way and dedicate their lives to raising children. This theory has virtually no empirical support. Plus, it omits the simple fact that communities of women meet all these goals, without the help of any man. If, as I’ve shown the patriarchal system is based on unfounded myths and errors rather than on sociological, historical, and biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?

    My answer to the question of why women have been considered inferior to men in almost every current and historical society is childbearing and rearing. Biologically only women can become pregnant and bear children. It was easy to leave the rest of the process of caring for children to women, except when the child was male and grew old enough to enter his father’s world. Left with these responsibilities, women had little time for politics, power struggles, leading armies, or national leadership. The men got these by default. It wasn’t long before the division of labor was labeled “natural” and “inevitable.” Particularly after men saw just how enjoyable, for them this situation was. Being tagged as natural soon religion and government got involved. Satisfying the strongest biological need (for sexual intercourse) while having to deal with virtually none of the before or after consequences, men ended up with the better of this arrangement. Women’s cooperatives might have been a solution for women, so some of them could compete with men for political, economic, and political control. This did occur but mostly among high status women and had little impact on sharing of power between men and women. Over the last half century that sharing has become a reality, at least partially, and many men are angry, very angry about it.

    • Helen Sakho
      May 29, 2019 at 8:23 pm

      Men should attend anger management therapy! And women should attend self defence classes! Then both sexes can enjoy childcare and reap the benefits of cooperative domestic and social existence, employment included.
      However, as women are less likely to be as tall as men (unless they wear very high heels, which means breaking their backs) they still lumbered with backbreaking chores either way. If anyone has ever met a man who doesn’t get angry even at the possibility that his partner may be being unfaithful to him, he should be held in high esteem. Women, on the hand, have always forgiven unfaithfulness and even accepted his “illegitimate” children as their own.
      So, equality – natural or socially constructed – is illogical and always has been, unless proper safety nets are provided for both sexes. This means turning the financial basis of a partnership or union into a moral one. This will never happen, given the hypocrisy that surrounds us on key issues, including paid and unpaid work, power relations, and the rest of it.

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