, , , , , ,

A recent piece in the New York Times proclaimed “Men Don’t Want To Be Nurses. Their Wives Agree.” Yahoo! Finance cribbed the story with the more provocative title “Wives are partly to blame for the fact that men won’t take ‘female’ jobs, professor says.”

The crux of the article:

Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has studied middle-aged white-collar professionals who have lost their jobs. He found that some men who might have been willing to consider lower-paid jobs in typically feminine fields encountered resistance from their wives, who urged them to keep looking.

“Marriages have more problems when the man is unemployed than the woman,” Professor Sharone said. “What does it mean for a man to take a low-paying job that’s typically associated with women? What kind of price will they pay with their friends, their lives, their wives, compared to unemployment?”

That may be, he said, because other sociologists have found that while work is important to both men’s and women’s identities, there remains a difference. “Work is at the core of what it means to be a man, in a way that work is not at the core of femininity,” he said.

While there are lots of ways to think about the arguments presented in this piece, I think there are three major layers of culture and history here that we should separate and consider.

First major point to get out of the way: what does it mean to say wives are “to blame” because they discourage their husbands from taking jobs that are culturally associated with women, and therefore weakness? What’s unspoken but clear here, at least as the article presents it, is that somehow it’s not really sexism because women are perpetuating it. Women can and do perpetuate patriarchy; that’s actually part of how and why it works. Women naming and shaming other women as promiscuous is a pretty clear example. That the women in this study also see woman-associated jobs as lesser is part of the problem, not the explanation.



Gabriel Nicolet’s Good Samaritan, not Highly Skilled Professional

The second thing we need to consider is how ideas about men and women’s appropriate roles and natural differences have shaped what has been considered a “pink collar” job in American history, and how those shifting associations have shaped our ideas of gender difference in turn. Anyone familiar with Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale knows of the late 18th and early 19th century “professionalization” – read: masculinization – of the job of helping women give birth.[1] But another “pink collar” job – teaching – can also be instructive. Its feminization in the 19th century, and the resulting backlash, show both how impermanent these ideas of “natural” roles can be and how “natural” characteristics can go from being good to bad as conditions change.

Teaching, especially the teaching of young children, was not always a female job. The expansion of compulsory public school education in the early 19th century brought with it the need for, as Catharine Beecher put it, an “army of teachers.” She argued that, as men would much rather prefer the exciting and lucrative world of business, women should take their place as teachers.

Men will be educators in the college, in the high school, in some of the most honourable and lucrative common schools, but the children, the little children of this nation must, to a wide extent, be taught by females, or remain untaught. The drudgery of education, as it is now too generally regarded, in this country, will be given to the female hand.

Men and women alike lauded the “natural” fitness of women for the teaching profession, natural because of their inherent drive to care and nurture, not because of any particular skill or education for which they would have to be compensated. Teaching young children was already reframed as drudgery to which men wouldn’t lower themselves.

By the end of the century, however, as women came to dominate the teaching profession and embrace it as a profession, not just a temporary vocation to be abandoned upon marriage, male educators pushed back, railing against white women teachers for their “feminizing” effects on young boys and arguing that their selfish refusal to give up teaching to act solely as wives and mothers would contribute to “race suicide.”

In this period, when men and women taught together in the same school, women were paid less. One argument that persisted into the 20th century was that women were paid less because they needed the money less, because they were working for “pin money,” not to support a family. [2]

This is, of course, complete bunk, but it brings us to the third important aspect of this piece, the assertion that “[w]ork is at the core of what it means to be a man, in a way that work is not at the core of femininity.” In many ways, this statement is the worst part of these articles.

The most generous reading of this is that the scholar is attempting to state a dominant American cultural belief that shaped the statements of the respondents, rather than some Truth about “what men and women want.”

Even allowing for that generous reading, we should nevertheless take issue with the statement. Much like the idea that wives are to blame for men failing to take pink collar jobs, this framing inverts the issue to obscure the actual problem. The association of work with men makes work associated with women “beneath” men, because it can’t be real work.

The idea that work is central to masculinity and not femininity makes the unpaid labor that women do invisible. It must not be “real” labor, or men would do it, and it would be paid and highly valued. If you think about labor as “something you’d have to pay someone else to do if you didn’t want to do it,” rather than “something you get wages for,” a lot of the way we talk about what’s work and what isn’t falls apart. Moreover, our contemporary divisions of tasks into men’s work, women’s work, and women’s duty, based on “natural” gender roles, also fall apart when put in a little bit of historical context.

This is just a brief dip into the complexities of gender and labor that bubble to the surface with an article like this. Want to read more about the history of gender and labor? Check out the labor tag over on Nursing Clio. I have also written a bit more about the problems of the American vision of “the worker” as a white man with a wrench over here.

[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 65-6, 254-8.

[2] Catherine Clinton, The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century, rev. ed. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1999), 126-9. See also Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), Chapter 1.