Erin Bartram: In a piece in Harper’s Bazaar today, Gemma Hartley considers the ways that household labor is gendered, but pushes us beyond the usual discussion of who does the most chores. Instead, she emphasizes the emotional labor of running the household – labor that, when done by men in “public” realms, would be called management and respected as an important skill. We’re going to think about the ways that this kind of management hasn’t always been so difficult for men and women to see and value, and consider the broader implications of Hartley’s struggle to call her husband’s attention to this power imbalance productively, given that he gets upset when it is highlighted. How do we talk with others, including students, about issues where they will – and should – feel personally implicated in benefiting from such an imbalance?
I think this has been on my mind anyway because I’m teaching colonial American women’s history right now.
Chris Bouton: Are the students having difficulty understanding and explaining the different types of labor that women performed?
That was always a problem for me when I taught. Just getting students to recognize women’s labor.
My students tended to view labor as men working for wages
Women did something else
Erin: Yesterday I gave them a chunk of Martha Ballard to read, but didn’t include any baby related passages – just her attending to sick people and binding up wounds and digging up roots to make tinctures. I asked them what she was doing. They said “taking care” and “mothering.” I asked them what they’d have said if this was a man’s diary. They said “doctor.” Even with that established, they couldn’t stop using the language of gendered duty, even as we talked about her being compensated with money for a skilled service she provided.
It’s not their fault, the language is just so normal to them.
Chris: That’s one of the big issues that Hartley is raising in the piece. About how discussions of work and labor are inherently coated in gendered language.
Erin: I think the issue of wages is pretty key, and it helps explain why it’s hard to explain why women didn’t see industrialization as some universal step up. To students, they finally have wages! And can work outside the home (like men)!
Chris: I graded many essays at AP that pointed out that the Industrial Revolution finally gave some women something to do in the labor force.
Which speaks to this very problem.
Those essays did not get high scores.
Erin: Absolutely. I often ask student where they think cloth came from before the industrial revolution
(some of this is also tied to making sure people know cotton wasn’t an American thing till much later than they think)
Chris: I used doing laundry as the example
And then walked them through the process
Erin: I often try to frame labor as “something you’d have to pay someone else to do if you didn’t want to do it yourself” – that encompasses the labor of factory hands and women in homes.
I really feel for the author because historians work so hard at chipping away at this and sometimes it feels like it never shifts. Every new time period we enter becomes the period when women “start working” – the 1820s, the Gilded Age, WWI, the 20s, WWII, the 1970s
Chris: In these narratives, there’s always some time when women weren’t working, but then suddenly they are.
As I wanted to write on so many essays at AP: WOMEN WERE ALWAYS WORKING
Hartley’s piece is also useful for revealing what kind of labor we, as a society, view as valuable. And it’s always male labor. Women only start working when they perform “male” labor.
Erin: One other thing that I think makes this hard to shift is the idea that we are living in the most “advanced” moment, so we must be at peak-valuation of women’s labor.
Chris: Right, that somehow we’ve recognized the importance of women’s labor, so we’re better than others in the past.
When that’s patently untrue. Just look at the problems with pay equality in the tech industry, the most “advanced” of all our industries.
There was a NY Times article recently where a bunch of male tech guys were arguing that gender equality had gone too far. And how you couldn’t reasonably expect a woman to be in charge of a department other than say fashion.
That was the worst and I think that gets at one of the best parts of her piece – that women are doing management all the time but it’s not seen as management because women are doing it
Chris: My sister-in-law is a data scientist at a major tech firm and it’s a major issue that she confronts.
There was a piece floating around Twitter from a math professor about how when she joined her department, she was expected to help the professors wives clean up plates at party while her two new male colleagues were not expected to help.
Erin: Oh, I saw that too
Chris: These are symptoms of the same problem.
Erin: The author’s husband would absolutely see management as a step up in a “public” career, but in the household, he’s an odd jobs man at best
And fine with it
Chris: And it’s part of this broader societal structure when it comes to women’s labor and emotional labor. That male and labor are the dominant structures. So other people performing that labor should defer to those structures. When those structures are challenged, that’s when the problems, like Hartley was describing with her husband, emerge.
Erin: So, as an example of how differently people in the past might have talked about this, here’s an ad that clarifies things:
“Wanted at a Seat about half a day’s journey from Philadelphia, on which are good improvements and domestics, A Single Woman of unsullied Reputation, an affable, cheerful, active and amiable Disposition; cleanly, industrious, perfectly qualified to direct and manage the female Concerns of country business, as raising small stock, dairying, marketing, combing, carding, spinning, knitting, sewing, pickling, preserving, etc., and occasionally to instruct two young Ladies in those Branches of Oeconomy, who, with their father, compose the Family. Such a person will be treated with respect and esteem, and meet with every encouragement due to such a character. [Pennsylvania Packet, September 23, 1780]
“manage” “direct” “business” “economy” – and workplace training, to boot
Chris: “amiable disposition”
Erin: and yet…the recognition that this is work that you have to pay for if you don’t have a wife to do it
and a further reminder, which escapes many, that on a farm, everyone works “in the home economy” and no one gets paid wages.
Chris: Right and to go back to the default position that we encounter in the classroom, students are thinking about wage labor in a modern or industrial setting
X hours of work in exchange for Y pay per hour
As you point out, that model fails when you’re talking about farm labor
Erin: It makes talking about any other economic form really difficult – farm labor, enslaved labor, common lands, etc.
Thanks, late capitalism!
Chris: To go back to Hartley’s piece, there’s a point she makes, that I really liked, about how when men perform this emotional labor, they point out how “unusual” it is. I’m thinking of the brushing of the daughter’s hair. By pointing out how “unusual” it is, the husband is exacerbating the problem that his wife is struggling with.
Erin: As our friend/my former professor often points out when men say they’re “babysitting” their kids – no, you’re doing your job as a parent.
Chris: “This act of labor that I’m performing is against the societal standard. I deserve praise for stepping outside of my role. By pointing it out, I ensure that it won’t become a repeated pattern, but rather an extraordinary act.”
Erin: That’s why I think I saw the parallel to how we talk about other kinds of privilege, honestly.
It’s wanting a cookie for fleeting allyship, if that, but getting angry when asked to consider the structural changes necessary for racial justice.
Honestly, I never get to the point of backlash when teaching gender and labor because it never quite sinks in enough for the backlash to happen. But it happens when talking about racial injustice, particularly as it manifests in the economy.
Chris: No one likes to hear that they benefit from the inherent structure of the economy apart from anything unique or special about them.
Erin: I’m a firm believer in the argument that feminism does help men, but I think we are also often pressured to find a way to say that these things won’t be painful/difficult for men.
If you are used to having more power than someone else, by default, equality with them will feel like oppression.
Any challenging of the status quo makes those who defend it defensive. No one wants to relinquish their power/position.
It’s also the difference between believing in something in the abstract and then in reality.
If you ask people if they believe in equality (racial/gender/sexual whatever kind), the vast majority will say yes.
But if ask them if they support specific policies designed to ensure equality, that support disintegrates.
Erin: Everyone says how horrible Triangle Shirtwaist was, and how much regulation was needed. When you ask them about the same sorts of facilities that exist right now and make the clothes on their backs, you get explanations about why it’s okay that sound just like the explanations made in the 1910s.
Chris: And it’s always easier to judge people in the past than ourselves in the present.
They had no excuses, we say, it was wrong. But now, well things are complicated.
Erin: And I think in that case, and in the personal case Hartley outlines, deflection is the primary tactic to avoid confronting that.
Instead of acknowledging that it is labor and some of us don’t want to do it and don’t think they should have to, better to deny that it’s labor at all while pointing to the other labor we do that matters.
Chris: Historically we’re very good at finding ways to justify not changing the status quo. Challenging the status quo is never easy or popular. So why bother?
Erin: I suppose one way historians help, even a little, is by pointing out that the status quo actually isn’t.