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On Sunday, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the quiet part out loud.

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Saying the quiet part out loud and getting away with it because nothing matters is sort of the theme of 2017, but his comments did provoke a reaction. There’s plenty to be said about how Grassley tries to avoid the implications of inherited wealth by framing us all as Horatio Algers at birth. I wrote a whole post about that. But honestly, that’s pretty obvious.

What has been less remarked upon, at least by male political commentators, is what Grassley’s comments reveal about who works. The fact that many male commentators haven’t picked up on that suggests that even as they critique his classism, they share – or see as less problematic – his views on gender and labor.

Grassley argues that if “people” didn’t spend their money on “women,” they might invest it and be successful. It’s not clear to me whether he is thinking about prostitution or the dinners, diamond earrings, and washing machines he thinks must be bought to maintain a woman. Unless Chuck Grassley thinks the non-elite women of America are blowing their paychecks on hiring female prostitutes, it’s pretty clear that when he talks about “people,” he means “men.” He still thinks of men as the people who do – and are supposed to do – economically-valuable labor.

I’ve written elsewhere about the way imagining the American worker as white and male can hinder productive political discussions about policy, but it’s really important to remember that this danger doesn’t just come because people like Grassley have failed to get with the times and realize the contributions that women make to the economy now. The danger comes in refusing to acknowledge those contributions have always been there by ignoring and/or devaluing women’s labor, and by assuming that our historical moment is the one in which women’s economic contributions are most valued.

The arguments we see include:

  • “Women were seen as less capable of hard physical labor and so were excluded from it in the past.”
  • “Women are weaker and you just have to acknowledge they can’t do all the jobs.”
  • “Men worked outside the home.”
  • “Women finally started working in the [insert time period here].”
  • “Women are more willing to take low-paid jobs.”
  • “Men were always seen as the breadwinner.”
  • And rarely articulated so bluntly, but at the core of all of these: “Work is something you get wages for.”

In no particular order, because weaving them into a compelling narrative doesn’t seem to make them stick any better, a non-exhaustive list of responses:

  • Childbirth is pretty physically demanding. It’s literally called “labor.” (Of course, this is used to argue against women being allowed to engage physical labor in other spheres, sometimes.)
  • In a family farm economy, did men work outside the home? Did they earn a wage? Was what they did still work?
  • Cooking, cleaning, and childcare are physically demanding. So are producing cloth, dairying, maintaining an orchard, caring for small livestock, and brewing beer, all of which women did in colonial .
  • If cooking, cleaning, childcare, and eldercare have no economic value, why do you have to pay (or enslave) other people to do them?
  • If women are not capable of hard physical labor, why did white Americans enslave millions of African and African-American women to do physical labor in fields? (Spoiler alert: they basically invented racial difference in order to justify doing this while pointing to women’s agricultural labor as evidence of the cultural inferiority of a wide variety of Indian nations.)
  • Women didn’t “start” working wage labor jobs in factories in the 1880s, or because of the war, or in the 1920s, or because of the other war, or in the 1970s, or in the 1990s. Women were the original industrial wage laborers in the U.S. And why should that be surprising? After all, what were these early factories making?
  • Also women worked in mines.
  • Also white women were harsh, violent, psychologically-abusive slave mistresses.
  • How many of our “manly” jobs today require unyielding physical strength? Is investing inherited money too physically demanding for a woman?
  • Jobs lose prestige and pay when women join the field/women can only join a field when it’s started to lose prestige and pay. See: teachers, paralegals, professors.
  • We pay people who work in certain fields – childcare, food service, cleaning, nursing, home health care, nursing home care – less because the fields are dominated by women and associated not with skill and economic value but with feminine obligation and sacrifice. That has not always been the case.
  • As much as it might unsettle your sense of historical superiority, women were paid for skilled work in colonial America and the early U.S. In case you need an example, here you go.
  • If women weren’t earning wages or producing vital economic value for the household, why did we need laws for so long stating that their husbands had the right to the money they earned?
  • Read this labor wanted ad and consider all the valuable skills required of a substitute wife: 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]
  • Also sex work is labor. It’s paid physical (and mental/emotional) labor.
  • Also wet nurses. More female labor with economic value rooted in the physical body.
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“New Britain, Connecticut. Women welders at the Landers, Frary, and Clark plant.” Taken June 1943. Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8d39781/

I doubt Grassley was even conscious of what he was saying, and would backtrack if pushed on it. But plenty of people – conservatives, liberals, and leftists alike – speak the same assumptions out loud when they talk about labor. All I can suggest is that you listen to yourself when you talk about labor, and about people. If you notice yourself saying “people” when you mean “(white) men,” or if you seem to imply that there was a time when women didn’t work, start thinking about who you mean by people. who you mean by women, and what you mean by work.

 

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