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The Gender Division of Labor

With all the writing I do about our encroaching dystopia of artificial scarcity and rentier elites, it’s always slightly embarrassing when my writing is trapped behind a paywall. Fortunately, both of my contributions to the new Jacobin have entered the digital commons, now that my editorial on working time and feminism has been posted online. This web version preserves the print and PDF formatting, so it also shows off the work of our fantastic new designer, Remeike Forbes.

My editorial isn’t particularly radical, especially in contrast to the speculative reveries of my main essay in the issue. But I felt like it was worth taking the time to say that if we’re to talk about reducing working time—something that’s a central political concern of mine—we have to be clear that paid work isn’t the only kind, and that reducing time in waged work can sometimes be in tension with equalizing the gender division of labor.

I do wish, though, that I’d said a little more about the institution of the nuclear family, which functions as a kind of unstated premise of my whole editorial. Just after I wrote it, I read this essay by Jenny Turner on recent feminism, which draws out a great point from Toni Morrison by way of Nina Power:

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

What about education? If all these girls spend their teenage years having babies, they won’t be able to become teachers and brain surgeons, not to mention missing out on cheap beer, storecards, halls of residence. To which Morrison, with splendour, rejoins: ‘They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them in my arms and say: “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life.’

Leaving aside the point about “just handing out money,” which I obviously love, this point about the nuclear family struck me just recently, because I was writing an entry for an academic encyclopedia on the topic of the “24/7 economy”—that is, the fact that 40 percent of employees in the United States don’t work Monday to Friday 9 to 5 jobs, but instead work evenings, nights, weekends, or rotating shifts. Scholars of these “non-standard” work schedules often point out that they tend to make child care logistically difficult, but usually this is posed as a contrast with the “normal” situation of a couple working standard hours. Workers with non-standard hours are much more likely to rely on their relatives for child care, for example; but rather than viewing this the way Morrison does, as an opening onto a more humane and realistic way of organizing care work, it is instead portrayed as a problem and a burden, something which threatens to strain relations between family members.

As long as single and dual parent nuclear families are the norm, it makes sense for the Left to demand policies that at least ease the burden of unpaid work on women, which is what my essay was about. But I’d very much like to reclaim the old socialist-feminist idea that, as Turner puts it, “any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency.” I wouldn’t ultimately be satisfied with reforming the current relations of re-production any more than I just want to humanize the relations of production—the point is to overturn them.


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