The Role of Gender in Upholding Capitalism
Maintaining gendered classes is helpful for the essential exploitation process of capitalism—or any other hierarchical economic system—but it plays a much more elemental and critical role that is separate from the role of the racial class. Capitalism depends on one subjugated class to provide the unpaid labor in order for the owning class to have the freedom and time to rule.
Just as it is the ability to control and manipulate the rates of workers’ paid labor that provides the wealth to the owning class, it is the women’s unpaid labor—her labor and her time—that gives the men the luxury and privilege of time to pursue their lives and maintain control of the world.
While the unpaid aspect of this exploitative relationship is important, as is the labor involved, it is the time itself that underpins the exploitation/enrichment process. The time involved in performing the unpaid labor—cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, etc.—is expropriated from the woman and given to the man. (But since our monetized society only values money, any time that is unpaid time is devalued.) The women lose the ability to spend their time as they choose; the men gain additional time to pursue their lives—and run the world.a
One example of how women’s labor is devalued is given by feminist policy-maker Marilyn Waring in her ground-breaking book, If Women Counted.1
In southern Cameroon, a study of the agrarian Beti people looked at how they split the agricultural duties along gender lines: The men tended to the export crop—primarily cocoa—and the women tended to the food crops, including groundnuts, cassava, plantain, and various vegetables.
The men spent about seven and a half hours a day laboring on the crops and on other activities, such as building and repairing houses, producing baskets, and making beer. The women spent about eleven hours a day working. In addition to laboring in the fields, the women also produced surplus products for market and performed all the work of running the household, including cooking, cleaning, obtaining water and firewood, and taking care of the children and elderly family members.
Nevertheless, the UN’s Industrial Labor Organization dismissed the labor of women (as well as the additional “second-job” of housework and caretaking that women must take on) as irrelevant. The men were considered to be the “active laborers,” while the women, because their work did not involve “helping the head of the family in his occupation,” were not considered to be “active laborers.”
“Thus,” as Waring wrote, “the international economic system constructs reality in a way that excludes the great bulk of women’s work—reproduction (in all its forms), raising children, domestic work, and subsistence production.”2
Waring also gives plenty of examples of the historic and cultural devaluation of women’s labor in European culture.
In 1968, for example, a Canadian rancher seeking a settlement in divorce court of one-half of the couple’s assets—all of which were held in her husband’s name—was turned down by the court. For twenty-five years, as the woman told the court, her labor consisted of “haying, raking, swathing, mowing, driving trucks and tractors and teams, quietening horses, taking cattle back and forth to the reserve, dehorning, vaccinating, branding, anything that was to be done. I worked outside with him, just as a man would, anything that was to be done.”3
But unlike the man, she also labored at the second job of housework. In addition, for most of the time she was working on the ranch, the husband worked elsewhere at outside jobs to supplement their income, so until her son was old enough to help, she performed the vast majority of the labor that built the ranch’s wealth.
She appealed the court’s decision, taking her case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court which, in 1974, dismissed the case as having no valid claim to “productive property.” According to the judge, her 25 years of labor “consisted of no more than was to be ordinarily expected of a ranch wife.”
To this day, occupations like “farmer” and “rancher” are assumed to be male occupations, with only the men doing the actual work, while the women who are also farmers and ranchers because they are also doing the same work as the men are considered to be the wives of the farmers and ranchers.
74.8% of rural women in India are agricultural workers but only 9% own the land. Cartoonb courtesy of UN Women, which works to increase farming women’s ownership of land and other valuable assets.4 Copyright 2011, UN Women/Neelabh Banerjee, UN Women India, April 2013
Though divorce laws, and their settlements, in some countries are currently more favorable to women, it is often more the result of the fact that women are still the primary caretakers of the children, rather than the result of placing any economic value on years of service doing “women’s work” or any other work.
The expectation that women are the “natural caretakers” of children and the home was, and still is, one of the most fundamental pillars of all patriarchal economic systems, from feudalism to capitalism. And it translates to an institutionalized, systematic impoverishment of females.
For example, in 2002, the British Office for National Statistics released their “UK 2000 Time Use Survey,” which found that “if unpaid household chores were treated like other work, it would be valued at more than three-quarters of the paid economy”—in other words, worth £700 billion. The study also found that women spent an average of four hours a day working on household labor, while men spent an average of two hours and twenty minutes a day on household labor.5
In 1995, the United Nations determined that “more than two-thirds of the world’s unpaid work is done by women—the equivalent of $11 trillion or almost 50% of world GDPc [Gross Domestic Product].”6
In 2006, the Canadian government released their “Statistics Canada” study which found that of the 25 billion hours of unpaid work performed every year in Canada (including volunteer work, care-giving, and housework), women were responsible for two-thirds of it. The total value of the unpaid labor was approximately $319 billion annually, or 41% of the Canadian GDP.7
According to the Canadian women’s advocacy group, HealthBridge, the number of hours women spend on unpaid labor in some Asian countries is far higher than the average European country:
In Bangladesh, women average 16 hours at day on unpaid work,d for a total of 771.2 million hours annually and an estimated value of US $70 to $91 billion (or more than 100% of GDP).
In Nepal, rural women average 13.2 hours a day on unpaid housework, while urban women average 9.7 hours. HealthBridge estimates that including the value of this unpaid labor would nearly double Nepal’s GDP.
In Vietnam, women’s unpaid labor averaged five hours a day; if valued as productive work, GDP would increase by 66% to $135.9 billion.8
Cartoonb courtesy of UN Women, which strives to make women’s work count in the economy. The share of unpaid activities for females was 51% as compared to only 33% for males in all the states of India.9 Copyright 2011, Neelabh Banerjee/UN Women.
Most historians, along with most economists and policy-makers, dismiss “women’s work” as unproductive and outside the relevant world of history, politics, and economics. Take any period in U.S. history and read the history books about who the workers were and who created the wealth; we’re taught it was the men. But this has never been the case. Women throughout history have always been the shepherds, the farmers, the indentured servants, the slaves, the serfs, the craftspeople, the merchants, the mill workers, the clothing makers and cooks, the sweat shop laborers, and the factory workers right alongside men.
But even the discussion about whether women are important economic producers is, itself, rooted in a false and sexist premise: It’s based on the notion that the unpaid, devalued labor performed by females has no inherent economic value, and that any economic value assigned to her labor derives solely from activities deemed valuable and productive by the very ones who devalued her labor in the first place.
An example of how this kind of thinking used to be applied to another group of marginalized, devalued people was the mainstream, racist history of slavery in this country. We used to be taught that all the wealth created during slavery was the result of white plantation owners! Certainly no one today (other than the most unreconstructed white supremacist) any longer disputes the fact that the unpaid labor of enslaved black people was of such extraordinary economic value that much of the South’s—and the nation’s—wealth and ascendancy resulted from that initially devalued labor.
Why, then is women’s unpaid labor dismissed as nonproductive and tangential to the world’s economic structure? In fact, if women ceased performing all their unpaid, “nonproductive” labor, the entire world would be plunged into an economic disaster of unparalleled proportions—unless men immediately took on the unpaid labor that women were no longer performing.
The absolute and stark reality is that if men and boys participated equally in all the unpaid labor of daily life and of raising and feeding a family, it would be impossible for men to have the sufficient extra time to take the running of the world away from the women. Losing the ability to control and manipulate women’s free time in order to increase their own free time would result in the death of patriarchy.
It is, in the end, only the women’s unpaid labor and time that gives men the time to wrest control of the earth.
even more in depth…..
The Notes to the Role of Gender in Upholding Capitalism:
a: It isn’t only women whose time is stolen: In most countries, girls are expected to start in on their unpaid laboring as early as they can walk, carry food or water, serve the men, look after the baby, or sweep the floors. In some countries, where education is given first to the boys, the daily labor performed by the girls is what allows the boys to go to school and keeps the girls illiterate.10
b: This is one of twelve cartoons that were created specially for UN Women by three leading cartoonists from three major Indian newspapers to graphically show the current status of women in India and advocate for change. Using the slogan, “It’s time to change your attitude towards women,” Neelabh Banerjee (Times of India), Jayanto Banerjee (Hindustan Times), and Sudhir Tailang (Deccan Chronicle) contributed their cartoons as part of a campaign by UN Women and the National Commission for Women to create greater awareness about women’s status and promote women’s empowerment in India.11,12
c: It was because of this study that the slogan arose, “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the means of production.”6
d: In Bangladesh, HealthBridge found that, like India and Pakistan, “a typical woman’s day starts by 5 a.m. and ends after 10 p.m.”8