Photo by Nhac Nguyen
Artillery Row

Locked out of the office? 

What we’re getting wrong about the daily grind

President Joe Biden recently took to Twitter to lament, “Nearly 2 million women in our country have been locked out of the workforce because they have to care for a child or an elderly relative at home.” However, American women need not fear, because “my Build Back Better Act will make caregiving accessible and affordable and help them get back to work”. The tweet referred to a net drop in women in the American workforce of around 2 million caused, it is believed, by women taking more time to look after children at home, as schools and other forms of childcare shut down.

Cue another culture war fire-fight over whether Biden was in fact denouncing Motherhood and Apple Pie, or if wicked reactionaries were trying to force America’s women to live in some version of the Handmaid’s Tale.

Biden’s tweet is typical of an elite liberal discourse that fetishises work (especially when done by women) as glamorous, fulfilling and empowering. That’s how upper middle class people in media, finance and politics understand their jobs — which even when dispiriting in practice, come with substantial income and social status.

The conservative discourse is only slightly less confused, with many on the right imagining that home life is glamorous, fulfilling and empowering for exactly the same reasons. Some advocates of stay at home mums seem to associate caring responsibilities with large well-equipped homes, packed larders and plenty of money for extra-curricular activities. Women cramped in pokey apartments, having to work out how to pay for their child’s lunch minus their salary because the government closed all the schools, probably aren’t feeling very personally enriched by the experience.

Women have long been the favourite victims of modernity

This is not a new problem in our politics. The modern world has been swept along by the absurd tides of fashionable opinion on the subject of work and family, and women’s place in both for the better part of 70 years. From a concrete political movement that sought equality of social dignity, opportunity and legal status, feminism morphed into a utopian creed that attempted to abolish biological realities, and quickly became a creature of the most revolutionary creed of all: unfettered capitalism.

Women have long been the favourite victims of modernity: from the Victorian doctors who treated women’s “hysteria” with everything from literal poison to lobotomies, to their modern heirs looking to pump them full of anti-depressants, hormonal birth control and (a new favourite) testosterone. It’s hard to think of anything more insulting or degrading to women than a society that attempts to turn them into men, with all the tool wielded by modern science.

Conservatives and liberals are both full of fond illusions about what life was like for women before the modern age, and nothing can better illustrate this than arguments over work and home. Indeed they’re in positive agreement that before the great march of Anglo-American feminism (with its armies of schoolmarms and social workers) the poor ignorant women of history (and the third world today, for that matter) were sitting at home doing the dishes whilst their husband worked 9 to 5 they just bicker over whether that’s a good thing.

Not only have women engaged in labour since time immemorial (subsistence farming never had much of a gender divide), but the Early Modern norm in much of Western Europe was for women to marry at age 25 on average, often to someone they were already sleeping with, after earning a wage for a few years in order to fund their married life. In short, it’s a pattern not unlike the typical modern family. Though the entrance of women into politics, academia and the professions has constituted a massive social shift, it’s a mistake to think today’s family life and women’s economic roles are utterly anomalous, when in fact they follow a centuries old pattern common across Western Europe.

Our debates about family are caught up in rival games of elite status-mongering, rather than being guided by the obvious fact that family life is for most people a practical arrangement, dictated by circumstance rather than ideology. The term “economics” is itself derived from oikonomia, which referred to household management, not grand theories of political science.

For working class families, a single wage is an aspiration

Whilst the divisions of male and female labour we’ve inherited may be imperfect from the perspective of our fanatically egalitarian politics, they are closely adapted to the realities of male and female biology and psychology. It’s hardly a surprise that despite every legal, cultural and ideological force militated against traditional patterns of family life, ordinary couples keep falling into them. You don’t have to be a biological determinist to wonder if brains soaking in different baths of mind-altering hormones, while inhabiting differently constructed bodies, will generally have (on average) different aspirations, habits and aptitudes, or that customs should arise that reflect that reality.

This is not a council of complacency or despair about the potential to broaden the opportunities of women in society, or the necessity of working to improve the equal dignity and status of women. Rather we need to begin these conversations in the midst of the lives and realities of ordinary people, which are ill-served by the high-flown fantasies of our present discourse.

Time and time again when women’s biology has clashed with our modern industrial society, it is women’s bodies that have been altered to fit rather than vice versa. Absurd fetishism has taken over — as if it’s a scandal that more men than women take to designing bridges, or that one finds more women in caring professions.

For most people, work is a wage and caring for children is a hard but loving duty. There’s no vast existential difference for the typical family between work at home and work out of the house — they’re both things that need doing, and get done by the person best placed to do it. Childcare will be a help to some couples, but many others would rather that single income households weren’t punished in the tax system. For working class families, living on a single wage is an aspiration, not a prison of social convention they wish to escape. By the same token, many women who leave jobs to care for children would like to be able to work (especially flexibly, remotely or part time) not because they seek emancipation, but simply because they could use the cash.

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