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Productive vs. Reproductive Labor
Productive labor refers to the activities undertaken by individuals to manufacture commodities and services that would have monetary for society members. In the capitalist society, productive labor is compensated by a wage. Reproductive labor, by contrast, refers to working activities that individuals perform in their domestic environment for the benefit of their families, such as cooking, cleaning and mowing the lawn. Performed on the basis of the laborer’s familial status, reproductive labor is seldom compensated by a wage. It has so historically transpired that the division between productive and reproductive labor has had a greater concern for women. Historically, both Marxism and capitalism sought to enhance the engagement of women in the productive labor market, but refused to acknowledge or compensate the productive value of their unpaid work in the domain of reproductive labor. The pair of productive vs. unproductive labor has been one of the lynchpins of the feminist thinking, especially in the 19th-20th centuries. Indeed, judging by the highest standards, the sphere of reproductive labor is characterized by various inequalities for women. The most persistent tendency is the unequal division of reproductive labor between men and women, of course. According to Glenn, men benefit directly and indirectly from the gendered construction of reproductive labor – “directly in that they contribute less labor in the home while enjoying the services women provide as wives and mothers” and indirectly in that they “can concentrate their efforts paid employment and attain primacy in that area”, because they are free from the trammels of domestic labor. The pair is also important because sexual division of labor at home amplifies sexual division of labor in the market.
Public vs. Private
Just as the division between productive and reproductive labor, the public/private division is indicative of women’s oppression in the labor market – for feminists, at least. The public/private distinction is very akin in nature to that between productive and reproductive labor. From the dogmatic point of view, the public sphere is a predominantly masculine world of business, money and paid employment. The private sphere, on the other hand, is stereotypically conceived as a predominantly feminine realm of household chores and unpaid domestic labor.
The private sphere as it is perceived by feminist thinkers should not be mistaken for the private sphere as it is conceived by economists, because the latter encourages the participation of both men and women in private entrepreneurship. Returning to the feminist public/private distinction, many commentators use this pair interchangeably with the productive/reproductive pair. Yet others tend to regard the public as jobs offered by the government and the private as jobs offered by individual employers. For feminists, both conceptions of public vs. private portray the same evil: unfair division of labor that benefits men. From the perspective of Sassen, improved access of women to public sector has a positive effect on their gender relations. Other feminists, while not reviewed for the purposes of this small essay, would willingly concur in Sassen’s suggestion.
Coercion vs. Content
The dichotomy between coercion and consent is also central to modern feminist discourse. Traditionally, the pair is used in contexts of prostitution. It is commonly thought that sex workers can engage in prostitution either willingly or by force. Brennan, for example, argues that some sex workers are coerced into their trade, while others avoid pimps and “are essentially working freelance”. Interestingly, whereas liberal feminists attest to the dichotomy between coercion and consent, radical feminists demolish it by asserting that consent is impossible in case of sexual subordination. However, it is true that the application of the coercion\consent concept is more far-flung. Indeed, coercion is composed of social, legal and economic circumstances. These circumstances pervade all occupations, not only prostitution. Coerced by any of these circumstances or by a combination thereof, a great number of people find themselves in a situation where they are forced to do a job that they would not otherwise undertake. Such jobs frequently make inroads upon the laborers’ self-respect and dignity. Unlike with the case of prostitution, rare is the feminist who would demolish the consent/coercion dichotomy in this perfunctory employment. Ehrenreich, for example, avers that women and especially immigrant women, while paid some skimpy wage, are often coerced into household maintenance jobs.
It is a matter of conventional wisdom that domestic labor has to get done. Each family reserves the right to decide who will keep their house well-tended. Yet, because of unequal family roles, the decision is often skewed, sexist and outright oppressive. Imaginative solutions to the problem need to be found to ensure that domestic work is done without impairing the interests and offending the sensibilities of any family member. Tapping into the pool of cheap immigrant labor to find a housemaid – a commonly used alternative – often fails to solve the underlying problem, for it only perpetuates other forms of inequality in domestic environments and generates other labor- and ethics-related issues.
Reducing women to domestic drudgery is not good solution to the problem. Historically, it has been the preferred strategy of getting domestic work done in patriarchal societies. The present perfect tense in the previous sentence indicates that this nefarious practice still exists even today, even though many families and entire societies have moved away from it. Desire Porquet argues that “domestic work is an exceptionally feminized area”. The stunning progress of feminism in developed societies has reversed this tendency dramatically. Yet, even in the developed societies, domestic work remains exceptionally feminized. In the less developed societies, the feminization of domestic work remains virtually as persistent as ever.
Reversing the division of domestic labor just for the cause of revenge is not going to solve the problem as well. Once manumitted and politically empowered, African Americans did not make attempts to reduce white folks into slavery. Homosexuals are also unlikely to try and outlaw heterosexual marriage once they win all political and legal rights. Similarly, seeking to force men to become domestic servants would not be an ethically sound decision.
Most peers have focused their discussion on hired housemaids. According to Filomena, for example, hired housemaids can be paid skimpy wages, because they are often representatives of either a foreign race or a minority class. What Filomena means is that these laborers often come from the underprivileged class of immigrants, who are desperate enough to take any job regardless of how much exploitation and humiliation is attached to it. Such arguments find an echo with the arguments of feminist commentators. Ehrenreich, for example, contends that “housework is increasingly left to paid cleaning professionals who are often paid little and treated as second-class citizens”.
In fact, hiring a domestic servant to perform domestic work can be a good solution to families wealthy enough can afford it. Yet, an important reservation is that these domestic servants should receive decent financial compensation for their work and decent treatment. Another solution to the discussed problem would be the division of household chores between men and women based on consent and available time. Men should not avoid washing dishes solely because they dogmatically perceive it to be a feminine task. Such dogmas are old, ossified and inimical to domestic happiness.