February 28, 2010
(The following experimental thoughts were inspired by some fascinating remarks by Oliver O’Donovan in recent class.)
Christian conservatives have an odd tendency to divorce social and moral problems from economic problems. A classic example is the issue of women in the workplace. I grew up in a small subculture that strongly opposed the idea of women having careers and that traced many of the ills of our society to the feminist movement, and the loss of a proper understanding of the family and the gender roles it presents to us. Interestingly, feminism seems to have largely missed some of the economic roots of the problem as well. According to the conservatives, the problem was that a proper understanding of the family collapsed, feminism went around persuading women to be uppity, and, thinking they had to prove themselves, women marched out into the workplace. According to the feminists, the workplace was full of sexists who wanted to keep their power over women by refusing to let them work, and it took a sustained and aggressive campaign by women to get equal employment rights.
While there is truth in both of these narratives, both ignore another tremendously significant factor--namely, that the world of business had a very good reason for wanting to haul women in, rather than keep them out: wages.
Until the middle of the last century, there was a widespread cultural consensus (strongly propounded by Catholic social encyclicals, among other things) that a business ought to pay its workers a wage sufficient to support a family in reasonable comfort, the assumption being that in each family, only the father was working out of the home, and the father had to earn enough to provide. Normal wages then, by the 1950s, having to meet this societal expectation, were quite high. Businesses, then, had a strong incentive to increase the supply of wage-earners, thus bidding down wages, and indeed, to overturn the whole cultural consensus that there would only be one wage-earner in a family. Although it is true that many sexist businessmen let prejudice get in the way of good economic sense, it is nevertheless true that the liberation of women and breakdown of the traditional family was largely motivated by economic interest on the part of businesses. The radically different understanding of gender roles and of the family that we now have to deal with was not so much a triumph of liberal social ideals, then, but of capitalism; indeed, we could say that this was perhaps capitalism’s greatest triumph of social revolution.
The consequent bidding down of wages and changes in the structure of the marketplace have had wide-ranging economic effects as well, helping turn us into more of a consumerist culture. In the old family organization, it was the husband’s duty to bring home the wage, and it was the wife’s duty to help make that wage go as far as possible. The wife practiced “home economics,” making the home an efficient, thrifty economic unit so that some of the wages could go into savings. Now, with the wife out in the workplace, no one has the time and expertise to practice thrift and home economics. It is now normal for families to eat out almost as much as they eat in, and to buy overpriced and unhealthy pre-cooked meals when they do eat in. Instead of caring for their children, they pay others to do so, and pay for all sorts of toys and activities to entertain the children. In short, families no longer create or maintain any of the things they need for life, but simply purchase them and replace them as soon as they are worn out. The family is no longer a carefully-run economic unit, but a federation of two income-earning and several income-spending units. It is surely true that many factors besides women in the workplace have helped cause this transition to consumerism, but this shift is certainly one that deserves more attention than it is generally given.