Feminism isn't ready to be swept under the carpet

March 3, 2006

To mark International Women's Day, Ann Oakley explores the changing face of gender studies and why women still wear the pinny in most houses

It is easy to forget that in the 1960s we lacked a conceptual language for describing the influences of culture and the social system on the experiences of men and women. The closest term in social science was "sex roles", but this was limited, and always invited confusion with sexuality. A new language for describing what society did to women became urgent once feminism began to seep into universities. Gender - used to mean the cultural, as distinct from the biological, component of sexual identity - was first used by doctors studying inter and transsexuality. The recognition that "sex" and "gender" were two different explanatory frameworks allowed gender to be seen as a hierarchical system with a life of its own. This made possible all sorts of new, intellectually exciting and politically demanding analyses of men's and women's social position, both in the public world and, most critically, in the private world of the home and of intimate relationships. Many of us who engaged in this work in the 1970s and 1980s hoped that it would transform social science in ways that would parallel the much-needed revolution in the social treatment of women.

Indeed, women in the developed world today are more likely to be employed outside the home, less likely to be married and more likely to be older and single mothers of fewer children than their counterparts in the 1960s. But they still earn less than men.

The pay gap between men and women in full-time employment is stagnating at 17 per cent as evidenced in this week's Women and Work Commission report. But 44 per cent of employed women work part time, where their hourly rate is 59 per cent of that earned by men in full-time employment. Moreover, women are twice as likely as men to live in poverty. While girls at school get increasingly better at passing examinations, the concern over boys' "underachievement" stands in stark contrast to the situation in the 1960s and before, when the underachievement of girls was taken for granted. Fewer than one in five MPs and fewer than one in 20 company directors in the UK is female. Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of violent crime, and one in four women experiences it at some time in their lives. Male violence outranks disease and famine as a cause of global human suffering. These inequalities are reflected in the everyday concerns of many women that relate to personal relationships, men's lack of responsibility for domestic and caring work and the struggle to have and bring up children at the same time as competing with men in the public world. Housework is the most dominant form of labour on Earth - the gross national product of many countries would rise 25 to 40 per cent if the value of unpaid housework were included - but it still tends to be dismissed as trivial and unrewarding. Since the 1960s, studies show that the amount of time women spend on housework has decreased, and for men it has increased, though not by the same proportion. Men in fact create more housework than they do, and children in many households do as much housework as men. Household technology has proved in many ways to be a conservative, rather than a liberating, force. The aim of new products is not to reduce labour but to enable higher and more complex standards, imposing a greater burden on superwomen who find themselves set up to Have and Do it All. Even in supposed paradises of gender equality, such as Sweden, 87 per cent of couples do not share housework. In a study of children's toys in Sweden, girls' rooms contained three times as many "household" toys and eight times as many "care-giving devices" as boys' rooms (which contained "tools" and "transportation" items). Popular culture sets up different images for boys and girls infused by a kind of "retrosexism", which echoes a pre-feminist formula of traditional gender relations. For girls, the idealised sexy thin feminine body image dominates at ever younger ages; boys are exposed to a very different and often anti-social repertoire of macho behaviours.

Although the "new man" is more likely to play with his children than to clean the toilet, women still do most of the childcare. Most important, they take responsibility for ensuring that someone does it, in a situation where, in many countries, the scanty public provision of good-quality, affordable childcare outside the home reflects the meagre policy attention given to children's issues. In the UK, there are enough childcare places for only 12 per cent of children under eight. A full-time nursery place for a child under the age of two typically works out at more than £7,000 a year.

The good news is that we undoubtedly know much more about all this because in the 1970s, social science became sensitised to its own gender blindness. Academics realised that "objective knowledge" is informed by subjective values and choices about what to study. For example, women used to be marginal in theories of social class, unimportant outsiders in the study of deviance, "over-present" in studies of the family and marriage and relegated to particular roles in industry and work ("work" here, of course, omitting domestic labour). Much of this has changed. Studies of employment do not routinely treat women as a separate case, for instance, though class relations are usually still seen as the primary stratification system underlying the evidence of inequality, with gender relations occupying a secondary and quaintly puzzling role. Theorising patriarchy is a minority interest, regarded with mistrust as tainted with the politics of feminism, while the biases in our knowledge due to the politics of masculinism go largely unnoticed.

Knowledge about women and gender has changed in other ways. Because you have to talk to people to find out about their experiences, there has been a huge and important expansion in qualitative research. This has enabled us to learn much more about the ways in which gender relations and discourses shape everyday lives. But there is a tendency here to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We still need quantitative methods to describe how women are doing - to test whether the rhetoric that we are all equal now stands up to empirical scrutiny.

But some argue that gender is an idea that has passed its sell-by date. First, they say, sex, as well as gender, is socially constructed: the simple dichotomy of biology and culture is too simple. A second argument is that scientific understandings of sex largely "explain" gender: everything proceeds from our genes. Hardly a day goes by without a headline citing some new genetic "explanation" for behaviour. Sociobiology (which used to be called eugenics) is part of popular discourse, where it functions largely as a means of justifying the status quo. Women are naturally better at childcare; their brains are maladapted for logical thought but specialised for the kind of multitasking needed to sustain a home. What we see in such arguments repeats earlier historical moments when men felt challenged by women's advancement as citizens and called on Mother Nature to drag them back into the home.

There is something else going on here, however, that spells certain death for gender. Postmodernism, a deconstructionist programme confined largely to academia, disputes the idea of a stable reality and categories of meaning. According to this, gender is something people play with and act out; it has no essential meaning beyond the individual. Women don't exist as a category; it makes no sense, therefore, to speak of the ways in which the social system is stacked against them. These arguments are linked to the general backlash against feminism that caricatures any concern with the existence and consequences of social differences between men and women as politically old-fashioned (as well as clearly detrimental to one's career, both inside and outside academia). This isn't original either - in her famous essay on women and writing, first published in 1929, Virginia Woolf called it being "sick to death" of the word "women".

But reality is the ultimate test of theory. The theory that feminism has done its work and that we are all as equal as we can be just doesn't stand up against the evidence. Thankfully, there seems to be considerable interest among young people studying social science in the old idea that it can help us to understand and explain the evidence of social divisions. I get regular e-mails from school students who ask questions about what the family means to men and women; how to study housework and the economic differences between men and women; is sociology still sexist and why is this? It is time to revisit the issues that feminist sociologists raised in the 1970s. Social science still needs the idea of gender. The structures of gender relations, heterosexism and masculine power are persistent features of social systems and they need to remain a focus for our efforts to produce policy-relevant knowledge.

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and social policy and founding director of the Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. The Ann Oakley Reader is published by Policy Press. Her book Gender on Planet Earth (Polity Press) elaborates on the evidence about gender referred to in this article.

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