How Big Is Your Package? A Short History of Earning Power

For an edgy, modern rag mag which often publishes articles that run along the lines of empowerment, I was shocked and disappointed by a recent "conversation" piece in Grazia - Are men intimidated by female breadwinners?, 21st May 2012. In it, writer Tony Parsons commented on Chloe Sevigny's assertion that men are put off by her earning more than her in the most out-dated, old fashioned discourse I've read outside the Daily Mail. 
For Parsons, women earning more doesn't just "rock the family boat" but "drives it into an iceberg". "Weedy" men will "cower under the duvet", or stay at home "writing slim volumes of poetry". He dictates to "out-earned" men to "work harder. Work when your mates are watching football. For if a man can't be the bread winner, then what exactly is the point of him?"

It would be fair to say this article filled me with a kind of raw rage. Parsons uses the example of his own bread-winner father, who he apparently didn't see that much, to say he earned more "Because he was a man." This twinning of pride, work ethic and practicality with manhood is at the root of the argument. Parsons reckons wanting to earn a higher figure at the end of each month is "hard-wired deep into the male DNA".

Bullshit. It is certainly hardwired into social DNA, the genes of our oh-so-perfect Western world, but to argue that women's duty is a submissive one and men's an assertive one brings us back to the Victorian era in the blink of an eye. Parsons repeatedly uses the word "natural", and although I'm no biologist, I just don't see anything to do with money as having any connection with our lives as mammals on Planet Earth, and everything to do with the cat-and-mouse game we call cultural interaction. This is a really good way to see how gender identity is constructed over time, a role which we choose to play, a script which the actors have come to believe.

The division of labour in family life along gender lines took place rapidly in the nineteenth century with the birth of capitalism as we know it and the rise of the middle class. Following the industrial revolution, there emerged a new set of people whose livelihoods depended on businesses, who had used skill and wit to carve out new jobs from the emerging economy and the legacy of their lifestyle maps out much of what we believe today about gender and work.

Wishing to set themselves apart from both the aristocracy, whom they saw as frivolous and decadent, and the working class, who worked out of necessity but did not carry with them refinement or taste, the Victorian middle classes came up with a plan. They decreed that the inside, domestic space belonged to women, and the outside world of professional engagement and toil to men. Of course, gender powers were always pretty screwed, but when the class system was more bi-polar, women and men either worked for a pittance or gallivanted fecklessly in pretty equal measure depending on where they were peasant or Lord.

A working woman became a mark of shame, symbolising that the family were too low down in the pecking order to afford otherwise. While working-class women earned pennies in the factories, ship yards and mines, middle-class women were cooped up in the home for decades as living white elephants. With servants doing the real domestic labour, they had little to do around the house all day except to love or loathe their role as "angel of the house". Many, indeed, wrote "slim volumes of poetry". And a tonnage of media, from art to music to literature, cemented this idea of active man and inactive woman into the cultural consciousness.

It's no longer the 19th century; advances in domestic technology mean you don't need servants to afford time for both genders to leave the house. So why obsession with keeping women with only pocket money? The implications for this writing of rules is huge. Parsons believes it is right and just for men to provide for the people they love, and this I do not dispute. That such a right should be the sole preserve of men, however, is wrong. Women are not freaks of nature to feel the same urge.

It is corrosive to speak of how human beings should behave just because of the shape of the flesh between their legs. Keeping women out of work drove many of them crazy, and what inspired both the suffragettes and the Second Wave feminist movements were women's experiences of having brains and nothing to do with them. 
Like Parsons, I speak from experience; my mother has had a higher salary than my dad for a decade or two now, and not without hard work. It never drove their relationship into the any icebergs as far as I could see, although it might have, were either of them to have ever made a big deal of it. My dad's now retired, and enjoys accompanying her on work trips abroad and assisting some of her projects where he can.

Thankfully, Grazia published some counter-views, such as Elizabeth Day's statement that "real mean aren't afraid when their partner does well. Instead, they encourage it." This was certainly the impression my dad gives me; he doesn't need a bank statement to prove he has more Y chromosomes than my mum, he's perfectly aware of his gender already.

Better still, Chris Bell: "Emasculated? Emancipated more like: why can't we finally get to enjoy the benefits of female equality too?" He hits the nail on the head. "Feminism" and "women's lib" are misleading terms. You can't be running around agreeing with the likes of Parsons and squawking for empowerment in any shape or form, Grazia, dear. Equality is not for one side to fight for but both to call a truce on, and the sooner we ditch the obsession with what's natural the better.

1 comment:

  1. So very true, magazines can be so fickle.

    ♥ ThankFifi