Division of labour

14th July 1995 at 01:00
An Anthology of Work and Gender.Edited by Marion Shaw. Faber and Faber #163;15.99 - 0 571 165583.

The idea that man is identified, denoted, by what he does, but woman merely by what she is, lies at the heart of much gender stereotyping still prevalent in present-day Britain.

Although girls streak ahead academically at school, it is boys, not long afterwards, who are earning more money. Though women enter the labour market more easily than men, particularly as part-time workers (which has its own problems of lack of status and, until recently, lack of employment protection), men are still more concerned to get qualified, particularly for heavy industry.

So this anthology is timely. Marion Shaw's introduction makes much of how women's work - "I'm only a housewife" - has been negated; she also remarks briefly on how women's bodily functions, such as childbirth, have somehow been seen as preventing them from doing other things. She could have made more of this.

In Jewish law, for instance, women were not prevented from carrying out the commandments for which there was a fixed time, but merely exempted, because of household duties. But that exemption came to be seen as an exclusion. Just so, the excuse of women's bodily functions making it difficult for them to do the interesting jobs (it never prevented them from sweeping the floor, making beds, and carrying coal) should not have prevented them. But it did, because it suited the men.

Some of the choices Shaw has made are fascinating. The section entitled "Man's Toil" has the expected passages about boat building, ploughing and so on, but also a poem by a former slave, Frederick Douglass: We raise de wheat Dey gib us de corn; We bake de bread, Dey gib us de crust; ...

We skim de pot, Dey gib us de liquor And say dat's good enough for nigger What that says about work is one thing; what it says about status and slavery is much more passionately felt than simply division by gender and by work.

Similarly in the section entitled "Woman's Labour", where much is about childbirth, about the tough, back-breaking lives of working class women, and about being a nun, there is also the passage from Dorothy L Sayers (a working woman if ever there were one). It is about the Cattery, an office purporting to be a secretarial bureau containing women who answered advertisements, whose correspondents later found themselves in court, all too often, on charges of fraud, blackmail or attempted procurement. ". . . all these women were of the class unkindly known as 'superfluous'." Here is passion again, in Sayers' attack on the social system, furious that these were thought of as pointless women, who could neither work nor bring any joy to anyone.

There is also, at the end of that section, the epitaph to Winifred Holtby,great writer, and believer in work: "God give me work till my life shall end and life till my work is done."

Her work was unfinished; her life pitifully short, so beautifully recorded by Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship. She had been a great campaigner for women's rights, and for the rights of working people. It is her message, that defining people merely by what they do, and then slotting them into classes, working, slaves, middle, upper, leads to poor recognition of the value of human beings.

That message emerges from this anthology, but there could have been more on older people, on women past child-rearing. How do we define our being when women carry on with the housework after the men retire? Do they both define themselves by what they are, rather than what they do? There is enough literature on old age to have given Shaw sources for exploring that area.

She might also have omitted from the section on men's definition of work the slogan from the gates of Dachau, "Arbeit macht frei," "Work liberates".For there slave labour killed the inmates, or nearly did, and was never meant as anything except a cynical joke - more to do with political and racist ideology than with definitions of work by gender. But this is a useful volume, even if it could have introduced some less well-known pieces, and an important theme.

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