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Family sentimentality

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Monday, Dec 11, 2006

In continuing to mull over the ways in which child-care responsibilities derail women’s careers, I began reading The Way We Never Were, a history of the American family by Stephanie Coontz. She puts forward the argument that in promoting individualism (and a separate private sphere), capitalism also instigates a gendered division of labor that shunts onto women all the various ways in which we remain socially dependent, locating them all within the family and outside of the public sphere and the recognized economy so that men can be productively self-seeking: “Self-reliance and independence worked for men because women took care of dependence and obligation…. The cult of the self-made man required the cult of the True Woman”—the “angel in the house”. (This argument is echoed in Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, which finds evidence for it in female-authored novels). Women are presumed to be altruistic by default, while men are “rational” and businesslike in pursuing their advantage, maximizing utility and so on. And when the dog-eat-dog Hobbsean world of unfettered individualism begins to upset men, they can turn to their sheltered women, who exist above such calculation and competition, for solace. “Men began to romanticize women as givers of services and emotions thhat could not be bought on the open market or claimed as political tribute but seemed to flow from generosity and self-sacrifice rather than calculation of exchange.” (Sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s notion of emotion work, laid out in The Managed Heart is relevent to this, too; she argues that women make a economic resource of their emotional management skills after having other avenues to economic self-sufficiency systematically closed off.) From this historical account Coontz concludes that “liberal capitalism’s organization of both society and family depended on a rigid division of labor by gender that denied women the assertiveness that was supposedly the basis of contract rights and denied men the empathy that was supposedly the basis of companionate marriage. The chasm…was to be bridged by love.” (Laura Kipnis’s Against Love has a good rundown of all the confusion, hypocrisy and injustice that stems from this sentimental arrangement.) This, then, is the backdrop against which we are socialized into our genders. If you accept this account of capitalism’s rise, the difficulty of educating away the gender gap in career outcomes becomes much more stark. Those gendered tendencies are embedded in the structures that allowed our economy to assume the form we assimilate ourselves to. The whole thing seems like an inescapable, tautological loop.

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