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Women and Economics

Owen Stewart Nov. 14 2011 Anne-Marie Feenbirg-Dibon

Written in 1898, Charlotte Perkins-Gilmans book, Women and Economics, touches on many important issues expounded by the First Wave of feminism. It is a very logical book, and looks at, among other things, the causes of womens oppression, how women are oppressed, and why this is bad for the human race. In essence, Gilman writes that women are oppressed through their economic dependence on men, that this oppression is propagated by society and that it in turn, hurts humanity. Though not entirely relevant to todays world, much of what Gilman writes can apply to modern times. In short, women are oppressed by a patriarchal society that excludes women from economic independence. A woman, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, was one hundred percent dependant on a man (preferably her husband) to survive. If a woman did not have a husband, then prostitution was a ready alternative, but again left a woman just as dependant on men for economic survival. This economic dependence on men extended to exclude women from the benefits of progress and from taking credit in the development of a progressive society. This doesnt mean that women had no influence on progress and wealth creation, as women helped make the conditions for men to create wealth, but never actually created wealth themselves. Here, Gilman draws a connection between economic independence and freedom. If you are not economically independent you cannot be free, and women were certainly not economically independent. She often draws connections to the natural world to back up her point. There is no animal in the world which has one sex entirely dependent on the other for its survival. If this situation did exist, then it would hold back the species, as half of the population would be forced to provide for the other half. She does make concessions that at one time in history, it may have made sense to set up society in a patriarchal nature, but that we as a species have moved beyond that time, and our patriarchal society has evolved to oppress women and hurt the human race.

The complete economic reliance of women on men cannot be over stated. The world was the mans to command. No matter where he landed on the socio-economic scale, men went out, worked and earned a livelihood, while women were confined to the home, raising children and doing (or organizing) housework. Going further, Gilman makes the point that woman actually do more (unpaid) work than men, as women are cleaners, cookers, educators, organizers and counsellors while men have a job. These tasks are more than a womans employment, but have become a womans duty. There are a handful of reasons as to why women continue to be oppressed. The first and another of the major themes of Women and Economics is the idea of conditioning and a social norm. Gilman explains the difference between gender and sex, and how gender is a social construct with little or no basis in the natural (physical) world. This means that women and men act the way they do because of society, not from some biological pre-disposition. And if society made gender what it is, then society can change these gender roles, and in particular change what Gilman sees as the negative aspects of gender roles in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gilman makes a connection between a womans role as the educator of a household (teaching the children) and the persistence of these gender roles. Firstly, children act like their parents, so from birth children are being conditioned to be a certain way. Beyond that, gender roles are actively encouraged by parents and society. Boys are encouraged to be boisterous, aggressive, and athletic while girls are encouraged to be timid, nurturing and passive. Boys are given G.I Joes and girls are given baby dolls. Boys are given runners, while girls are given flats. All of these factors encourage children to act a certain way and conform to a gender norm. A common argument in favour of a patriarchal society is that women are justified in being confined to the home because of Motherhood. They are biologically capable of producing

children; therefore their roles in society should be constricted to that lone job. In a sense, being a Mother is a womans career. This is wrong for a handful of reasons. Within the home women do much more than simply bear and raise children. As listed above, women are cookers and cleaners as well as Mothers. Saying that Motherhood constricts women to that lone role ignores the realities of what women do in the world and all of the services that they provide. Gilman does make a point to say the monogamous marriage is a good thing, but its perverted manifestation in the 19th and 20th centuries is bad. This sort of marriage creates a employer/employee relationship between husband and wife, except where the womans labour is unpaid. According to Gilman, this oppression of women is bad for humanity in its entirety. Excluding Women from the workforce means you are keeping fully half of the world from producing wealth and participating in human progress. Fifty percent of the minds of the world were uneducated, and were kept from helping in the cause of progress. As industrialization moves forward, there is a greater need for specialized labour. If half of the world is held back from contributing to this specialization, then the whole world will suffer. The gender roles of society are also incredibly negative for the human race, both for men and women. They are exclusive and create a black and white dichotomy. Men must act like a man, and women like a woman, there is little room for an in between. A feminine man or a masculine woman arent what is normal and are ostracised. This means that people cannot be who they are, they must instead conform to what society deems as normal, which is anything but freedom. This separation of the genders has also lead to the over sexualisation of gender roles. Women are raised to be excessively feminine, and men excessively masculine. Women are encouraged to

emphasise their femininity to attract a husband. This means that for a woman to be successful she must be a docile house wife, producing children and a clean home, nothing more. This also forces women into being consumers, not producers, which again holds back the progression of humanity. On the other side of the gender coin, men are encouraged to be overly aggressive, and to seek a woman who fits the perfect housewife norm. This creates unnecessary competition, but also forces men to have to support their family alone, which again isnt freeing. Here Gilman draws another connection between the natural world and our own. Pointing out that in the animal kingdom certain species of animals have excessively developed sexual characteristics (a peacock for example), which play a role in natural selection and the process of evolution. If these sexual charactaristics begin to interfere with evolution (a peacock with feathers too large for it to successfully feed, yet it still reproduces because its large feathers are attractive), then there is a problem for the species. Being confined to the home also creates neurosis and mental stress. These neurotic tendencies can manifest themselves in women who are over protective of their space and role in the world. Coincidentally, these neurosis are similar (though less extreme) to those found in prisoners kept in solitary confinement (Gawande). If women are the ones who nurture and educate children, and women when confined to the home become neurotic, what does this mean for the quality of a childs education? These women who are uneducated, unsocial, and neurotic could not make good teachers. Theyd have few skills beyond those involved with house work, and little experience in the outside world. The women themselves were brought up to propagate a negative societal norm. How can this woman be a good teacher for a child, especially a girl. This neurotic, uneducated woman could only be a negative influence, capable of raising a girl to become a trophy wife, leaving the girl ill prepared

for the realities of sex and the world. Clearly educating children poorly isnt good for the human race as a whole. Women and Economics is a powerful book. It creates a strong argument for the First Wave of the feminist movement. It covers how women are oppressed, why women are oppressed, and why this is bad for the human race as a whole, which is no small feat. It highlights a connection between economic independence and freedom, and also of the ability of society to create what is normal. It is an optimistic book, as Gilman herself states, far from being inscrutable problems, requiring another life to explain, these sorrows and perplexities of our lives are but the natural results of natural causes, and that, as soon as we ascertain the causes, we can do much to remove them and Gilman does just this. She sees the problem of the economic dependence of the world, explains how society encourages and justifies this economic dependence, and finally explains how this economic dependence holds back humanity as a whole.

Works Cited Gawande, Atul. "Is Long-term Solitary Confinement Torture?" The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/30/090330fa_fact_gawande>.

Perkins-Gilman, Charlotte. "Women and Economics." Digital.library Server at Penn Libraries. Pennsylvania State University. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/gilman/economics/economics.html>.