From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, I was asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's my take on the ancient origins of the battle between the sexes -- and how it still affects us.
Perceptions of sexual differences and proper gender roles are the starting point in understanding the economic crisis, because everything, including economics, is, at its base, about sex.
Let's begin at the beginning by taking the long view -- the very long view -- as I have done in my book Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History:
All of history has been shaped -- and misshaped -- by the real and imagined differences between the sexes. The biological fact that women can do certain essential things that men cannot -- carry, give birth to, and nourish offspring -- leaves men with feelings, often subconscious, of inadequacy (call it womb envy, breast envy, or NMS-the "Non-Menstrual Syndrome"). Because men cannot compete with women in these vital areas, males have generally defined manhood in terms of being the opposite of everything female. A "real man" has usually been seen as "notawoman," and men -- particularly insecure men -- have tried to avoid association with anything seen as female.
In order to compensate for what men cannot do, they tell women that they may not do other things. These artificial no-woman's lands that are created to balance the biological no-man's lands of pregnancy, birthing, and breast-feeding, vary from culture to culture, but they have usually included the clergy, politics, the military, and much of business and economic activity.
The real trouble between the sexes began about ten thousand years ago when women invented agriculture. Once agriculture and animal breeding had been well established, the chief role males had played, that of hunter, was devalued and men found themselves adrift and eventually out in the fields doing what had always been considered the "women's work" of supplying plant food. Men resented these changes and blamed women for the loss of what seemed in distant retrospect to have been a paradise in which plentiful food could just be picked from trees. (If this story sounds familiar, reread Genesis 3.)
Agriculture's devaluing of male roles and eventual moving of men into what had been seen as a female role produced male resentments that have influenced all of recorded history, which can be summarized in a sentence as "Hell hath no fury like a man devalued."
What does all this have to do with contemporary economic problems? Much of history has been shaped by male insecurities, and such insecurities grow in hard times.
What happened to many men during the Great Depression of the 1930s was something like what had happened to men after the development of agriculture. They had defined their manhood on the basis of opposition to womanhood and in terms of being the provider and protector. As they lost jobs and could not find new ones, men faced a situation that was rather like what had happened to their distant forefathers when hunting was de-valued: the role that gave their lives purpose was lost. Men can quite easily "break," as John Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath.
A rough measure of how invested men have been in "notawomanhood" can be found in the fact that during the Depression white men were generally willing to take jobs that had been classified as "Negro work," but most men would rather starve than take a job that had been defined as "women's work."
The male insecurities that have played such a prominent part in history are in some respects even more threatening today. Population growth and longer life spans have had an effect on women's roles somewhat like what agriculture had on male roles. Most women today spend a much smaller part of their lives in reproduction and child care and so have been able to take on other roles, roles which had previously been identified with the other sex. Most of the artificial no-woman's lands have now been entered by women. The gains that women have made in recent decades are threatening to insecure men and the current economic crisis adds to their insecurities.
Those insecurities fuel the irrational anger that is now so evident. It is the latest incarnation of the fury of devalued men. In the minds of many threatened men, "socialism" is a catchword for what they perceive as an increasingly feminized society in which they have difficulty finding a "manly" place.
This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.