Sunday, July 11, 2010

Follow-Up To Arethusa And Dance

Arethusa wrote in the comments on my response to Dance a while back:
Just a question on this:

"Given that most societies have settled upon broadly equivalent gender roles, women staying home and nurturing/men going out and fighting or politics or business, I've gotta think there's some net benefit to them."

Partly this is a natural division of labor, which makes sense in most societies, civilizations, assembly lines, what have you, because division of labor breeds greater resources, and economic and cultural development. Clearly there's a gendered aspect to this initial division, since women bear children. But doesn't the idea of fixed gender roles come after the division of labor? It's a far cry in ancient Greece, for instance, from Neolithic hunter-gatherers to fifth-century Athens with its extremely tight gender roles (at least for upper- and middle-class citizen women).

Which brings up another point. Strict gender roles often appear to be a privilege of the upper classes, i.e., the wealthier a society, the more likely there is to be fixed roles. So is it just a question of social benefit?

FLG'd been thinking about this for a while. He was kinda thinking along the lines of how gender roles also signify class. And then in the comments of a post by Dance on the intersection of gender roles and high heels, he saw this:
Also has something to do, I think, with the association between high heeled shoes and aristocracy and the rejection of aristocracy during the French Revolution.

And that prompted a thought, at least in respect to the gender roles of upper- and middle-class citizen women in fifth-century Athens. Please note FLG's limited understanding of Ancient Greece, but he does know many of the philosophers, Aristotle in particular, pretty much abhor physical labor. Consequently, wouldn't the class structure naturally influence gender roles to signify that middle- and upper-class citizen women were very much not involved in physical labor? Which is sorta to say that the gender role was constructed precisely to demonstrate their difference from Neolithic hunter-gathers, or perhaps more accurately, the slaves in contemporary Athens.

Does this undermine FLG's argument that gender roles have both good and bad consequences? No. Does it undermine his argument that there is some benefit to them because they are similar across time and space? Perhaps not. China had feet binding, which according to Wikipedia "was first practised among the elite and only in the wealthiest parts of China, which suggests that binding the feet of well-born girls represented their freedom from manual labor and, at the same time, the ability of their husbands to afford wives who did not need to work, who existed solely to serve their men and direct household servants while performing no labor themselves." So, you have the feet stuff, tying back to Dance's post on high heels, and stuff about not doing physical labor.

Now, clearly foot binding is an extreme example and the practice caused horrible deformities, but when you have a similarity in both Western and Eastern cultures FLG has got to think there's something universal there. What that is FLG doesn't know. And to be honest the foot binding thing is so offensive to FLG that it makes him question some of his stance on the gender roles thing. But the division of labor among the sexes is central somehow. And the wealthier the more specialized and nuanced the division of labor and role in society. But then how much of this is genderized versions of class markers?

2 comments:

arethusa said...

"...many of the philosophers, Aristotle in particular, pretty much abhor physical labor. Consequently, wouldn't the class structure naturally influence gender roles to signify that middle- and upper-class citizen women were very much not involved in physical labor? Which is sorta to say that the gender role was constructed precisely to demonstrate their difference from Neolithic hunter-gathers, or perhaps more accurately, the slaves in contemporary Athens."

I certainly think that that has something to do with it in Athens, but it doesn't explain, say, why women were much more liberated in other Greek cities like Sparta and Thebes than in Athens. I was just using Athens as a comparison in my original comment. Generally, I agree with you about gender roles, I just think class ties in as well: upper classes have the luxury to view women as non-economic, while the lower classes don't.

Withywindle said...

Speaking of foot-binding: I once chatted with a professor of Chinese history who noted how the various civilizations in orbit around China, although they imitated great swathes of Chinese culture, had approximately zippo interest in importing foot binding. She thought some sort of article on the lack of influence of foot-binding was worth writing.

 
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