work & gender

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Sat Nov 27 16:58:41 PST 1999

[Michael Yates forwarded a book chapter, "Learning About Work," from *Working to Live, Living to Work*. At 60k, it's well over the posting max of 35k. Here's the conclusion; I'll send the whole thing to anyone who asks for it. Please ask offlist.]


The men from whom I learned to labor performed highly alienated work. My father worked at jobs which used only a small fraction of his capabilities. His father used more of his, but he did work whose purpose was to diminish the skills of others. Dad helped to make plates of glass destined for others, under circumstances over which he had only the slightest control. To the company, he was just a cost of production, and in the end, he was treated accordingly. Gradually, the need to support a family overwhelmed his ambitions for another kind of work life. He didn't have the energy to complete the correspondence course, and he could not save enough money to open a restaurant. Thus, he resigned himself to the factory and consoled himself with the knowledge that at least his job was secure and the pay was good. After 44 years, the company gave him the clock which sits on my mantle. A clock for a life. I listen to it tick and think about the man that used to be, before he had to learn how to breathe in short cruel gasps. And in the end too, his labor, the shifts, the overtime, the lost holidays, the sickness, alienated him from those he loved best, his wife and his children.

My mother's work was alienating as well, though in different ways. She, too, never achieved what she might have had she not been enslaved to her family. She had the security she had wanted, but it came at a high price. After a certain point, it would have been difficult if not impossible for her to live without her husband's income, and this dependence cannot have been altogether healthy. So, she did what women did and kept quiet about it. But, most horribly, she is still doing it, and with no end in sight. In a painful song, Marianne Faithful sings about a woman who later commits suicide, "At the age of 37, she realized she'd never ride in Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair." My mother is well past 70, and she says that the only traveling she will do will be through watching episodes of "The Love Boat." I don't believe in life after death, but if there is such a thing, grandmother must be grieving in heaven for her daughter.

And what about me? All other things equal, I was headed for that factory gate, to replicate the life of my father. Thanks to them, however, I beat that rap, just as I later, again with their help, beat my trip to Vietnam. Like most working class parents, they wanted better for me, and luckily their labors didn't make us all incapable of helping dreams become realities. They urged me to read and study, and I was good at these things and I did. I avoided a life of factory work and its attendant miseries. I stayed out of the war, and therefore did not fall victim to the mindless patriotism to which so many working people succumbed after World War Two and which helped to weaken their labor movement.

However, there are a lot of raps I did not beat, and none more serious than the idea that women are not quite the equal of men. I have come to see that all of the rituals which prepared me to be a man-the pool rooms, the bowling alleys, the competitive sports, the fighting, the war stories, the worship of my father-did little to prepare me to be a "human" being. They all seem so stupid now, just tricks of the male trade so to speak, lessons in domination and separation from half of the human race. Still, the sexual division of labor has been so deeply ingrained in me that I have to struggle constantly to overcome it, and I lapse all too frequently into male ways of thinking and acting. In my mind, the only women who come out of the factory gate are Jack's crazy aunts (who, after all, needed their jobs as much as the men and were not the only women factory workers thought to be crazy), and no heroic images form when I think of my mother's daily chores. And yet surely there can be no human happiness and harmony until men and women work together, in the home, in factories and fields and offices, in the larger society, everywhere, as absolute equals. What a shame that, thousands of years after humans began to labor, this is a matter for debate. What a pity that I have to devote any energy to overcoming it.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list