Thursday, April 19, 2007

Scutwork in the Future

Here's a link to an article by Ruth Rosen, "Why Working Women Are Stuck in the 1950s," on what she calls the "care crisis," connected to the way our culture has defined as "women's work" the routine maintenance of a household:

Linguist and SF author Suzette Haden Elgin's blog recently discussed this article over several days, generating hundreds of comments. Go to and check the archives beginning March 3.

How will our descendants deal with this issue? The most optimistic images of the future envision true equality between the sexes. Later series in the Star Trek universe portray women filling the same professional, military, and political positions as men. I don't remember ever seeing a cleaning crew on any of the Enterprises. Probably robots performed that function. Replicators produced food, at least later in the chronology of the universe, although Neelix on Voyager often cooked from fresh ingredients. Surely not all civilians could afford replicators and robots, though. The protagonist of Robert Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER invents cleaning robots, intended for the average middle-class family, but his earlier models do only a few specific tasks. In J. D. Robb's futuristic mysteries, set in the 2050s, women perform the same kinds of work as men (women officers are even addressed as "Sir"), and droids do household labor. In this universe, such inventions serve only the affluent. In less prosperous households, some human being must be doing the scutwork (defined by Peg Bracken in her I HATE TO HOUSEKEEP book as "chores any boob can do"). American society in Robb's universe includes an official, paid (presumably by the government) career of "professional parent." (A concept I approve of, since it would remove the "welfare leech" stigma for the subsidizing of stay-at-home parenthood, while recognizing that people who choose to bear children are performing an indispensable service for society as a whole. SOMEBODY has to produce a younger generation to keep the economy going when the rest of us get too infirm to work full-time.) But it's not implied that this person necessarily does all the cleaning and other chores as well as parenting. And even with robots (or human servants, for that matter) somebody has to organize and direct the work, maintain the schedules for family members, etc.

In the future, the achievement of true gender equality would, one hopes, render obsolete the assumption that household upkeep is "women's work" -- her responsibility to arrange, even if she doesn't personally do most of the tasks. It would also be nice to see the "scutwork" decoupled from the primary-parent role. If parenthood is recognized (with or without pay) as a full-time job, then it should follow that the person in this role shouldn't necessarily be expected to handle all routine maintenance just because he or she happens to be hanging around the house. Until the advent of universal access to robot servants, though, who will do this work? Would chores be divided according to the number of hours each adult works outside the home? Inversely proportional to income contributed to the household? According to personal preference? (What about the jobs nobody likes?) By a rotating schedule, a point system, or a lottery? These are a few potential solutions discussed on Elgin's blog.

As for the "care crisis" in general, one way to ameliorate the situation would be to make polyandry legal. Aside from moral and spiritual considerations (as a Christian, I of course believe in monogamy), a marital unit of one woman and two men would pragmatically solve a number of problems. (Why not polygyny? Because the female is the reproductive bottleneck, so to speak, and more women in a household would mean potentially more babies, so care-crisis-wise you'd be right back where you started. Besides, historically the harem system has NOT been associated with female empowerment.) Three adults per household would provide three incomes, a big plus in areas with high housing costs. You'd have three people among whom to divide the tasks of daily life. If babies and small children needed care, the role of stay-at-home parent could be rotated, with two income-producing adults always working. Moreover, the average man can't keep up, sexually, with the average healthy woman. Two men to one woman would be just about the right ratio. (Of course, there are down sides to this system. We'd end up with an even greater imbalance between single women and eligible men than we have now. And the male biological tendency to sexual jealousy might disrupt a polyandrous marriage. We can't expect all adult males to behave like the blissful participants in the group marriages of such novels as Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE.)

Anyway, unless we eventually become cosmic disembodied intelligences as in Arthur Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END (a prospect I don't find at all appealing), we'll always have the scutwork to deal with somehow.


  1. I think this will all naturally evolve. Inspiration for how I handle it is already out there. Mothers work outside the home, fulfilling powerful positions in our society right now.

    Corporate Daycare. These are daycare centers on-site for the use of the employees of the corporation. Likewise, in STAR CAPTAINS' DAUGHTER, the USS Maverick has a daycare room, a preschool room, and a school room. These have qualified and highly respected teachers who are assisted by a rotation of volunteers from among the crew and teens.

    Traditionally, families and friends have looked after each other's children. Remember the saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child'? That's also in place on the Maverick and considering that the Captain's brat has ADHD she needs all the help she can get!

    Cleaning. In my optimistic view of the future, people will realize the difficulty and essential work which goes into cleaning and stop demeaning it and the people who do it. On the Maverick, most of it is done by robotics and built-in cleaning mechanisms. One exception, parents will know (as they do now) that it is essential for children to clean up after themselves. This teaches them responsibility, that they must live with consequences of their actions, and how to take care of things should modern technology fails.

    I think the important thing to remember is that human society will evolve out of what is in place today. People growing up needing the nurturing of parents, falling in love, most wanting to pair-bond for a long time and even for life, the desire for babies most women have, the instinct of men to provide for and protect their mates and offspring, the desire to use our talents and be involved in something bigger than ourselves, to be a part of a community, the need for family and friends, and so on - these things are Human Nature. These things have not changed since the origin of the species. They've been perverted and oppressed by evil, but never changed.

    As for the polyandry thing, I have that in a story too. But, this comment is already too long.

    Wonderful thought-provoking column, Margaret. Thanks!

  2. Great post! I like your projection of how things will work out in the far future on your starship.

    However, do read Ruth Rosen's essay. Her main point is that the majority of married women have worked outside the home (for at least part of their lives) for several decades now, and our society still treats the "balancing act" as a personal problem, not a systemic one. There's a famous essay (by a woman) published in the 1960s called "I Need a Wife." Nowadays, every couple could use a third party to perform all the so-called traditional (a tradition actually invented in the postwar economic boom of the 1950s) "wife" duties.

  3. Yeah, I was that third party - a Certified Professional Nanny. In our currant society, few can afford that. Of course, I've also worked and studied as a daycare provider, preschool teacher, and housekeeper too. America is evolving in this area, though slowly. Our trouble is our beginnings with slavery and indentured servants whom we regarded as sub-human. Also, our beginnings by male-dominated beliefs which relegated domestic work to women only. The ideal wife and mother under that tradition does it all - childcare, housekeeping, everything. Her entire self-concept and esteem was based on that.

    Since the future of humanity will not evolve solely from American society, I think we also need to consider how it's handled around the world.

    Take England, for example, the Nanny was an esteemed member of the domestic class centuries before the US. England had nanny colleges and Montessori preschool training schools long before we did. Childcare creches were not a bizarre new thing with the coming of the World Wars, like they were here. Butlers, housekeepers, cooks were all forces to be reckoned with in a tightly ordered chain-of-command. Mothers were not expected to do it all, though they were expected to make sure it got done.

    My favorites are the Ancient Egyptians. Queen Nefertiti's nanny was interred like a queen herself!

    Thanks, will read that essay.