AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF WOMEN IN AMERICA: Women's Work, the Sexual Division of Labor, and the Development of Capitalism by Julie A. Matthaei

AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF WOMEN IN AMERICA: Women's Work, the Sexual Division of Labor, and the Development of Capitalism

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Everything we already know about the history of women's work--and little that's new. Professor Matthaei (Economics, Wellesley) identifies herself as a Marxist; but her Marxism, instead of providing the sharp edge of thought (as with Bettina Aptheker, above), hammers women's history into a familiar framework. Thus, in the ""commodity production unit"" that was the colonial household, the work and family roles of the colonial woman coincided: ""Homemaking entailed filling the needs of her family. The needs that a married woman might perceive. . . were diverse and endless."" This family economy was but ""a stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism,"" for capitalism in its full development ""abolished slavery, replaced the family firm with the factory, and replaced work within the family with wage labor."" Enter the well-worn doctrine of separate spheres. While the capitalist economy ""developed masculine competition and harnessed it to the process of capitalist expansion, women, confined to the home, ""emerged as guardians of the family. . . they acquired the personal characteristics of generosity, sensitivity to the needs of others, and self-sacrifice."" Ever keen to highlight differences among women, especially by class and/or race, Matthaei comments that, while ""Wealthy and middle-class homemakers were able to explore the distinctiveness of family and home life. . . poor homemakers. . . were financially strapped."" The rise of scientific homemaking, the transformation of the working girl, and the entrance of white married women into the labor market are all given a similar dulling treatment. With the breakdown in the sexual division of labor, Matthaei foresees the rise of symmetrical marriages, believing that ""contradictions in womanhood"" have activated ""contradictions in masculinity. . . which lead some men to increase their involvement in family life and reduce their difference from their wives."" A less than revolutionary resolution with distinctly Friedanesque overtones--and more didactic overall than dialectical.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Schocken