Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Why women’s roles have changed

with 2 comments

In a recent text, I had an excursion on moving and an out-dated world view. The first time I entertained such thoughts was in my early years in Germany, specifically concerning opening hours*, and how my lack of a house-wife put me at a disadvantage. In a next step, the observation presented it self that the opening hours could be a hindrance for women who wanted to work (or move from part- to full-time). Used as I was to the Swedish feminists, I even wondered why there were no loud protests requiring that the restrictive “sexist”/“Patriarchal” regulations were loosened.

*While the current opening hours are fairly civilized, excepting Sundays, the situation used to be horrifying. For instance, when I started working in the late 1990s (and lost the flexibility of the student) there was a blanket ban after 8 PM on weekdays, after 4 (!) PM on Saturdays, and during the entire Sunday. To boot, I lived in a small town where even the legal limits were usually not exhausted: Most stores might have closed at 6 resp. 2 PM or less on week- resp. Saturdays. Correspondingly, going shopping after a long workday was often stressful or outright impossible; and Saturdays were almost as bad. I actually often resorted to buying groceries in the morning and going to work correspondingly later—even though this increased the distance to walk considerably. (Instead of just making a short detour on the way from office to apartment, I now had to go from apartment to store, from store to apartment, and then from apartment to office.)

Ruminating on this and a few other recent posts, I have to question how many societal changes in e.g. “gender roles” or opportunities for women actually go back directly* to legislation**, “enlightened attitudes”, whatnot—and how many to a naturally changing environment.

*As with e.g. a law intended to increase equality and as opposed to a law intended to liberalize the market that happens to have a positive side-effect.

**Irrespective of who is to credit or blame for the changes. The common feminist claim that they deserve the credit is usually unwarranted, at least the positive changes typically being the result of a much wider movement, societal tendency, whatnot. (Note that not all changes have been positive. Consider the U.S. “Title IX” in conjuncture with college sports for a negative example.)

Look at e.g. a typical low- or mid-income* household a hundred years ago compared to today: No dish-washer, no washing-machine, no electric iron, no vacuum cleaner, … and consider how much extra work this implied to keep the household in shape and how much less time there was to go to an office or a factory floor. Or consider what was available to purchase at what prices, adding even more work, e.g. to mend clothes that today would just be thrown away, to grind coffee beans, to bake bread, to make meals from scratch, …

*Upper-income households were more likely to have hired help, making the practical burden of work less dependent on such factors. Indeed, with the relative rarity of household servants today, it is not inconceivable that some upper-income households are worse of today, when it comes to household work.

Or take a look at the number of children: A typical modern Western women has her 1.x children. Compare the effort involved, even technology etc. aside, with having three, four, five children*; or consider how the typically more physical work made it harder to be employed when pregnant.

*Or more, depending on when and where we look. One of my great-grandfathers had nine or ten, if I recall my grandmother’s statements correctly. He was likely already unusual by then, but such numbers are not extraordinary if we go back further yet in time.

Or look at the care for others: Daycare for children? At best rare. Severely sick family members? Often still cared for at home. Retirement homes for the previous generations? Unless we count the poor-house—no.

Or consider the types of jobs available: The proportion of the workforce engaging in heavy* manual labor was considerably larger than today (and larger still if we go back a bit further in time). Such work was simply not on the table for the clear majority of women, because they would not be physically able to handle it—and unlike with e.g. modern day firemen, this would have been obvious from day one, not just on that rare occasion when a maximum effort was needed.

*Also note that “heavy” usually had a different meaning from today, including both longer work-days and, like above, fewer helpful tools. Try, e.g., to cut down a tree with a chain-saw and an axe, respectively.

A deeper analysis might reveal quite a few other similar differences between then and now. However, even from the above, it is quite clear that e.g. the relative benefits and opportunity costs of a woman staying at home and going to work were very different from today.

As an aside, there are at least two changes that I have heard given somewhat similar credit in other sources:

Firstly, the birth-control pill, which is given credit* specifically for contributing to the sexual revolution. This, especially when extended to include other contraceptives and more tolerance against abortions, is probably correct. It would also play in with some of the above, because not all pregnancies of the past were wanted and improvements in various forms of birth-control are very likely to have led to fewer children, even assuming unchanged attitudes.

*Whether the sexual revolution is actually a positive is a matter of dispute, but in e.g. feminist discussions it is invariably seen as positive. (My own feelings are a little mixed.)

Secondly, the impact of WWII on female employment (in at least the U.S.): With a lack of available men, women were drawn upon as a source of labor in some “traditionally male” occupations, which in turn gave them a foot in the door for the future and could have indirectly impacted attitudes. On the other hand, that women were used as labor in WWII could be taken as an indication that attitudes were not the problem, but (as above) that roles resulted from a pragmatic use of people where they brought the greater utility—the war might have done less to change attitudes and more to change utility.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 30, 2018 at 10:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] here the working* hours are even a sub-set of the normal working hours, making it even harder. As elsewhere, an outdated world-view (or resulting “legacy procedures”) might have survived through the […]

  2. […] see e.g. [1] and [2] for some other points on e.g. laws and standards of behavior being influenced by an outdated […]


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