So, Do Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism?
Kristen R. Ghodsee on the Tangle of Sex, Money, and Women's Independence
When I was in my twenties, a dear friend of mine, whom I will call Lisa, worked in human resources for a large corporation in San Francisco. Lisa loved fashion, and my wardrobe still includes elegant ensembles she put together for me on our frequent bargain shopping excursions to Filene’s Basement and various thrift stores on Fillmore Street. She had a knack for choosing discount designer treasures and assembling outfits that mixed Levi’s with vintage Dior. Over the years, we kept in touch, commiserating over marriage and new motherhood.
But whereas I started my life as a working mom on the tenure track, Lisa quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom as soon as she realized she was pregnant. Her husband earned enough to support her, and he preferred that she not be employed. His own mother had stayed home, and among their immediate friends, neighbors, and peers, this was the normal arrangement. Lisa claimed this was her choice; she wanted a break from the rat race of corporate America. She had a second child soon after the first and abandoned the idea of returning to the workforce. Lisa thought it was easier this way; she would be physically there for her daughters in a way that I never could be for mine.
In those early years, while she baked cookies and organized playdates, I dropped my daughter off at a full-time day care center, five days a week, costing me a small fortune. While her girls napped, Lisa read novels, worked out, and cooked lavish meals. My first four years of motherhood coincided with my first three years on the tenure track. My life was a crushing routine of harried days. The first time I taught class with my shirt inside out, I cringed with embarrassment when a sympathetic student pointed to my seams. But after the third time, I stopped caring. As long as my skirt wasn’t on backwards, it was fine. I often envied Lisa’s choice, but I’d earned my PhD and landed a good job. I didn’t want to quit. Once my daughter turned five, things got a bit easier. My first book came out, I earned tenure, and my daughter started first grade. Out from under the crippling day care bills, I started to reap the psychological and financial rewards of my perseverance.
A few years later, I spent a weekend with Lisa. Her husband offered to stay in with our three girls so she and I could head to the mall: dinner, a movie, and maybe a little shopping. Our social engagements usually included our children, so this was a real treat. I longed for a few hours of adult conversation with an old friend and no urgent demands for juice or ice cream or unexpected tantrums. A real girls’ night out.
I’d been upstairs at her house getting ready when I realized I’d forgotten my hair dryer. I wanted to ask Lisa if I could borrow hers, but as I started down the steps, I heard Lisa fighting with her husband.
“ . . . Please, Bill. It’ll be embarrassing.”
“No. You’ve spent enough money this month. I’ll give you the card again after the statement rolls.”
“But I shopped for the house and bought clothes for the girls. I didn’t buy anything for me.”I dropped my daughter off at a full-time day care center, five days a week, costing me a small fortune. While her girls napped, Lisa read novels, worked out, and cooked lavish meals.
“You’re always buying things for yourself and saying it’s for the girls.”
“But it is for the girls. They keep growing.”
“You have enough clothes. You don’t need anything else. I’ve given you enough for the dinner and the movie.”
“Bill, please.” Lisa’s voice cracked.
I turned to tiptoe back up the stairs, praying they hadn’t heard me. I hid in the bathroom until Lisa came up, jaw clenched and eyes pink.
We drove to the restaurant in silence. We ordered two courses, and I attempted to prolong the dinner until just before the film started. Lisa seemed grateful to linger.
After our second glass of Malbec she said, “Bill and I had a fight.”
I looked down at my plate.
“He says we don’t have sex often enough.”
I looked up. That’s not the fight I thought I heard.
She swirled her empty glass. “You think we have time for another one?”
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ll drive.”
She drank a third glass of wine, and we chatted about the reviews of the film we planned to see. When the check came, she opened her wallet and pushed some 20-dollar bills across the table at me. I put down my credit card.
She looked at the American Express with my name on it, and sighed. “Bill only gives me cash.”
“Why don’t you let me get this?” I slid the money back at her. “Keep it.”
She stared down at the table for a long moment. Finally, she said, “Thanks,” and scooped the bills back into her wallet. “I’ll fuck him tonight and pay you back tomorrow.”
I sat there, stunned.
Lisa looked at her watch. “If we hurry, I can hit the Shiseido counter before the movie starts.”
Sitting in the restaurant that night, I swore to myself that no matter how hard it was to balance my full-time job with care for my daughter, I would never put myself in Lisa’s position if I had any choice in the matter. “Capitalism acts on women as a continual bribe to enter into sex relations for money, whether in or out of marriage; and against this bribe there stands nothing beyond the traditional respectability which Capitalism destroys by poverty,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1928. Directly or indirectly, sex and money are always linked in women’s lives, a remnant of our long history of oppression.
Too many women find themselves in Lisa’s situation, economically dependent on men for their basic livelihoods. Divorce laws and court orders for child support and alimony will offer Lisa some (possibly inadequate) protection if Bill ever seeks to divorce her, but she remains at his mercy while they are married. All of the labor she performs caring for their children, organizing their lives, and managing their home is invisible as far as the market is concerned. Lisa receives no wages and contributes no funds toward her own social security in old age. She accumulates no work experience and creates a black hole on her résumé, one that will require explaining away if she ever hopes to rejoin the labor force. She even accesses medical care through her husband’s employer. Everything she has she derives from Bill’s income, and he can deny her access to their joint credit cards at will.Directly or indirectly, sex and money are always linked in women’s lives, a remnant of our long history of oppression.
In Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the founders of the Republic of Gilead legislate a blanket prohibition on women’s employment and the seizure of their personal savings. All at once, anyone designated female is fired from her job, and the money in her bank account is transferred into the accounts of her husband or nearest male relative, the first step in returning women to their “rightful place.” The subjugation of women begins by making them economically dependent on men once more. Without money and without a means to earn it, women are helpless to determine the course of their own lives. Personal independence requires the resources to make your own choices.
Free markets discriminate against women workers. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the big bosses considered women inferior to their male counterparts (weaker, more emotional, less reliable, and so forth). The only way to convince an employer to hire a woman was through financial incentives: women cost less than men. If she demanded a wage equal to that of a man, the employer would just hire a man instead. Therefore, women’s comparative advantage in the workplace from the very earliest days of capitalism is that they will do the same work as a man for less money. The idea of the family wage compounds the problem. When women finally entered the industrial labor force en masse and began to dominate light industries (like sewing, weaving, laundry), employers paid women wages for a single person, not a family, even if they were single mothers or widows. Society insisted that women were the dependents of men, and working women were conveniently imagined as wives and daughters earning pocket money to purchase lace doilies for their dressing tables. Husbands and fathers were supposed to meet their major needs for food, shelter, and clothing.Without money and without a means to earn it, women are helpless to determine the course of their own lives. Personal independence requires the resources to make your own choices.
Patriarchal cultures reduce women to economic dependence, treating them as a form of chattel to be traded among families. For centuries, the doctrine of coverture rendered married women the property of their husbands with no legal rights of their own. All of a woman’s personal property transferred to her husband upon marriage. If your man wanted to hawk your rubies for rum, you had no right to refuse. Married West German women could not work outside the home without their husband’s permission until 1957. Laws prohibiting married women from entering into contracts without their husbands’ permission persisted in the United States until the 1960s. Women in Switzerland didn’t earn the right to vote at the federal level until 1971.
Under capitalism, industrialism reinforced a division of labor that concentrated men in the public sphere of formal employment and rendered women responsible for unpaid labor in the private sphere. In theory, male wages were high enough to allow men to support their wives and children. Women’s free labor in the home subsidized the profits of employers because workers’ families bore the cost of reproducing the future labor force. Without birth control, access to education, or opportunities for meaningful employment, the woman was trapped within the confines of the family in perpetuity. “Under the capitalist system women found themselves worse off than men,” Bernard Shaw wrote in 1928, “because, as Capitalism made a slave of the man, and then by paying women through him, made her his slave, she became the slave of a slave, which is the worst sort of slavery.
From Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. Courtesy of PublicAffairs. Copyright 2018 by Kristen R. Ghodsee.