Sex and work

Associate Professor of History Kathryn Tomasek

This winter the ban on female soldiers serving on the frontlines was lifted, which, according to news reports, could free up to 237,000 Army jobs for women, who make up 15 percent of the U.S. military. We talked to Associate Professor of History Kathryn Tomasek about the decision. During the spring semester, she taught “Sex and Work,” about the role gender plays in the workforce. In the course, she examines the persistence of gender division of labor as it has differentiated women’s work from that of men; that division’s organization over time, place and occupation; and its variations by race, class and religion. 

First, how does this relate to your course?

In women’s studies we talk about the gender division of labor all the time. Historically speaking, gender divisions of labor are specific to time and place. One of the most intransigent assumptions about gender divisions of labor is that women shouldn’t be in combat positions. If we think about 18th century ideas about who could be a citizen in the United States, they are built on the notion that a citizen is someone who would be able to bear arms in defense of the nation. Women being in combat positions in the United States is something that, in a lot of ways, we are way behind on, because women have cross-dressed to fight in wars before—Joan of Arc, for example. So it’s not new on the face of the earth. Personally, I would rather we were not at war and that nobody had to put their lives on the line.

What is the significance of this recent decision?

One of the arguments against women in combat positions is that they’re not physically strong enough to do that kind of work. That’s nonsense, because that perpetuates a set of ideas about who all women are. It’s about attitudes about gender and what women can do. Women had to struggle for a long time in the 20th century to be allowed to do jobs that were associated with men because of ideas about women and physical strength. So if this decision changes ideas about what people can do based on gender, this is a profound shift.

What is the source of your interest in gender and labor? 

One of the things that I’ve been fascinated with for my entire academic career is housework and how invisible it is. I expect you would not be surprised to learn that I hate housework. If you come to my house, I can show you the cat hair in the corner, and I can tell you exactly how long it took for me, living in a new place, for the balls of cat hair to develop. When I was married that was all we fought about—who is going to do this work? That’s another incredibly intractable gender division of labor. A lot of things have changed over the past couple of generations, but those kinds of assumptions about who does what kinds of work are part of our daily lives. These ideas are going to hit every single student in their daily lives the moment they are out in the world. So what we’re studying is not just about “big ideas” and it’s not just about public policy. When we study these issues, we’re also thinking about how we spend hours of our own lives.

What do you hope your students get out of this course? 

I want the students to learn the ways in which both the work that women did and the ideas about the work have changed over time. Women have always worked, but the transition to industrial capitalism in the 19th century created new ways of valuing work and compensating people for it. I hope they learn the value of women’s labor and ways to make arguments for that value. We still live in a world in which we need somebody like Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, to tell us that women need to “lean in,” women need to have a particular kind of attitude in order to be able to succeed. I think we teach women in our culture practices that prevent us from succeeding. Some might say that Sandberg is blaming women, but I think that our culture does continue to teach girls that there are other things that are more important than their brains and their work—even after all of these years of feminism, attention to equality and noticing sexual harassment. Despite centuries of efforts on the parts of countless women and men to break down gender assumptions in various places at various times, human beings keep positing these differences. But then, on the bright side, there are characters like Olivia Pope [Kerry Washington] on ABC’s “Scandal,” which I totally love. She was held up as an example in a recent NPR story I listened to. Olivia Pope knows that she works hard, that the work she does is good, and she knows her value, so she can say to anybody, “You would be lucky to have me because my work is so valuable; I’m so good at what I do.” I want every student in this class to be as clear about the value of her work as Olivia Pope is.