Constitutional Hill

Money, power and the everyday oppression of gender roles

During this women’s month, platitudes about how we all respect and admire women (especially if they are our mothers, girlfriends, wives or sisters) will trip off the tongues of even the most zealous sexist. But until we begin to disturb and dismantle some of the most deeply entrenched assumptions and practices regarding gender roles, these platitudes will only serve to legitimise male domination and the oppression of women.

“oor die bedkassie skuif jy my maandelikse tjek/ek sien hoe skerp die woord geld, trek op geweld…” (you shove my monthly cheque over the bedroom table/ I notice how sharply the word money, resembles the word violence…) – Antjie Krog in Lady Anne

My mother was not a great fan of washing dishes, cooking dinner, washing baby nappies or cleaning the house. She preferred drinking white wine or pink Cinzano campari’s and smoking her Ransom Select cigarettes while arguing with the men about politics, books and rugby.

When she had to submit baked goods for the Vroue Landbou Unie Skou, she asked me to bake it. (We won first prize every time.) When she did bake she would leave the kitchen in an terrible mess and I would hear her mutter: “Oh, dashitall, this is a big smash”.

She was rather disdainful of the way in which some of her women friends tended to congregate in the kitchen to make salads and to talk about babies, bridal showers and hysterectomies. (Is it really true that doctors once thought that problems with the womb were responsible for emotional disturbances in women, so they labeled those diseases “hysteria” or “disease of the womb”?)

But on those days when dishes had to be washed, dinner had to be cooked or the house had to be cleaned, she did it with a white, burning, rage that awed and frightened us.

It was only later that I understood her anger.

Somehow my father – whom I had always though of as a liberated man – never cleaned the house, changed any nappies or washed the dishes – not for as long as any of us children were living at home. And only as a special “treat” did he ever make his “famous” pea soup or scorched the meat on the braai.

Despite being a liberated man, he enjoyed his male privilege without too much shame.

Of course, in the world my parents lived in my mother had no choice in the matter. She had to raise her children and (sometimes) do the housework – even though she was never paid a salary to do it.

In our culture, women seldom get paid a salary for doing so called “women’s work” for the families they are part of.

No wonder my mother was sometimes angry.

(The very idea that there might be “women’s work” is of course a deeply oppressive construct. It is no coincidence that such work has a low status in our culture and in a capitalist society more generally. It is also no coincidence that – even when it is done for a salary for other families – it is a low-paying job. Ask any domestic servant.)

A woman who cannot afford to pay another woman (very little) to do her housework and to raise her children and whose partner does not share in the household responsibilities (because he or she claims it is “women’s work”) often does it for free; mostly with the understanding that as long as the partner (who always has the final say) wants the woman to stay around, he will contribute financially to the household expenses.

This way of organising the world, in which different gender roles (sometimes with some modification) are assumed to be normal and natural, ensures the maintenance of male domination. In this arrangement the man in the relationship always has more power than the woman.

There is nothing normal about this arrangement. It serves the interests of patriarchy and bestows privileges on men who are in long-term relationships with women.

The fact that it is presented as “normal” is the way in which male privilege is maintained. Just as the fact that feminism and feminists are demonised as men haters and hysterics help to maintain the status quo of women’s exploitation.

The exploitation of a group of people is often maintained through the normalisation of the assumptions and practices that ensure the oppression of the less powerful group.

Ask many of us white people who lived through apartheid and (if we are honest) we would say that life seemed shockingly normal to us. For many white people apartheid was just the order of things, something that was never questioned because – from the vantage point of privilege – the enormity of the inhumanity was largely invisible to us.

Although the two kinds of oppressions are not exactly the same and although different forces are at play in the two types of oppression, it is interesting to see how many men who oppose racial oppression and talk about the need for the achievement of economic freedom for black South Africans, insist that traditional gender roles for men and women are “normal” and that there is nothing exploitative or oppressive about the ideology invoked to maintain such roles.

Often this is justified with reference to religion, tradition, culture or biology.

Thank goodness, the emergence of less traditional families now pose a fundamental threat to this model – which is one of the reasons why so many men feel deeply threatened by lesbian relationships and why they ridicule men who share household duties with their partners.

My mother did not have complete economic freedom and for periods of her life she depended financially on my father. Because my father often had the better paying job he had a form of power that my mother did not have. Even when he behaved atrociously, my mother was constrained to do anything about it: his relative economic freedom and power gave him some control over my mother.

She was a strong and independent woman. But my mother did not enjoy the kind of economic freedom that would truly allow her to be free to make choices that would always serve her own best interest. And that is the position that many men like women to be in.

When the Constitutional Court had the opportunity to consider the corrosive effect of the assumptions about traditional gender roles that underlie much public policy and legislation in child rearing (and the way such traditional assumptions are preserved and promoted by policies and legislation), the majority of the Court failed to grasp the seriousness of the matter.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Justice Johan Kriegler who demonstrated a better understanding of the issue. Kriegler might at first glance not look like your average feminist. But I have met his wife Bettie and (perhaps unkindly to judge Kriegler) have always thought that she looks like a person who would have taught him a thing or two about sexism and patriarchy.

In his dissent in the case of President of the Republic of South Africa and Another v Hugo Justice Kriegler found that an act by the President which pardoned only certain female prisoners on the (lamentable but factually correct) assumption that women “bear an unequal share of the burden of child rearing”, unfairly discriminated against women by perpetuating discriminatory stereotypes about them.

In my view the notion relied upon by the President, namely that women are to be regarded as the primary care givers of young children, is a root cause of women’s inequality in our society. It is both a result and a cause of prejudice; a societal attitude which relegates women to a subservient, occupationally inferior yet unceasingly onerous role. It is a relic and a feature of the patriarchy which the Constitution so vehemently condemns.

Kriegler wrote that he found it “startling” that the discrimination was justified on this basis. In a world in which it is assumed that women has no choice in the matter and that they will be the primary caregivers of children, you rob women of the ability to make dignity-bestowing life choices.

[T]here are decided disadvantages to womankind in general in perpetuating perceptions foundational to paternalistic attitudes that limit the access of women to the workplace and other sources of opportunity. There is also more diffuse disadvantage when society imposes roles on men and women, not by virtue of their individual characteristics, qualities or choices, but on the basis of predetermined, albeit time-honoured, gender scripts.

Of course, in an ideal world men and women would have the same social status and economic power and if they form relationships and have children (instead of forming relationships with somebody of their own sex) they would all make rational choices on how to allocate housework and childrearing duties that will have nothing to do with the sex or gender of the partner.

Now here is a thought: This month instead of promoting the sentimental and sexist infantalisation of all women as supposedly weak, emotional, and caring, we can begin to challenge those who actively or through omission valorise stereotypical gender roles.

Let us call them what they are: the oppressors of women.

  • Garg Onzola

    I love your mother, that is all.