How to miss the point: Lesson 1

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Guardian newspaper. But I can only hope Tim Lott’s column today is a poor attempt at a spoof:

This week I am going to write about the biggest taboo in relationships I know… I’m going to write about money. Money in marriage is incendiary. It involves issues of power, feminism, patriarchy, trust and much besides. I have tried to write this column once before and had it flatly vetoed by my wife because she felt that the ground I was treading on was too dangerous.

Sensible wife. Tell me, why did she think it was too dangerous?

This column appears only after an emotional and sometimes painful back-and-forth about the subject. She accused me of sexism, while I suggested she was using double standards (I asked her, in her imagination, to switch the gender roles to see how it would look then).

Ah. I expect she found that reassuring. When people suggest that I switch gender roles in my imagination, I feel totally reassured they’re not being sexist.

My wife works as a part-time associate lecturer and, like many part-time workers, who are predominantly women, tends to be discriminated against in terms of financial reward and employment opportunities. I, on the other hand, am reasonably well paid for challenging but not backbreaking work.

Probably not unusual. So tell me, Tim, what are the implications for your family’s home life?

My wife does more of the childcare, cleaning and cooking than me. This is predominantly for practical reasons. She is physically at home for a lot more of the time than I am and, with a part-time career, she has more hours available. She also tackles all the laundry, having rejected my offers of participation in that area after I shrunk a cashmere sweater, pegged it out incorrectly and turned a dazzling white load grey.

Oh! Of course. Those pesky practical reasons why women do more childcare, cleaning and cooking.  And of course, all your talent for challenging but not backbreaking work doesn’t mean you could learn to wash a sweater.

The income inequalities also mean that if there’s a big expense, like a foreign holiday or house improvements, I tend to have the last say. She feels that infantilises her, as she needs to “ask me”…  My wife says that my having more money than her makes me feel powerful. She’s right – up to a point. It gives me an area of control, although I don’t think I use it in order to control. I just think that some form of imbalance is inevitable.

Unbelievable. I just don’t even know where to start. Go read it for yourself.



7 thoughts on “How to miss the point: Lesson 1

  1. “She accused me of sexism, while I suggested she was using double standards (I asked her, in her imagination, to switch the gender roles to see how it would look then…”

    I think there are a lot of men out there, even men sympathetic to feminism (in the sense of feminism as ‘equality between the sexes/genders’) who say things exactly like this. It’s surprisingly difficult to explain to some guys that you just can’t run thought experiments where you switch genders, slap on a pro forma ceteris paribus clause, and call it a day. It turns out that the world is too complicated for that move.

  2. Wait until he hits a little bump in life and loses that full time, not too hard working, better paid job. Then he will have plenty of time at home if he manages to stay out of the corner bar. Then he can write another column. If he is down to writing on topics like this to fill space in an internationally read newspaper, he might be losing it sooner than he thinks.

  3. It’s not that hard. When I was married, after my husband got a job with his master’s and I was still in school as an undergraduate; we pro-rated the rent. We divided most of the housework like we did in the student housing co-op where we met. I cooked. He did the dishes. We did laundry together.

    As a live-in caregiver for a transplant candidate and his special needs daughter, we had rules for respectful and helpful behavior that applied to everyone. Don’t leave a trail— clean up our own messes; and the most essential rule — “no one’s desires before everybody’s needs.” The fact that that job was considered “unskilled” is theft.

    Women’s work isn’t calculated in the GDP, so our entire nation colludes with this notion that running a household and caring for infants, teaching them how to speak and walk, being responsible for making sure that children have what they need to be healthy and sociable is “unskilled work” that really is much less valuable than the salaried job a man might have marketing swizzle-sticks.

    The idea of living in a family in one house in which everyone is living in a different economic class is inequity itself.

  4. There does seem to be a difficulty with those who decide to run a household part-time or full-time in the place of salaried work because you start contributing time instead of money to the household, and that looks a lot more like an employer/employee relationship betewen you and your partner than you might like. In that case it seems like treating a part of the salaried income (more for the non-household worker) as joint wouldn’t be such a bad idea: especially if the alternative is simply paying one’s partner a salary. I imagine that the former could actually be financially almost identical to the latter (if ‘joint’ means that it can be used equally by either partner, then it’s basically a transfer from the higher salaried partner to the lower salaried partner) but obviously it’s psychologically quite different.

    Is there another agreed upon solution to this kind of issue? I imagine just treating household workers as state workers might be one, but that seems pretty contentious. For example, you couldn’t just go by what the state would have to pay if the relevant work weren’t being done. After all, if the state is not willing to pay $x to bring a child into existence but will pay $x to raise it once it already exists, then it would be bad to transfer that $x to the parents raising the child as that incentivizes having the child in the first place. There will also be cases where the state wouldn’t otherwise have to pay for the work being done, or where there’s less social good being created than there are benefits to the peson themselves. But insofar as we think of certain things (e.g. taking care of the elderly) as something guaranteed by the insurance aspect of our taxes, it seems like the state paying some amount for these tasks to be undertaken by non-state workers such as relatives is totally justified. I’m not sure if the same would go for other kinds of household work, but perhaps it would.

  5. “When he is in a cooperative and benevolent relation with woman, his theme is the principle of abstract equality, and he does not base his attitude upon such inequality as may exist. But when he is in conflict with her, the situation is reversed: his theme will be the existing inequality, and he will even take it as justification for denying abstract equality.

    (fn. 2: For example, a man will say that he considers his wife in no wise degraded because she has no gainful occupation. The profession of housewife is just as lofty, and so on. But when the first quarrel comes, he will exclaim: ‘Why, you couldn’t make your living without me!’).

    “So it is that many men will affirm as if in good faith that women *are* the equals of man and that they have nothing to clamor for, while *at the same time* they will say that women can never be the equals of man and that their demands are in vain.”

    – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, xxxii

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