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Does Unbinding Prevent Progress? Web Event #3

Polly's picture

Patriarchy and feminism rely on sex, gender and power. Even as the definitions of sex, gender and power change, patriarchy is still the power of one sex over others, and feminism is still a fight for equality and the end of that power. The words and are bound together. What could happen to the system of oppression and the force trying to fight that oppression if their definitions were stripped away? If sex and gender were pushed to the background of society and the subconscious, if mentally, a switch was flicked across the globe and gender was recognized only as a self-chosen identity, there could be two ways of interpreting the new, unbound patriarchy and feminism. Either patriarchy would represent all oppression and feminism all efforts to equalize people, or those two ideas, currently so strong, would have no existence in a world freed from gender and sex, and the power defined by them.

Since there is no global switch that can be turned on or off, a more realistic occurrence would be a movement involving policy and ideological change that accepted that sex is not a category that can be used in power structures to dominate. The problem is that practically, if the equality of all sexes was recognized legally, efforts to alleviate discrimination that are based on the existing inequality in society would become invalid. In order to fix problems involving discrimination by gender, one must work within the system, sacrificing the idealistic acknowledgement of equality, or the unbinding of gender.

This sacrifice was made in the case of the Equal Rights Amendment. This amendment states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” (Francis). It would be a legal unbinding of sex from denial of rights. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1923 but was not passed until 1972. The amendment was given seven years to be ratified, but it was only ratified in thirty-four states out of the needed thirty-eight. The deadline for ratification was then made indefinite, but the amendment has yet to be ratified today. The main reason that the Equal Rights Amendment was not passed for almost fifty years was that women had succeeded in passing “protective labor laws that treated women differently from men” (Francis). Laws that prevented women from working over a certain number of hours per day would be struck down by the Equal Rights Amendment for discriminating on the basis of sex. These women wanted to make progress in labor policy, and they succeeded by working within the ideology that women were not equal to men. The issue of trying to improve the state of the workplace, with wage gaps and segregated fields of work while also wanting to get legal acknowledgement of equality is still relevant today, and will be until both goals are accomplished.

In 1976, during the initial seven-year ratification period of the Equal Rights Amendment, Heidi Hartmann wrote an essay entitled “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” which argues that in order for patriarchy to be overcome, the division of labor by sex must be dissolved. She ends her essay by saying, “we will not eradicate sex-ordered task division until we eradicate the socially imposed gender differences between us” (Hartmann, Capitalism 169). Hartmann explains that capitalism and patriarchy are bound together, enforcing one another. She says, “Capitalists inherited job segregation by sex, but they have quite often been able to use it to their own advantage” (Hartmann, Capitalism 166). Capitalism with job segregation and wage differences fuels the patriarchy, providing power to men. In order to fix the wage gap and the labor segregation, and the oppression of patriarchy, the systems need to be unbound from one another, and that means first “eradicating” the ideology of gender differences.

Hartmann’s argument here coincides with the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was advocating an overhaul of society, an unbinding of capitalism, patriarchy, and gender, rather than working within the system to make minor, but practical and important, changes as the reformers did when the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed. She does not discuss policy changes that could alleviate problems with labor segregation or take steps to change the system. In this essay, she explains a theory of how labor segregation emerged within patriarchy and chooses to describe how unbinding sex would ultimately take down not only labor segregation but patriarchy also.

However, in two other essays from 2004 and 2007, Hartmann takes the other side, listing very clear policy changes she thinks will help but not criticizing the system that causes the problems. These essays are “Still a Man’s Labor Market,” and “An Economy That Puts Families First.” In “Still a Man’s Labor Market,” Hartmann explains the cycle that keeps the wage gap system in place. Men earn more, so in a “traditional” family, it is “more practical for the family to sacrifice the woman’s rather than the man’s earnings” (Hartmann, Labor Market 33). The woman is consequently chosen to stay home and perform the majority of the family care. Employers therefore tend to expect women to work fewer hours and receive less pay because they assume that women want to be with their families rather than working. Through this cycle, “an ideology develops that proclaims this the natural order, resulting in many more men in men’s jobs with higher pay…and many more women…spending considerable time in family care” (Hartmann, Labor Market v). The labor segregation is completely bound to sex, with “women’s jobs” and “men’s job’s.”

The labor segregation, ideology, and oppression discussed in “Still a Man’s Labor Market” (2004)  are the same as Hartmann explains in her 1976 essay, but unlike in the older essay, she does not mention patriarchy or suggest that capitalism be unbound from sex. Instead she suggests practical policy changes that will directly work on the problem, like the equal opportunity laws that prevented the Equal Rights Amendment from passing. Hartmann suggestions include “strengthening enforcement of existing equal opportunity laws” and “encouraging men to use family leave more” (Hartmann, Labor Market v). These recommendations do not necessarily rely on keeping capitalism and patriarchy bound, but neither do they advocate unbinding as “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex”  did.

In contrast to the other two essays, in “An Economy That Puts Families First,” Hartmann focuses much more on the importance of the family in society than the need to eliminate inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Her main argument in this essay is that because “no facet of life is more appropriate for public support than family life,” the structure in the workplace should be changed in order to accommodate family care (Hartmann, Economy 2). Essentially, raising children should be treated as the most important part of society and should trump capitalist desires that lead to wage gaps and labor segregation.

This argument unbinds sex from the problems of how labor is structured. In effect, labor segregation and wage gaps could be solved in a round-about way if Hartmann’s ideal family-centered workplace was created. The cycle discussed in “Still a Man’s Labor Market” would be broken, because anybody would be able to take care of their family without losing wages. The connection between women and family care and therefore lower wages would be severed. Hartmann does not actively unbind or seek to unbind in her essay, but the way that her argument almost overlooks sex segregation in describing a solution that would eventually reach and fix sex segregation is unbinding, offering a new framework for viewing work policies with family in mind.

Unbinding feminism from sex and gender could lead to a simplistic goal of equality for all people. Without sex and gender, the original idea of feminism is redundant but not destroyed. After a universal recognition that man and woman are constructed categories that are used as justifications for inequality and injustice, the feminism that strove for equality between men and women would simply be expanded into wanting equality for all people. But however noble it may sound, a cause striving for the goal of equality for all people is too overreaching to succeed, like saying, “I want to fix everything right now.”

Heidi Hartmann expressed such a goal at the end of her essay in 1976: to get rid of patriarchy, we must get rid of sex segregation in the labor force, but to get rid of sex segregation in the labor force, we first need to restructure society in order to end the socially constructed gender differences that enable that segregation. Perhaps, then, keeping feminism bound is a way of narrowing down the ultimate reach for equality and the end of patriarchal oppression to more attainable goals. This sentiment kept the Equal Rights Amendment from being passed for forty-nine years. Can there be a third option, between fighting for the unbinding, the ultimate end goal, and fighting for small victories, concessions within the patriarchy? Perhaps we can work on the way that we think about sex and gender at the same time as changing policy that focuses on the good of society like, as Hartmann suggests, family; perhaps there can be a mental unbinding that occurs at the same time as the more practical policy changes.


Works Cited

Francis, Robert W. "The History Behind the Equal Rights Amendment." The Equal Rights Amendment. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013. <>.

Hartmann, Heidi, Ariane Hegewisch, and Vicky Lovell. An Economy That Puts Families First. Issue brief no. 190. Economic Policy Institute, 23 May 2007. Web. 6 Dec. 2013. <>.

Hartmann, Heidi. "Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex." Signs 1.3 (1976): 137-69. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

Rose, Stephen J., and Heidi I. Hartmann. Still a Man's Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap. Rep. Institute for Women's Policy Research, Feb. 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.


Anne Dalke's picture

Flicking the Global Switch/Not

Last month I asked you if you saw a connection between the ways in which children are socialized to recognize stereotypical genders, and the ways in which health care is apportioned in accord w/ those stereotypes—whether you saw interventions that might happen outside the system of health care provision, which might alter how these categories are constructed and recognized.

This month I am really just asking the same question again: does keeping feminism “bound” = narrowing to attainable goals offer a way to address the issues you raised in your first two projects? Maybe this is less about “unbinding” than about “braiding” in various linked causes (as you say, “thinking about sex and gender at the same time as changing policy that focuses on the good of society, like family” health)?

Most importantly, I continue to wonder where you locate yourself—your own future life and activism—in relation to these various projects…hoping to find out when we talk!...

which might also be an answer to the question of where your web-writing heads from here…