Historical Perspectives on the Comparative Advantage of Sexual Divisions of Labor
In modern microeconomic models of the household, one commonly sees a division of labor between the husband and wife predicated on a comparative advantage in the market or the household respectively. The idea is that women are somehow less fit for work in the marketplace while they are innately superior at the domestic tasks of cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. There are two prevailing perspectives on the mechanics of this comparative advantage. The first argues that women are somehow biologically fitted to domestic tasks. This was true for Adam Smith who saw the social structures of society arising out of a biological necessity. Malthus, on the other hand, saw the same biological necessity as operating in opposition to the social structures that arose to keep the pressures of population in check. The second perspective argues that a comparative advantage is a socially constructed idea and not rooted in the biological history of the race. Martineau in her story “Cousin Marshall” delineated the life of what she saw as a virtuous and noble woman. Virginia Woolf, however, decried what she saw as the deplorable poverty of women in A Room of One’s Own. Her solution, however, only served to further separate the spheres of men and women. Finally, Charlotte Perkins Gilman similarly objected to the state of women in Women and Economics and ultimately proposed a society that abolished any division of labor along sexual lines.
None of these authors seem to contest the presence of a comparative advantage in the division of labor as their societies stand. However this does not imply that all the authors agreed on the exact features of this advantage. If this advantage is a social construct as argued by Martineau, Woolf, and Gilman, the necessary implication becomes that the comparative advantage is a matter of choice. For the advantage to working in the household to operate, it must be that women choose (or men choose for them) to live in a society of gendered work roles. This perspective is strongly held by both Woolf and Gilman though with slightly different consequences. Gilman’s proposed society is predicated on the elimination of gendered work roles. More specifically, she argued that the inefficiency inherent in gendered work roles demands their abolition. However, implicit in her model is the demands made by society as existed for her that women remain in the household and men work in the market. Woolf and Gilman both choose to deny the inevitability of gendered divisions in labor, however none of the authors deny that without significant change to social structures, women are more able to work in the household than men. Or phrased more to Woolf’s and Gilman’s tastes, that women are unable to work in the market due to restrictions placed on them by the patriarchy.
Adam Smith: Marriage, Social Rite and Biological Imperitive