The sexual division of labour: Inconsistent with modernity

2011-12-13 18:46

'Every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures...dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being' ~ John Stuart Mill

The modern sexual division of labour based on the public and private dichotomy between men and women, has been  rigidly trans-populated from a past traditional, hunter-gatherer society to modern society. In the past hunter-gatherer context, the notion of the different sexes allocated to specific tasks which were later labelled as being public for men and private for women came out of necessity and the nature of the hunter-gatherer society. Women were allocated their place in the home based on them having to rear children whereas the man's place outside the home was allotted based on the woman's inability to hunt due to bearing children. Given this social structure, this division of labour did not hold positions of superiority for male-dominated activities. Further, it arose out of the necessity for human survival. The problem emerges, however, when society evolves, modernizes and with it, changes and diminishes the relevance of this sexual division of labour. This modernizing society, with its chief perspectives and knowledge production derived from men, can not then claim certain predestined positions between men and women as the social disposition no longer resembles a hunter-gatherer society. The consequent evolution of this division of labour to represent spheres of superiority towards men relative to women was an evolutionary phenomenon created to protect and legitimize the dominance of half of humanity. As such, a fundamental rethinking of this traditional division of labour must be undertaken. Modern society and the relations and opportunities it produces is inconsistent with these traditional notions. Though many advances have been made in addressing this inconsistency through: the women's movements in the 1960s, universal suffrage, the acknowledgment by governments, including South Africa, to achieve gender equality within the public service (a traditionally male sphere),  the appointment of Africa's first female President in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There still, however, persists a form of gender apartheid privileging male dominance within the traditional public sphere and allocating greater importance to this sphere.

The cultural evolution of the sexual division of labour must holistically catch up to the present social realities. This does not simply involve the addition of women in the key sectors of  business, politics and the like. It requires a realigning of consciousness which accepts that women have the inalienable choice to act, buttressed by the requisite freedom which the sexual division of labour resists given its ill-design for the modern era.

This traditional sexual division of labour is particularly important for the African continent to overcome given the interrupted state development during centuries of colonialism and then apartheid in South Africa. This interrupted state development has resulted in an Africa still in the process of state development while also creating appropriate institutions. This is an Africa which has not developed its gender relations in a seamless and organic manner. As Mill pointed out over 150 years ago, human well being, freedom, justice, and democracy will forever be tainted, in modern times, should women be confined to positions of lesser existence based on an unjust sexual division of labour.

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