Is it okay to subject someone to 16 hours of exhausting daily labor, 7 days a week, 365 days a year without pay? What if the person was completely reliant on a master to provide the basic necessities of life such as food, water, clothing and shelter? Suppose that same person was impregnated and forced to give birth to the children of the master, only adding to the daily toil. Maybe the master is abusive, maybe he is not. Perhaps he controls in other more subtle ways, but our laborer always knows that survival is dependant upon the maintenance of the master’s good nature.
Would we call this slavery, indentured servitude? If the enslaved figure above was a man, the general public would be outraged at the injustice, but she is a housewife. I use the above illustration to draw attention to one of society’s most profound gender biases. We are taught to believe that women’s traditional work in the home should be unpaid, that women feel a biological need to engage in such work and that they do so happily and willingly, making payment totally unnecessary. Thus the greatest exploitation of labor on Earth is perpetuated.
We believe woman’s unpaid labor in the home is just a basic fact of life. Children need rearing, daily chores need doing and subsistence gardens need tending. None of woman’s traditional activities actually generate any revenue, so who is going to pay her? But women in the home are huge agents of production. It is by their labor and production that the entire global workforce comes into being. Labor is a resource, and women produce it. One could easily argue that the production of labor by women forms the basis of our entire economy, and women are expected to perform this great societal function for nothing.
The problem with the unpaid nature of woman’s work lies at the heart of our contemporary culture. Everything a person needs or wants in the modern economy demands capital. Without money, it is almost impossible to obtain food, medical treatment and shelter. On a larger scale, and with the recent Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, moneyed interests are increasingly dictating government policy. In the United States of America and across the globe, if one has no money, then one has no power. One is helpless. Therefore in the modern world where money is king, women are the great losers in the equation. If a mother is unable to join the paid workforce, she will always be at a disadvantage. In almost every nation on Earth, if you are a woman, statistically you are more likely to be living in poverty than your male counterparts.
Historically, women have not always been at the mercy of capital for survival. In medieval European society, a majority of women enjoyed equal economic status with men. Peasant husbands and wives shared jointly the tasks of subsistence. Many women made a living outside the home as healers, midwives, merchants and seamstresses. Women were allowed to own property.
Imagine the life of an average person at that time. Life was undoubtedly difficult. Most people lived in villages where they maintained small plots of land to grow vegetables and communally managed larger tracts of lands for grazing livestock. The Forests and water supplies were also managed by the village community providing water for daily needs, firewood and forestry products such as medicinal herbs, mushrooms and wild game. The managed lands, or “commons” were shared by all the villagers. Money was generally unnecessary as goods were bartered and traded and everybody in the community contributed to the general welfare.
Work among men and women was shared and valued equally. As men hunted, tended livestock and collected wood, women prepared small vegetable plots, tended children, gathered wild food and medicinal herbs and cared for the household. Each gender was acutely aware of the value of the work being done by the other. Since money rarely entered any of life’s daily tasks, the only value attributed to men’s and women’s labor was the value of what the labor produced. As people worked on the commons together, they nourished more than just foodstuffs and provisions. Deep, tribal, familial and community bonds were strengthened under the yoke of common values and interests.
In the realm of reproduction, women were left to their own devices. Over millennia living close to the Earth, the cycles of the moon and fertility, women had gained intricate knowledge of their own bodies and how to control the means of reproduction. Herbal remedies passed down from mother to daughter and from midwife to patient allowed women to control the number of offspring they had. Unwanted pregnancy could for the most part be avoided with birth control remedies and abortificants. By controlling how many children she had, a woman could manage her lifestyle by having children only when she could best support them. Family planning also benefitted children by ensuring that those born into the world could be adequately cared for. For centuries, religious and political institutions had nothing to say on this issue that was considered exclusively woman’s business.
Then a series of events led to a devaluation of woman’s work from which it has never recovered. In the late 14th century, the Black Death swept across Europe annihilating as much as half of the population. Peasant labor became a scarce resource. As the population declined, the laws of supply and demand forced wages upward. A thriving middle class began to emerge. But the aristocratic class (including both lords and popes), which relied exclusively on cheap labor to support their lavish lifestyles, began to feel a pinch. While they still lived decadently, it was becoming more and more difficult to find workers willing to put up with punishing hours in the field, especially in light of the fact that many peasants were now able to set up small farms and work exclusively for themselves.
As labor became more scarce, women who practiced birth control were now directly working against powerful interests. Governments and the Church began to interfere in women’s reproductive strategies and pronounced any attempt to reduce fertility as a prosecutable offense. Midwives who disbursed the herbal agents of birth control became the bane of religious and “civilized” society and were branded as witches. “Good,” God fearing women were sequestered to their homes, relinquishing control over their bodies and lives to the church and state and became unwitting incubators for the labor class. In 16th and 17th century Europe more women were executed for “witchcraft” than for any other crime.
As women lost control over their bodies, so the working class also lost control over its self-sufficiency. The commons, carefully managed for hundreds of years were reclaimed by the aristocracy, forcing farmers out into the cities in search of paid work and making them reliant on the capital from said work forevermore.
Modern people should take note of a couple of points in the historic record. Most importantly, when labor is scarce, average people tend to fare better. Powerful interests benefit enormously from keeping labor abundant and cheap. As during the witch hunts of medieval Europe, a number of tools of propaganda are employed to dupe modern women into consenting to produce an abundant supply of labor even at the expense of personal freedom and the welfare of offspring.
A woman who has reproductive choices will have fewer children but will invest more time and care into raising those children. The well provided for children will be healthier, better educated and less likely to end up living in poverty. Fewer people on the planet means more resources will be available for all of Earth’s organisms. The only losers will be those entities who profit from the exploitation of cheap and abundant labor.
Our modern witch hunt strikes out against those who would openly state the truth about reproduction. Powerful interests in churches and states who would seek to revoke a woman’s right to her own reproduction are the modern inquisitors. We simply must reduce the number of people living on Planet Earth if we are to survive as a species. Doing so will improve the lives of all people and the health of the planet.