Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In partial defense of vapid heiresses

Via Above the Law, I came across a profile of a law student who's a character on a reality TV program called "Cut Off." The premise of the show is that the pampered heiresses are cut off from the luxuries that they've been surrounded by and are now going to be forced to learn how to make it on their own. Among other things, they have to learn how to do housework.

It's perhaps a bit odd that the description of this show would rub me the wrong way. Certainly Ms. Rose comes across as lacking in perspective, and that's putting it charitably. But it stuck in the craw perhaps because I've been reading a lot lately on gender gaps in science, technology, and engineering. Every once in a while I'll stumble across an interview with a woman who winds up dropping out of an academic career to drive her kids places.* Economically, this is probably irrational; the extra income from a highly educated woman's second gap ought to make it possible to hire someone to drive the kids places and still leave quite a bit of extra money left over. But I suspect that there is something else going on -- namely, the sense that it is not quite nice, somehow indeed anti-American and aristocratic and a bit absurd, to hire help to do these things for you.

Thus a few years ago, I remember lots of snark from blogs about some enterprising Harvard students setting up a cleaning service for dorm rooms. I don't think the costs were especially high, but in any case, the cost of cleaning was probably not especially large compared with say, the costs of a new outfit from J. Crew or what many Harvard students might spend on bar tabs in a month. Yet it seems there's far less snark directed at students who can afford and choose to spend their money on either of the latter.

I see this also in the immigration debate. Occasionally, people will express anxiety about creating a permanent underclass tasked with doing domestic work. A disproportionate share of New York's domestic labor force in the 19th century was Irish, and they of course seem to have done okay at moving up through the American social hierarchy. Besides, presumably most people would not leave their homeland for domestic labor in the United States if house cleaning on American soil didn't seem like an okay deal. Being a maid in the United States probably is better for many of these people than still more crushing poverty in Third World countries. Yet again, the issue seems not primarily one of not understanding economics -- but rather, the sense that defending the desirability of working as hired help violates egalitarian taboos.

I'm not sure what the causes of this taboo are. I recall encountering essays in my nineteenth century literature classes in college about the "Angel in the House." The authors claimed that the cult of domesticity sprang up in the 19th century as the bourgeois middle class grew in strength and numbers thanks in large part to the Industrial Revolution. The new bourgeois defined themselves as superior to the lazy and effete aristocracy in part by highlighting the virtues of their hard-working housewives, the veritable angels of the hearth. Some of the same attitude may have percolated down to our own world, even though the tensions between the new industrial bourgeois and the aristocracy have long since faded into obscurity. It makes it all the sillier then that we retain the attitudes of the domesticity cult, especially since they may hold back talented women from pursuing otherwise valuable and interesting projects.

So, VHI1, I encourage you to leave your spoiled heiresses alone. Assure them that their domestic incompetence is okay. Do your part to cut down on the ambient guilt about domesticity floating around in the world. Who knows, maybe you'll help net the world some interesting scientists.

And yes, I know that this post is yet another example of why I am unabashedly right wing, even if I'm not easily classifiable on the rest of Mr. Millman's axes.

* This prompted a long dinner table monologue from me yesterday about how what we really need to do to close the gender gap is a)abolish zoning laws and b)implement school choice programs, as both of these developments would make dense urban development attractive and thus let families live in places where kids could get to their soccer games and violin lessons themselves. Still, actually trying to write anything about how zoning laws and lack of school choice options lead to gender disparities in science careers would probably read a bit too much like unified field theory of all my crankish preoccupations.

1 comment:

  1. As the product of a lower-middle class rural family, I must admit I feel a bit of a failure when I have to hire help to do... well, practically anything. There's very little short of major engine rebuilding or total renovation of major housing systems that an intelligent person with a fairly inexpensive set of tools can't do in a modern urban family situation if they work at it. The fact that it's not economical, or that it just makes sense to hire people who are better and more efficient at it, and would appreciate the money, to do something you can easily afford to hire out and don't *want* to do yourself, doesn't enter into that emotional calculus.

    Regarding childrearing, though, I would argue that that is inherently different, and more than economic arguments apply. I had a co-worker whose husband was a very successful artist and professor of art, and could easily have supported her and their child in any lifestyle to which a rational person would liked to have become accustomed. Nonetheless, she worked, and had a nanny to take care of her child during the day.

    The former owner of the business, a truly redoubtable man, would often come in for lunch with the current owner. Whenever he did this and would see the co-worker in question, he would ask her, "Still paying a stranger to raise your kid?"

    She commented once that she found this remark very disturbing, and I politely replied that if it disturbed her, it was because part of her agreed with the implied criticism.

    I hasten to add that I don't mean to say that *women* automatically should stay home. I had another pair of friends, a man and wife, where the woman had a very good job and the man had a small business he ran out of their house. When she had kids, she went back to work and he was the at-home parent. Worked swell, the kids are great.