WORK - BREADWINNERS - REVIEW
Australian Book Review,
December/January 1990, pp. 5-6.
feminists argue that pregnancy is a disease? Should feminists oppose
birth control because it accepts that women are different? If the
assumptions behind those questions sound wacky, one reason is that you
are living in Australia in 1990. Both views had been advanced by earlier
feminists, especially in the United States.
Lee Bacchi begins her interrogation of the debate over “sameness”
and “difference” with a two-part history lesson, First, building on
her pervious book about British and Canadian feminists around the turn
of the 20th century, she rejects the claim that views about
women as same or different had been part of nineteenth-century
feminism,. Contemporary advocates have fallen for the historical fallacy
of seeking a past with which to support their current stance.
she stresses over an again that positions adopted by reformers make
sense only if reinserted into the historical circumstances that spawned
the. Reform proposals have no validity for all times and places. This
approach separates Bacchi from femioticians fixated on texts and
despising empirical research required to write “history” which they
see as contributing to yet another fiction awaiting them to deconstruct.
Same Difference, Bacchi is not concerned with whether men and women
are the same or different:
title of this volume is intended to suggest that, if society catered
appropriately for al human needs, men and women included, discussions
about women’s sameness to or difference from men would be of little
is concerned with the practical consequences that this debate has had
for the white women’s movement in Anglo-Saxon nations. She is a
pragmatist in the sense that if it works, then she likes it. She is not
committed to absolute rules for equality but is happy to be logically
– that is, legalistically – inconsistent if compromises help to
alleviate suffering. Although her material mostly concerns while
middle-class women, her reconsideration of the conditions needed for
social equality has relevance for racial and class injustices suffered
by both sexes.
reminds Australian readers that, even before women’s struggles had
forced the ACTU leadership to recognise women’s demands, working women
here had been advantaged more than held back by the male chauvinist
trade union movement. Those benefits are clearest when the Australian
situation is compared with that in the United States where protection
for all workers has been abysmal. As a result, US feminists have been
more likely to argue that women are the same as men and therefore to
reject special benefits and protections, especially those pertaining to
ideas were advanced in Britain and Australia by a handful of rabid
“individualists” whose factories championed the equality for the
sexes by promoting, in the bitter words of Beatrice Webb, “The Right
of Woman to work at all hours of the day and night with the minium space
such experiences, Bacchi draws her most important proposal for the
contemporary women’s movement. Rather than highlight differences that
need special conditions, or emphasise a sameness which drives women to
the bottom on the workheap, she argues that the women’s movement
should support changes that make all work humanly tolerable.
goes much further than she needs by asserting that “if a workplace is
not safe for pregnant women, it is not safe”. That is true for
chemical and radiation poisoning, but forgets the physiology of
pregnancy. A woman who works aloft a sixty0strey building as a builders
labourer faces no more danger than a man, providing neither suffers from
a fear of heights. But morning sickness can make that same woman a
danger to herself and her workmates.
an attempt to move intellectual disputes beyond the sterile tussle
between “sameness” and “difference”, Bacchi proposes that “sex
specific” replace “difference”. Pregnancy then would be sex
specific issue. Much as I agree that we need to think our way past
historically generated categories, I cannot believe that this name
change will do much good. Even if widely accepted on both sides of the
class struggle, the opponents of reform would see to it that “sex
specific” soon acquired the pejorative connotations of
“difference”. The “sameness/difference” dichotomy will become
meaningless as the real life conditions are transformed.
would have a much firmer starting point for reshaping the discussion
were she to pivot her case on the observation that eh same/difference
question exists only because men are accepted as an unquestioned norm.
Intellectual and practical progress on this issue requires more
attention from men and women to maleness as a cultural construction.
solution to the problem is as noble as it is unsatisfying. Like a great
many feminists, she substitutes ethical assertion for economic analysis
by proclaiming that “the system must acknowledge that people have
children”. Which system? If her answer is capitalism, there is plenty
of evidence that capitalists have always made a place for children as a
source of cheap labour and more recently as consumers. Entrepreneurs
will sell babies as commodities to infertile parents; the market has
long supplied child care to those rich enough to pay for boarding
schools and nannies. For the system to acknowledge that all children and
parents have equal rights, it would have to cease to be capitalism.
cheerfully meets effective demands, but shuns unprofitable human needs.
If the social alternative is not acceptable, we need to think harder
about what can be screwed out of capitalism, and how to do so. Although
moral imperatives are essential in maintaining political impetus,
over-reliance on ethical demands confuses the issue.
desire for comprehensiveness when documenting her sources gets in the
way of our comprehending the strengths of her argument. Providing four
or five named references within the space of five lines is far from
uncommon. At times, her effort produces no more than pedestrian potted
surveys of only partly relevant materials, Dependence on other
people’s words creates doubt as to whose voice we are reading –
Bacchi’s or the author she cites? When Bacchi escapes from the weight
of her research debts, she sometimes becomes so liberated that her prose
breaks into a run of disjoined slogans rather than the coherent
summations for which we had hoped.
is most annoying about these barriers to understanding is that they are
unnecessary. Bacchi has more than enough of her own to say. By all means
let her indicate her scholarship and identify her quotations, but not at
the expense of muddying the significant arguments she has to advance.
I had welcome the more away from footnotes and towards the method of
producing used in the natural sciences, for example (Wiliams, 1982:
134). Its impediment to an easy reading of Bacchi’s text is not an
argument against its employment. The problem arose here from other
causes. Firstly, sociologists are fond of surveying the literature
instead of giving us sharp and original analyses. Secondly, the barriers
result from Bacchi’s wish to share the platform with her feminist
colleagues. Thirdly, and going on the evidence that she has compiled,
there may also be a sex specific difference towards asserting one’s
opinions; whereas male academics tend to expropriate the labor of
others, do women prefer a more cooperative style? That possibility is
another of the many sparks from the fire of Same
insightful views on the vital questions of difference and equality
deserve to be presented in a 3,000 word essay in which she gives no
sources and uses only her own words.