11 Sex and Skill: Notes Towards a Feminist Economics

Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor

It is time the working females of England began to demand their long suppressed rights . . . In manufacturing towns, look at the value that is set on woman's labour, whether it be skilful (sic), whether it be laborious, so that woman can do it. The contemptible expression is, it is made by woman, and therefore cheap? Why, I ask, should woman's labour be thus undervalued? . . . Sisters, let us submit to it no longer . . . but unite and assert our just rights!

'A Bondswoman' ( Frances Morrison) writing to a radical working class newspaper, The Pioneer, 12 April 1834.

Waged work in Britain, as in every other advanced capitalist country, is sharply differentiated along sexual lines. There may be few occupations left which are entirely the preserve of either men or women, but most men workers are employed in jobs where the work-force is at least ninety per cent male, while most women workers work in jobs which are at least seventy per cent female ( Hakim, 1978). Even when men and women do work in the same industry, sexual demarcations are still rigidly maintained: women sew what men design and cut out; women serve what men cook; women run machines which men service; and so on' and on . . . Everywhere we turn, we see a clear distinction between 'men's work' and 'women's work' with women's work almost invariably

Reprinted with permission from Feminist Review, 6 ( 1980), 79-88. This paper was originally written for presentation at the Nuffield Conference on De-skilling and the Labour Process, in November 1979, and later discussed by the Conference of Socialist Economists Sex and Class Group. We should like to thank Sue Himmelweit for her comments on the first drafts and for her encouragement to rewrite it for Feminist Review. In revising it we have gradually come to realize that it opens up many more questions than it resolves. We put it forward, therefore, not as a finished 'position' but as a way of sharing our questions with other feminists, in the hope that a wider dialogue may ensue.


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