The Comparative Advantage of Sexual Divisions of Labor

analytical Essay
5457 words
5457 words

Historical Perspectives on the Comparative Advantage of Sexual Divisions of Labor

In modern microeconomic models of the household, one commonly sees a division of labor between the husband and wife predicated on a comparative advantage in the market or the household respectively. The idea is that women are somehow less fit for work in the marketplace while they are innately superior at the domestic tasks of cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. There are two prevailing perspectives on the mechanics of this comparative advantage. The first argues that women are somehow biologically fitted to domestic tasks. This was true for Adam Smith who saw the social structures of society arising out of a biological necessity. Malthus, on the other hand, saw the same biological necessity as operating in opposition to the social structures that arose to keep the pressures of population in check. The second perspective argues that a comparative advantage is a socially constructed idea and not rooted in the biological history of the race. Martineau in her story “Cousin Marshall” delineated the life of what she saw as a virtuous and noble woman. Virginia Woolf, however, decried what she saw as the deplorable poverty of women in A Room of One’s Own. Her solution, however, only served to further separate the spheres of men and women. Finally, Charlotte Perkins Gilman similarly objected to the state of women in Women and Economics and ultimately proposed a society that abolished any division of labor along sexual lines.

None of these authors seem to contest the presence of a comparative advantage in the division of labor as their societies stand. However this does not imply that all the authors agreed on the exact features of this...

... middle of paper ... there were no gendered distinctions in defense of women. One could argue that our modern society is a point along the way to attaining Gilman’s utopian solution. More likely, however, we have made little progress and Gilman’s solutions still feel innovative and strange.


Gilman, C (1998). Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Malthus, Thomas R (1798). Essay on the Principle of Population [Electronic Version]. Retrieved September 19, 2003, from public/MalPopu.html

Martineau, H (1832). Illustrations of Political Economy No. VIII. London: Charles Fox.

Smith, A (1766). Lectures on Jurisprudence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woolf, V (1929). A Room of One’s Own. London: Harcourt.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes the mechanics of a comparative advantage in modern microeconomic models of the household.
  • Analyzes how martineau, woolf, and gilman disagree on the existence of a comparative advantage in the division of labor.
  • Analyzes how malthus implied that women don't have an active role in the decision to marry and bear children. the only consideration in debating the merits of having children is the income of the man.
  • Analyzes how malthus is not so nave as to assume that "disgrace and inconvenience" are the sole driving factors of marriage.
  • Analyzes how malthus portrays women as producers of children and increases the pressures of population on society. men can delay marriage and children until he can afford to support them.
  • Analyzes how marshall's objection is not sympathy for the children but to prevent them from being a burden on the rates.
  • Analyzes how woolf blamed the patriarchy for the complacency of women for submitting to these rules. she identified, through "professor von x", the figure of the academic misogynist.
  • Analyzes how woolf's solution is problematic, as she demands five hundred a year for each of us and rooms of our own. she cannot be constantly interrupted with servants, social visits, and family.
  • Analyzes how woolf called for a new era where women have the habit of freedom and courage to write exactly what they think.
  • Analyzes gilman's proposal to eliminate the "sex-function" of cooking and replace it with a reputable, well-paid profession.
  • Explains the shifts in the approach to women's role in a household in this paper. the first shift is the move away from biologically essentialist arguments.
  • Argues that marriage is a social construct that arises out of the biological necessity of propgation.
  • Analyzes how malthus argues that social structures operate to keep the biological imperitive of propogation in check.
  • Analyzes how harriet martineau's "cousin marshall" addressed the separate spheres of work and responsibility between a husband and wife in the figures of the mrs.
  • Analyzes how the notion of suffering plays an interesting role in martineau's story. marshall died nearly penniless, with only enough money to pay for her funeral.
  • Analyzes martineau's argument that women should live by example in a role of quiet victimization — she rejected the biological inevitability present in smith and malthus.
  • Analyzes how woolf, in her essay a room of one's own, identified a gendered division of labor — men work in the market place while women attend to social pleasantries and household management.
  • Analyzes how gilman addressed the notion of work divided along sexual lines in women and economics. she proposed a society where the household work and the market are indistinguishable from one another.
  • Analyzes gilman's objection to the model of the woman as the sole laborer in household production.
  • Analyzes how gilman's arguments are still operating against contemporary notions of women in the household.
  • Explains gilman's study of the economic relationship between men and women as a factor in social evolution and malthus' essay on the principle of population.
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