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The advance of technology has enormously improved the position of women. We can't help including what Susan B. Anthony said, "The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world". Surely somewhat of an exaggeration. Virginia Woolf wrote "A room of her own". Some woman might write "A car of her own."
Biological changes came before technological. The division of labor between males and females is much greater in humans than in apes. This division was greatly to the advantage of the species, permitting its worldwide expansion, but it may have been to the relative disadvanage of females. The changes permitted women to stay home and raise children, while men foraged. Having arms and being able to walk long distances permitted men to bring home what they killed. It also induced notions of territory that produced conflicts between tribes especially when a bad dry season or bad winter led different tribes to expand their foraging region. The development of warfare was to the social disadvantage of women.
The first independent achievements of women were by upper class women in hierarchical societies. Ancient Greece is the well known example, but medieval Japan also gave us Lady Murasaki.
The 19th century advances in technology that improved women's relative position included the telephone (especially beloved of women), public transportation, the afore-mentioned bicycle.
The 20th century gave us refrigerators, radios, TVs (bringing entertainment and news to the home), washing machines, dishwashers, and birth control. The early automobiles that required hand cranking were difficult for many women, and C. F. Kettering's invention of the electric starter was explicitly motivated by his desire to sell cars to women. A level of prosperity permitting a two car family was an advantage for women.
Still more technology is needed to permit fuller equality. Responsibility for the care of small children makes full time work outside the home very difficult. If a wife makes less money than her husband, then economics as well as biology or tradition puts childcare in her hands.
My opinion is that progress in technology has been and will remain the key to increasing equality between the sexes. What technology will make the next step in improving the position of women? (1) Computer driven cars will permit transportation of children without chauffeuring, and will permit children in suburbs and exurbs to travel at an age now possible only in cities with very good public transportation. (2) Household robots, when they come, will reduce housework to the point where it can be shared with far less stress than at present.
Computerized flying machines , automated delivery , and remote teleservice will also make a difference. The science fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold includes in her Vorkosigan series a "uterine replicator" that permits an embryo to grow to birth weight outside a womb. It may eventually become possible.That we aren't there yet is shown by the unstable situation in which the birth rates of the prosperous countries are insufficient to maintain their populations. A longer fertile life for women would permit two or more children to occupy a smaller fraction of a woman's life.
Now some comments on the housewife's position in present society. In terms of the interest of the work, how hard it is necessary to work, and the amount of freedom, the position of the housewife is somewhere between the 30th and 70th percentile in the scale of desirability of occupations. This is an intuitive judgment and depends on how the different aspects are weighted. One might attempt to calibrate its desirabillilty more precisely by observing the choices that women make between being a housewife and other occupations. This would be difficult, but I don't think it would be a hopeless task.
Since World War II, the relative desirability of housewifery has declined relative to other middle class occupations. This is because working conditions in many other occupations have improved with the increasing wealth of the country while the present set of gadgets that improve the working conditions of the middle class housewife has remained stable. Of course, the percentage of housewives who have the middle class home and set of gadgets has increased, and the housewives from groups whose position has improved are not complaining as much as the others. The position of the housewife in economic strata that could previously afford domestic help may even declined. (The biggest reason why the upper middle class can't afford as much domestic help as in the past is the increased economic opportunities for lower class young people many of whom formerly had to accept positions paying little besides room and board.)
All this has reduced the relative desirability of housewifery and led to an increased demand for a better position for women. It seems to me that there are substantial prospects for improvement both through reorganization of institutions and through technology, but this improvement will be slow.
To see this we must consider the options available to men and women and also consider their relative bargaining positions. Consider the following:
The institution of dating has an important effect on the psychologies of men and women. A girl can wait and if she is attractive good things may happen to her. It is not inevitable, but there is grounds for hope. A boy motivated by sex, on the other hand, knows that nothing will happen if he doesn't act. Learning social initiative is hard for him, but there is no alternative. It seems to me that this can account for part of the difference in initiative between teenage boys and girls from which the subsequent differences in occupational capability stem. (It should be pointed out that much less than half of men develop much initiative, but the percentage of women with initiative is much less). It would be interesting to see where passive male homosexuals stand in the scale of occupational initiative; it might clobber my theory.
It has been my observation that the dropout from hard science by girls in high school is not primarily the fault of either parents or school. It is much more the fault of the values of present teen-age-girl society. Both boys and girls are affected more by the ideas of their peers than by the official policies of the educational institutions. A disproportionate number of adults with initiative come from separatist social groups where the parents prevent children from taking their values from their peers or from the schools.
Getting more women in higher positions in society depends on breaking this tradition. One possibility is batch processing rather than continuous operation. Normally a school is a continuous institution. Freshmen come in at the bottom and seniors go out at the top. If the tradition is regarded as bad, we could experiment with a system wherein a particular school is filled with freshmen and no new ones are admitted until the first lot graduates. If a new desirable tradition is successfully inculcated, then continuous processing can be resumed. This idea might also work in prisons. Another possibility is to teach initiative directly.
Consider the relative bargaining position of men and women. A desirable man can get a woman reasonably content to serve him in the traditional way. In return she gets a good income and a social position derived from his. The conditions of middle class life today are such that if life is to be smooth and gracious, there ought to be someone spending close to full time managing the affairs of the family, running errands, chauffering children, cleaning house, getting things fixed, etc. In principle, if husband and wife both want to work, this labor should be shared. However, a desirable man can get better terms than this, and the academic community is full of cases where a man first marries an intellectual equal and then replaces her by a second wife without so many ambitions outside the home.
The women's lib solution to this problem is to combine propaganda about justice with a kind of women's trade unionism so that men will no longer be able to get such affable wives. This will change the situation somewhat, but will not bring about substantial equality, because the change in bargaining positions will not be large enough to do so.
Greater equality will be achieved if the amount of work required to have a nice home with well brought up children can be reduced to the point that a man of ordinary energy who shares the work equally with his wife suffers no disadvantage in his profession, and likewise a woman of ordinary energy who keeps a home going does not lose in her outside work.
This reduction in work can be brought about by new technology. Specifically, an automatic delivery system can reduce running errands. A safe transportation system that can be used by 6 year olds without help can obviate the need for chauffeuring children, safe houses and personal telephones can obviate the need for most babysitting, a more interactive and educational form of children's entertainment than television can further reduce babysitting, any further aids to keeping a house in order in the direction of the household robot can further reduce the work.
Besides the gadgets, a variety of institutional aids are necessary, the most essential of which is the much-demanded widespread availability of day care centers. The problem with day care centers is that for young children, there has to be one attendant for every four children with present standards of care and with present technology. The problem will be much eased if technology could make it possible for one person to take care of more children. I don't know enough about the problem to suggest definite improvements, but I would bet that ways can be found to reduce the amount of physical work in dressing, diapering, bathing, feeding, etc. Besides this, ways can be found to increase the number of interesting and educational games that involve interaction with a computer rather than with humans. Perhaps it will also be possible to use the computer to structure situations wherein the children co-operate with each other in order to interact with the computer.
It should be noted that some proposed solutions to other problems will have a negative effect on the opportunities available to women. If the convenience of operating a car is reduced, then a person will have to live closer to his work. Guess whose work people will live closer to?
Whatever improvements are made, there will always be differences in the extent to which families choose to use them. There will always be women who choose to make their families their main activity. Therefore, the solutions adopted should not require universal adherence, and experiments of all kinds should be encouraged and even financed.
The very highest level of potential in science and mathematics, which only one in a million men can attain, the fraction of women who can attain it may be biologically smaller. Politics seems to be different.
All these considerations may rate only contempt from those who consider social problems mainly in moralistic terms. Equality is desirable, and if men would only do the right thing, it would be achieved. Well as far as I can see, mankind's ability to respond to purely moral exhortation isn't improving very fast. Most moral problems that have gone away, e.g. chastity, have succumbed to technology not preaching.
At present there are social movements and people with institutional power who regard there being fewer women than men at some level of some occupation as an injustice that must be corrected by quotas. This is a mistake and will not succeed because of differences in ability and motivations between males and females.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I sometimes make changes suggested in them. - John McCarthy
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