Annals of Patriarchal Equilibrium: The Alewife and the Park Director

In the book History Matters, as well as the focused studies on which the book is based, Judith Bennett discusses the curious history of the medieval village alewife. She tracked the way that the internal ale-based economy worked, then, as ale shifted to beer, suddenly men took over the field. It turns out that beer, which kept better, could be made as a high value commercial product. With more money and status involved, women were gradually squeezed out. They lacked the capital to parlay their expertise in ale into commercial beer production. Moreover, the arrival of beer closed off some of the benefits of the less formal ale-economy that local women enjoyed.

Bennett used this case study as one of her examples of what she defined as the patriarchal equilibrium. Her argument is that sure, women’s experiences of work and wages have changes over time, but that the relative status of their work has remained flat. The great work transformations – women heading into the factories in the early industrial period – may look different in kind, but in status, nothing has really changed. When a field’s status rises, men take it over. When women enter a field, the status/remuneration drops. That’s the patriarchal equilibrium.

Yesterday, New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller wrote a piece on the same phenomenon:

Once women start doing a job, “It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill,” said Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University. “Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”

She is a co-author of one of the most comprehensive studies of the phenomenon, using United States census data from 1950 to 2000, when the share of women increased in many jobs. The study, which she conducted with Asaf Levanon, of the University of Haifa in Israel, and Paul Allison of the University of Pennsylvania, found that when women moved into occupations in large numbers, those jobs began paying less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography…

A striking example is to be found in the field of recreation — working in parks or leading camps — which went from predominantly male to female from 1950 to 2000. Median hourly wages in this field declined 57 percentage points, accounting for the change in the value of the dollar, according to a complex formula used by Professor Levanon. The job of ticket agent also went from mainly male to female during this period, and wages dropped 43 percentage points.

England seems more sure this is about intentional gender bias, whereas Bennett, working in a remote period, argues a little more abstractly about broader patriarchal forces. Still, the phenomenon tracks across time.

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