International Women's Day - Sex and Cheap Energy

Today is the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day, founded to celebrate the achievements of women. Founded in Europe to advocate for greater participation of women in the public sphere, International Women's Day focuses heavily on those public sphere accomplishments of women - as political leaders, in education, in activism. Those are important and powerful things, the more important because most of us still have visceral memory of women's past. Consider this Guardian interview with women talking about what has changed in their lifetimes.

At the same time that we speak about the public accomplishments of women in Science, Art, Education, Politics, Social Justice, Law and more, we need to speak of something else - the degree to which the accomplishments and shifting roles of women over the last century and more have tracked and been transformed by not only our own intention and activism, but by cheap energy.

This is the unexplored history of women - and perhaps the most significant unexplored segment of women's history of all. To precisely the degree that our accomplishments are accomplishments that rely on seemingly infinite flows of cheap energy, they are vulnerable to being lost as energy supplies tighten and hard choices have to be made. To precisely the degree that energy flows, rather than actual political enlightenment underlie women's current status, that status can be lost. To precisely the degree that we attribute all to our own achievement and none to the resource base and ecology that underlie, is the degree to which our lack of examination endangers women's future.

The documentation of this is very clear. We know, as the UN has demonstrated that women and children are likely to be the primary victims of climate change. It does not take a rocket scientist to be able to track the degree to which modern assumptions about women's lives and work are dependent on personal transportation and modern industrial infrastructure. It does not take much clarity to observe that things are already changing - that gains in food security and wealth made among the poor of the Global South have been lost as world energy and food markets fluctuate, or that in the Global North, male unemployment and the reshaping of families is transforming us.

Yet we have only just barely begun to speak of this - perhaps because we are afraid that suggesting that women's political, economic and personal freedom is in part a consequence of huge inflows of energy demeans women's accomplishments - and we are very nervous about those. Why else do we emphasize the women who became doctors and lawyers, scientists and politicians - but not the women who excelled in traditional "women's work?" Why else have women so eagerly and enthusiastically accepted categorizations that make traditional domestic labor into "meaningless drudgery?" In some measure, we have gone forward only by betraying what we had before. This is reflection of a kind of fear - and admitting that some of what we have made was made for us by an industrial economy that profited enormously by the flow of women into the formal workplace, by flows of oil and burned coal that made possible lives for women that have never existed before, we fear we must admit that we didn't really change the world.

That is nonsense. There is nothing in this that erases the tremendous courage and accomplishment of women. There is nothing in this that implies we must go back on the promise of women's education or political power in a smaller, less affluent, less energy intensive world. Those things could happen - they could happen, particularly if we do not speak and write about them explicitly, if we do not risk acknowledgement of what was us and what served the corporate economy and what was the flow of cheap energy. Without that acknowledgement, we cannot work to remake a world with less, in which men and women stand equitably.

We do not go back simply because we use less energy as we have in the past - the people we become are shaped by biology, custom, sex, gender, family, and history as well as the physical resource base that fundamentally underlies us. The people we become are shaped also by the people we choose to be.

Yes, let's celebrate women's accomplishments - in the public sphere and in the home, in reshaping and making laws and reshaping and making family, as more than half of the world's food producers, the people who keep us fed, as the people who do almost 2/3 of the world's informal economy work - the informal economy that itself accounts for almost 3/4 of the total world economy. Let us do so with a clear-eyed recognition that modern industrial feminism will have to change in response to material limits. Let us do so with a powerful commitment that those changes take us forward to greater equity, lowered consumption and justice.


More like this

The two-minute short, specially commissioned for International Women's Day, sees 007 star Daniel Craig undergo a dramatic makeover as he puts himself, quite literally, in a woman's shoes.

Can't find it now, but I remember reading that an accomplished woman was being interviewed in New York in 2001 about women's rights -- by a male reporter -- when they both heard about the attacks on the twin towers. He sneered and said, "well, there goes your whole program" and left. And she said afterward, "and you know, he was right. We've been fighting a losing battle ever since that day." The article was about how from the moment of the attack, the depiction of fire fighters and police being heroic were all pictures of MEN. The instinct has been obviated by the cheap energy, but it's still there: when the village comes under fire, put the women and children in the middle, and send the guys out to the perimeter. We may indeed be seeing more of that.

I see and feel the danger of women losing some of the ground we have gained recently, and it concerns me (the pressure to defund Planned Parenthood, etc.) but one thing that I don't think will change with the demise of cheap energy is womens' understanding of themselves as deserving of the same rights and opportunities that men have. It is our opinion of ourselves and our confidence in our abilities that makes the difference. "the people we choose to be" as you say, Sharon. No one, after all, gives us our rights. We are born with them.

By Martha Hansen (not verified) on 08 Mar 2011 #permalink

I would like to believe what you say but I fear that only those of us with direct memory of our struggles and advances will be able to carry that image into the future. Our great granddaughters, having a very different environmental, economic reality may not be as readily able to see themselves as having control over who they want to be. Many social constructs may be quite different- like marrying for economic security. -shoshana

Sometimes, when thinking of civilization and society, of where we are and where we came from, as determined by biology, but also by available resources, climate and so on, I find it useful to fall back on the idea of a finite state machine and its inputs, back from my days as an electrical/computer engineering student.

If we view our society and civilization as a finite state machine, as determined by all the inputs names above and then some, we are where we are based on those inputs as well as the initial state of the machine. Now just because we might possibly go back to the energy and resource inputs of 150 years ago (itself something of a reach) does NOT mean that we go back to the state the social/civil machine was in back then. We simply don't have the same initial conditions. That is, we have more people, more knowledge, more built up infrastructure, more experience, etc. We may very well and most probably will settle into a new state, but finding our way back to a previous one just doesn't seem very likely in my view.

Maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't see how we can lose all that women have achieved in any foreseeable time span. I mean, okay, so maybe women go back to more domestic and cottage work, but give back voting rights, to put it in the most concrete of terms?

Still, I do see how people might be defensive and nervous at the idea that women gained what they gained merely because of cheap energy. I said something to a mainly liberal audience in another Internet forum some time ago about how widespread domestic electrification did quite a bit for the elevation of womenfolk's situation and though nobody challenged me outright, I could sense that I had somehow undercut a lot of what they had credited to women, the woman's movement, and general liberal activism with that one comment.

Personally, I can't see this society putting women back in a bottle, but if we do, then it will be because this society and civilization has regressed in so many numerous and regrettable ways, well beyond just society's approach to woman's lives and issues.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 08 Mar 2011 #permalink

I think part of the reason that people don't value women who excel at women's work is because that work isn't valued -- it's like funeral workers and trash collectors -- necessary but kind of ostracized. We don't want to think about the work being done, we just want it to be done where we don't have to see or smell it.

For me the saddest thing is that all I wanted to do was stay at home and take care of my kids and house, and the pressures and reality of the entire economic world forced me in another direction. Still does. Economic pressures keep me working and in school, furthering my education so I can further my career (yes, I work in a career where I can actually still do that). Ultimately I hope to work myself to part time status.

Risa B. -- I read your comment and was speechless at the arrant stupidity of the male reporter ('sneered'? Really?). I remember that there were very few black men among the firefighters on that day -- does that mean the battle for racial equality was lost?

Did none of them think that the reason the firefighters were predominantly (white) men was that the NYFD is (or perhaps, was -- things might have changed) an extremely clique-ish, old-boys club?
Using existing sexism to justify future sexism -- makes perfect sense, I suppose!

By S Mukherjee (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

I guess I didn't understand Risa's story or point, but I took the reporter's comment more in the immediate. That is, I think the reporter meant that the woman's story and program would be pushed aside and completely overshadowed by the developing 9/11 story which obviously was going to completely dominate all media for some time to come rather than the more obtuse story that 9/11 heroics were male-dominated.

I suspect that a lot of reporters were wasting their time, working on stories that day that they knew would be instantly shelved or tossed the moment the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks became known.

But I wasn't there to actually see the reporter's comment.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

I'm old enough to remember when women were first admitted to the ranks of firefighters, and one comment I heard over and over again was to the effect that if women can do this, it devalues what men have been doing. Even then I thought some people (men, that is) really don't like women.

I'm afraid it comes back, very, very often to biology is destiny. If you want to keep your society going, you have to take into effect that a very few men are need compared to the number of women to keep a replacement population, or one that grows, even. And while babies have been raised on goats milk and various teas, you get the best results with mother's milk. Societies have come up with ways around this to some extend -- baby are left with old women in the day and nurse more or less continually at night, but this doesn't work for all women or all infants. A wet nurse might free 1 or 2 other women to work, but generally that system trades the work of one woman for another. So, you send your young men off to fight, and keep the women at home, and the next you know, the women are seen as a drag on society....blah, blah, blah...

I'm all to afraid that since a lot of people, men and women, don't vote now, the disenfrancising of various groups will be allow to happen all to easily by disinterest.

And a final, ramdon thought: I think that the confluation of education and earning money end in the idea it was a waste to educate women if they then didn't turn that education into dollars.

MEA said: "And a final, ramdon thought: I think that the confluation of education and earning money end in the idea it was a waste to educate women if they then didn't turn that education into dollars."

MEA, my research director said this very thing some years ago. I think he was referring to me and other women who had worked for him when he said it. I worked for eight years after I received my PhD in chemistry. But I just couldn't force myself to continue working in corporations longer than that. Academia didn't appeal either; too long hours and I would only be educating more people to work for corporations. Possibly I'd have worked longer if I'd worked in a field I liked better than chemistry. But I don't know ... part of it is the nature of and amount of hours of paid work in our society and my dislike of both. And that gets back to some of what Sharon is speaking of above.

Susan, you are right, but I'd reframe it - it isn't that society doesn't value women's work because the work isn't valued, it is that they don't value it *because* it is traditionally women's work - that is, what women do is treated with contempt. When the women's movement hit, it too accepted (to some extent, there were many valuable critiques of this) the idea that their prior work was valueless, and went out into the formal economy where value supposedly was set. I find it to be a profound irony that the version of feminism that was most successful was one that placed women's value primarily in working in the industrial economy. Again, that shouldn't sound like a critique of feminism per se, but as a critique of a kind of feminism.

Claire, I don't know how often I've been accused of wasting my education. Part of the problem is, of course, our insane system of making all higher education a for-profit enterprise for everyone, part of it is the assumption that my intellectual training must to for a certain outcome - never mind the fact that the expected outcome of an English Ph.d 2/3 of the time does not result in becoming a tenured professor ;-), the assumption is that I must do something professional with it. At the moment I do, but I've heard variations on "what use is a farmer who knows X..."

I think MEA is right about the problem of women's work - and that I think is a tough thing in a society without a lot of energy.


"The instinct has been obviated by the cheap energy, but it's still there: when the village comes under fire, put the women and children in the middle, and send the guys out to the perimeter. We may indeed be seeing more of that."

But this shouldn't, logically, lead to educating the *women* less. It's the perimeter guards who are a poor bet for long-term investment. A village run as you describe it could be run entirely by the women.