Something old, something new, something borrowed, something due

Since neolithic times, when women first began selecting wild seeds to plant and to eat, they have contributed economically to the well-being of the family, the group, the tribe, and the state. Their contribution to the communal prosperity through work done in the home has never been institutionally acknowledged. A number of women, and some men, feel that the time has come to give women their due and to incorporate the unpaid work that women do in the home into the gross national product (GNP).

Institutional measures to recognize the total contributions women make to the economic prosperity of the nation have so far failed, in part because the worth of labor done by women and men has always been judged unequally. ''The Subtle Revolution,'' a book published by the Urban Institute in 1979, points out a biblical reference to sex-segregated pay scales. Leviticus (27:1-4) describes a conversation between the Lord and Moses in which adult male labor is valued at 50 shekels of silver and that of adult females at 30 shekels. The current debate on this topic centers around the issue of comparable worth, and addresses the exact same problem: the comparative value of female vs. male labor, outside the home. Establishing a value for work performed inside the home is still in its infancy.

The origins of this problem can be traced through the legal system of the United States which derives from English common law. According to the eminent English jurist Sir Henry Maine, author of the preeminent treatise ''Ancient Law'' published in 1861 in London, the developmental stages of archaic society barely recognized individuals. The concern was with families, groups, or tribes. Power was held by the male head. He acted as the representative of the group. The uniting principle of the tribe was the notion of patrilineal relationship, with the eldest male absolutely supreme in his household. The central theory relating to women and law which slowly evolved was the doctrine of merger - merging the legal rights of the female with those of her husband when she married.

Traces of these legal concepts are still with us, such as the loss of the woman's name in marriage. Additional examples can be found in the still tenuous formal relationship of the married woman to the state - as exemplified by the social security system which still does not recognize her economic, private sector contribution to the marriage. It must be remembered that the right to hold property, to higher education, to vote, and to practice contraception are still fairly recent developments, and that some of these rights are being threatened. The only one currently in ascendancy is the right to vote. While the total proportion of voters in the US is in decline, the proportion of women voters is markedly up.

At this juncture when women are being wooed by presidential candidates for 1984, women should use their political clout to demand their due - the incorporation of their private aggregate economic contribution into the GNP. Society and the state have up to now enjoyed a free ride. Many women feel that something is due now, namely, our formal integration into the mainstream of the economic system, so as to permanently establish women's total economic contribution in the public domain.

In addition to the symbolic reaffirmation of the politico-economic power of women, institutionalization would acknowledge that power and money are no longer solely male prerogatives, that millions of women (51.3 percent of the population) contribute to the GNP. The patriarchal tenets by which males are assigned more goods and more economic power than women are being redefined. Women's political organizations should now urge the quantification of data documenting the nonpaid work of women. Today's married woman with one or more children is likely to contribute economically through the labor market and at home through her functions as mother and housewife - a triple contribution. Two of these functions are not reflected in the GNP and, as a result, the US economy looks less productive than it really is. We berate ourselves for low productivity and yet, so far, have refused to incorporate the collective production of women into the GNP, because of the historical undervaluation of the work of women. Now that productivity has become a concern for policymakers, the US should take the lead and be the first post-industrial society to give women their due.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.