January 12, 2021 - 8:00am

The pandemic has been unrelentingly tough on working women. In the US, women accounted for all the 140,000 US job losses in December, and 2.1 million American women have dropped out of the workforce altogether since February because squaring the circle of homeschooling and caring for kids at home while continuing to work was simply unfeasible.

It’s part of received popular opinion that societal changes such as the entry of women into the workforce constitute ‘progress’ in an absolute sense: that is, the fact that more women are in paid employment than 100 years ago is in and of itself evidence of things getting better. But what if this ‘progress’ is in fact just an effect of social and economic conditions? A new paper, which studies the correlation between historic farming practices in different geographies worldwide and attitudes to women working outside the home or earning property, suggests that there’s nothing absolute about societal trajectories toward sex equality at all.

The paper compared data on historic irrigation practices in dry areas of the globe with social survey data examining women’s labour force participation and property ownership. It showed a clear inverse correlation between irrigation farming, and sex equality. That is, the more prevalent a region’s use of irrigation in farming, the less common it was for women to work outside the home or be permitted to own property.

The authors suggested that number of factors might drive this correlation. One such factor is conflict: irrigation draws on rivers and aquifers, which are a common resource, and the increased instance of warfare is likely to raise the social status of men. Another is increased productivity: irrigation meant more food and hence a higher birth rate, meaning that caring for children kept women closer to home and drove more polarised sex roles.

Much of the discourse around sex equality and work rests on the unspoken premise that there’s some absolute sense in which organising a society around men and women doing the same things, in the same spheres, is morally superior to doing so with divided sex roles. But in material conditions — such as an arid country where the use of irrigation means you can grow more food, where the likelihood of a people being able to survive is increased by a greater division in sex roles — is this still true? It’s difficult to make the case that a commitment to sex equality is more important than community survival.

Applying this insight to the modern developed world, we should at least consider the possibility that the twentieth-century feminist drive for women to enter the workplace was less about progress as such than an unusual set of material conditions that concealed differences between the sexes (such as disparities in brute strength or the ability to breastfeed) which have pronounced social impacts in other contexts. When those material conditions change, as seems to be happening in the pandemic, those of us who care about women’s interests should set aside preconceived notions of ‘progress’ and give careful thought to what advocating for women looks like in the emerging new normal.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.