If only they had something to do

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 · 20 Comments »
Hanging out in downtown Mendota.

Hanging out in downtown Mendota.

There was a good article in Sunday’s Guardian about the economic meltdown in California. I was distracted, however, by a paragraph halfway through, and for reasons unconnected to the ostensible topic at hand. The scene is the little town of Mendota in California’s Central Valley:

Outside, in a shop that Riofrio’s grandfather built, groups of unemployed men play pool for 25 cents a game. Near every one of the town’s liquor stores others lie slumped on the pavements, drinking their sorrows away.

Groups of unemployed men. Notice that there aren’t any groups of unemployed women lounging around, shooting pool for 25 cents a game, drinking themselves blind.

The image caught my attention because it’s so familiar. That’s what poverty and unemployment look like all over the world, whether it’s a dusty village in Kenya or a shanty town in Haiti, a post-Communist slum in Albania or a remote hamlet in Mongolia. Groups of unemployed men. Hanging around, nothing to do, just whiling away the useless hours with booze and bullshit.

Where are all the women?

They’re out working their butts off, that’s where they are. They’re too goddamn busy to drink or play pool. They’re washing and cooking, scrubbing and scrambling, trying to feed the baby and watch the kids and get something, anything, on the table for dinner. They’re doing laundry or feeding chickens or digging in the ground for potatoes or mending clothes or doing some goddamn thing. Always, every day, hour after hour, without fail. Ain’t no such thing in this world as an “unemployed” poor woman.

That’s what I think of whenever I read about some benighted place where the men are dejected and hopeless because there aren’t any paying jobs. “We have no work,” the dudes sigh poignantly to the male reporter. Meanwhile the women in the town are too busy working to even sit down.

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20 Responses to “If only they had something to do”

  1. madamab says:

    Violet, maybe we should all do a work stoppage. For one day, women across the country all sit around and do absolutely nothing but talk, eat and drink, loudly and in public.

    I wonder how many outraged columns Andrew Sullivan and John Derbyshire would write if that happened?!

  2. Bella Donna says:

    Those poor, unemployed men who have nothing to do but take money from whatever savings they have to purchase large amounts of alcohol and shoot the breeze with their buddies all day.

    I’m cryin’ for them.

    Bet you a dollar that if it had been women someone would be asking “Where are you getting money for beers? You could be buying food for your children with it”

  3. Violet says:

    It’s difficult to even imagine a scenario with gangs of poverty-stricken unemployed women hanging out in pool halls, drinking and talking smack, while the men stay home and work dawn to dusk doing the everyday tasks of life. It’s like a science fiction story.

    I would say that this is patriarchy at work, but in fact this pattern is more widespread than that. Even in non-patriarchal societies, like the Mosuo, generally women do the work of the world, the everyday tasks that must be done. Men work for money. They work for status and tangible rewards.

    That’s part of why anthropological theories like Owen Lovejoy’s (swinging back to that for a moment) are so absurd. Any theory that depends on male humans being the primary food producers and workhorses of the community strains credulity.

  4. anna says:

    “I would say that this is patriarchy at work, but in fact this pattern is more widespread than that. Even in non-patriarchal societies, like the Mosuo, generally women do the work of the world, the everyday tasks that must be done. Men work for money. They work for status and tangible rewards. ”

    So even in places where women are supposedly equal, women do the unpaid shitwork and men do the prestigious high-paying work? Guess every straight woman is destined to be some man’s free maid and nanny.

  5. Alison says:

    Not to mention when you have that many men lounging around and drinking and you HAPPEN to be a woman walking buy trying to go about your business, just a walk across town can be a fearful thing.

    I love the excuses…

    These poor, poor men are unemployed – how can they not drink?

    These poor, poor men are unemployed – this is why they beat their wives and harass women on the street.

    Completely understandable, right?

  6. Alison says:

    BTW, Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof writes about just this in their new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide.

    http://www.amazon.com/Half-Sky-Oppression-Opportunity-Worldwide/dp/0307267148/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254926296&sr=8-1

  7. quixote says:

    It’s difficult to even imagine a scenario with … the men … work[ing] dawn to dusk doing the everyday tasks of life. It’s like a science fiction story.

    I laughed out loud at the thought. It’s like flying lobsters or something. You couldn’t even write it into science fiction. Requires too much suspension of disbelief.

    Which raises an interesting question about how strongly men believe that they’re the “breadwinners.” Testosterone has a curious effect on the brain.

  8. Sis says:

    It’s not only working class union-waged men that do this: walk by any Starbucks and the like and see that the public spaces are taken up by men.

    Small point but I notice the guy in the forefront has nicely ironed clothing. Hmmm. Someone’s still working.

  9. slythwolf says:

    @madamab, I like your work stoppage idea, but it needs to go on longer. Say a week, two. Give the dudez some time to run out of clean socks. Otherwise it’s just Mother’s Day, “mom’s day off”.

  10. Grace says:

    Did anybody notice that these men must be mostly Spanish-speakers, probably laborers looking for odd jobs for the day. Why? Look at the name of the store they are standing next to. It’s a Spanish name “La India” or something like that. So this is proof that people of all social classes, ethnicities, and nationalities have internalized the patriarchal system, and that there aren’t any exceptions, perhaps with a more benign version in countries like Sweden or Cuba.

    Also, in talking about women homemakers taking a day off, it actually took place about 10 years ago in Mexico City, with women demonstrating in the street, carrying signs, and talking to the media. I heard that Mexican men were not too happy.

  11. Violet says:

    Grace, Mendota is a primarily Hispanic town, like a lot of agricultural towns in California. And most Hispanic cultures are heavily patriarchal.

  12. Violet says:

    It’s not only working class union-waged men that do this

    Absolutely. There was a study not long ago (this year or last, I think, coincidental with the recession) about what unemployed job-hunting white-collar men do with their free hours, versus what unemployed job-hunting white-collar women do. Women use their extra time to catch up on housework and take care of the kids. Men use their extra time to polish their resumes and goof off. They do not increase their contribution to the housework or childcare at all.

  13. yttik says:

    Beautiful post, Violet. You see this same scenario played over and over again. In the small town I live in, the unemployed women are still working their butts off, often also volunteering for various organizations in the hopes of a job lead. The unemployed men are all lined up in the coffee house window which conveniently has a casino and bar behind it. They literally sit there all day drinking coffee and wait for a job to land in their lap.

    It’s the patriarchy. We teach men that they only have value if they are earning money. And we teach them that unpaid labor is always women’s work and beneath them.

  14. myiq2xu says:

    I’m probably the only person here that has ever been to Mendota – it’s about an hour south of Merced (also mentioned in the story) where I live.

    The men in the picture appear to be day-laborers waiting for possible employers, not drunken unemployed. Many of these men are either single or their families are still in Mexico – there isn’t a lot of housework for them to do because they live on a couch or in a car somewhere.

    But Violet’s point is correct – women immigrants often work in the field alongside the men and then come home to do the cooking and cleaning too.

  15. yttik says:

    It’s not just immigrants, it’s a cross cultural phenomenon that we see all over the country. As people have pointed out above, you see it with white collar workers, working class union wage earners, etc.

  16. Unree says:

    In the story the NY Times ran a couple of months ago about unemployed married men with children, one of the d00ds interviewed quoted his female job counselor as having told him that his job was finding a new job. Household chores would conflict with his search, he explained, and so he shouldn’t spend his time on any of those.

    Gah, the myth of man as breadwinner. I know so many guys who do nothing at home in exchange for using a woman as a meal ticket. The tiny number of women I know who don’t work outside their homes sure do a shitload of toil inside.

  17. Sis says:

    Conversely, all the men in my family *do* things. Did do things: built their own homes, furniture, boats, airplanes, canoes, sails wiring and woodwork for the sail boats, welding, barnacling (whatever that’s called) lathing, machining, making their own gun parts and bullets; tracking, shooting, skinning and butcheing, icing the sled runners and training the dogs, repairing stuff, constantly. They’d never be standing around there like that. I think it’s partly cultural, and that the men in my family are mostly from a past generation. They still all managed to be drunken abusive assholes, too. We’re a talented bunch.

  18. monchichipox says:

    Wow. What kind of men did some of you grow up with? My father most definitely had his faults but not working wasn’t one of them. Same with all the men in my family.

    Shouldn’t it also be asked as to why a woman would stay with a drunken no account? That would last about five minutes in my house.

  19. RKMK says:

    Shouldn’t it also be asked as to why a woman would stay with a drunken no account? That would last about five minutes in my house.

    Oh, that one’s easy: starts with a “p”, ends with an “atriarchy.”

  20. Sameol says:

    There was a similar article in the NY Times maybe a year and a half ago. They profiled these men who had been downsized from white collar jobs and basically said the low paying jobs that were available to them were too demeaning and they were done with work.

    On the one hand, they’re right, and you sympathize. On the other, their wives were supporting them by working 3 demeaning low level jobs, and that didn’t even cross their minds as they fretted over their self-actualization. Their wives were sick and worried privately, but trying to be supportive.