|The Gender of Breadwinners: Joy Parr|
Copyright 1994 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.In The Gender of Breadwinners, Joy Parr describes the social and economic behavior of inhabitants of two small Canadian industrial towns. In her book, Parr explores issues relating to gender, ethnicity, and economics by illustrating the contrast between the Paris and Hanover, the two industrial towns, located in Ontario. Geography becomes a primary determinant of community, providing a basis for further group identity and dynamicism. Central to her argument is the gender difference between the two towns, with the textile industry -- traditional "woman's work" -- of Paris promoting a large contingent of female workers and the furniture industry of Hanover supporting an employment base of men. Ethnicity becomes important in this environment, with the German background of the workers of Hanover providing a different cultural climate than that of Paris, whose inhabitants were generally of British extraction.
Ultimately, a great deal of Parr's analysis rests on economic factors. The necessity of female employment in Paris, generally supplementing the income of her parents, led to a culture more oriented towards the female experience. Marriage was often delayed, with a general pattern, particularly among emigrants, towards a two-income household. In Hanover, the existing patriarchal system established women more clearly in a domestic role, making wage labor a function of men. Social pressures change these constructions through time, with the notion "that a policy that encouraged female factory employment fostered a social evil" making the preponderance of female labor less common in Paris (233) and the necessity for a greater income forcing some Hanover families into households in which women assume some part of the labor requirements. Socially, the strong bonds between females in Paris lessen, while the economic community of Hanover begins to take precedence over traditional social forces, such as the family.
Methodologically, Parr generally employs a neo-Marxist tack, emphasizing the role of economics in the construction of the community. Her Marxist tendencies, however, are located in a decidedly contemporary feminist model, emphasizing the importance of gender in shaping society. In this respect, her analysis provides great insight into a largely overlooked issue, the role of women in industry, outside the traditional paradigm of the "cult of domesticity" and token employment before marriage. Other cultural issues are also raised, particularly dealing with ethnicity. Her level of inquiry allows for pertinent questions to be raised and, to some extent, be answered. She provides ample statistical, historical, and ethnographic information to support her study of gender and industry.
While she is able, in large part, to answer questions relating to gender, Parr's methodological interests hurt her study to an extent. By attempting to utilize strands of post-structural critique in her work, the general, more positivistic bent of her book is undermined. The Gender of Breadwinners provides excellent argumentation and support for the relationship between economics and the construction of work roles. However, the conciliation to post-modern thought, making social roles a priori conceptualizations, is incongruous with her argument based on economic necessity. A distinction is not made between the fluidity of the roles necessary for a Marxian (or functionalist) analysis and the arbitrary nature of roles that is central to post-structuralism, making many of the statistical supports used sound like scientistic, rather than scientific evidence.
Her definition of community is also somewhat problematic. While she clearly establishes the existence of gender communities and their relationship to other institutions, the idea of a multiplicity of communities is not as evident. Where works such as Anthony Wallace's Rockdale clearly illustrate the existence of a multiplicity of communities with differing interests that have complex effects on other social bodies, in The Gender of Breadwinners, two geographically defined communities are described in terms of gender. The other elements of community, particularly ethnicity, are described as a function of gender and economics. While the impact of economics and gender on culture is described to some extent, the complexities and mutuality of interaction between these forces is largely ignored. A less deterministic analysis of these relationships, employing, in all likelihood, a less Marxian orientation, would address this oversimplification and provide a more compelling argument.
The Gender of Breadwinners is an excellent work, detailing the importance of gender and social roles in modern economic development. While the work is supremely useful and insightful in addressing these issues in a way that expands upon a great deal of the prior analysis of the subject, an addressing of the complexities of social groups outside of gender would make it an even stronger effort, viable in a broader context. Joy Parr, in the best passages of the book, raises many socio-historical issues which must be addressed by a contemporary historian, making the book a valuable contribution to the academic world. In answering some of these questions, the book is of even greater merit, providing a greater depth of understanding than is evident in many studies of these issues. However, the strengths of the narrative also provide a basis for the fundamental weakness of the book, the overemphasis on a feminist approach that is accountable to many strains of current socio-historical thought, failing to fully satisfy any. Ultimately, the book is most interesting and important in its treatment of the relationship between economics and social identity, yielding valuable insight in spite of methodological flaws.