Imagine an interview where the interviewer wanders around the office, conducting work while asking intrusive personal questions. The interviewee trails behind. An hour-long appointment stretches into two. Things get further off track. The potential employee, apologizing profusely, gets herself out of the building and into the safety of her car. Cheeks burning, she drives herself home, wondering, “What the heck was that?” Days later, she fields phone calls from the interviewer, asking why she won’t accept an offer that is a dollar or two more than minimum wage. The amount would not likely cover the gas, taxes, work clothes and household/childcare coverage it would take to do the job. Advanced degrees and experience don’t matter, she hears. This is the going rate.
Meanwhile, at home, the same potential employee “works” at the numerous tasks that pop up every day. She self-drafts a clothing pattern, because a kid needs pyjamas of the right size and the pattern she has doesn’t fit. She mends a favourite pair of school pants. She prepares multiple meals in advance, baking bread ahead, too. These tasks are lined up for quick moments to spare amid managing homework and extracurricular activities. She contacts tradespeople to see if they can provide affordable repair quotes, responds to school emails and fits in applying for other jobs or doing her current work as she can. She is sadly behind in keeping up with her friends and family, but doesn’t know when to fit that in.
In between, she walks the dog, meets the kids at the school bus, takes them to medical appointments, or pays bills. She politely tries to get out of volunteer commitments that moms “should” do for the school and community organizations.
This might sound familiar to parents, mostly mothers. It’s all the work that goes unnoticed and is uncompensated in our society. Daring to seek compensation for some of these skills is seen as selfish. After all, these parents (usually mothers) are told, “If you expect to earn anything for your experience or education, you’re mistaken. You ‘chose’ not to stay consistently in the full-time workforce. You chose to have children/get married/study a less-lucrative topic in university….” The list goes on.
Our society functions in many ways because of the unpaid labour. It’s most often women’s physical, emotional, social labour done behind the scenes. It feels new and unfair in every generation, I suspect, even as some things change for women slowly over time.
As I study Ketubot, which is a Babylonian talmudic tractate dedicated, at least in theory, to marriage contracts, I’ve had competing demands on my time. It’s forced me to read aspects of the text differently. When the rabbis debated these issues (1,600 to 2,100 years ago, give or take), women’s roles were more circumscribed. However, some of the basic arguments seem to arise in ways that don’t surprise me.
Some of the takeaway nuggets from this tractate…. When a woman marries, her husband is owed her labour and the fruit from her properties. Even if she brings servants into the marriage, there are certain tasks she must do herself. Her virtue and loyalty are worth a monetary value in the marriage.
There are surprises though. If the husband dies, the woman is owed the price of her marriage contract, or the husband’s heirs must take care of her upkeep. She (or her representatives) may write obligations into the marriage contract that the husband will be required to honour. For instance, if she brings a daughter from a previous marriage with her, she can obligate the new husband to pay for the daughter’s physical support in the contract. (Ketubot 102)
Long story short, smart women can sometimes find ways to protect themselves. This is true even in a rabbinic system that isn’t designed necessarily for them. In these texts, women – and their families – both look out for one another and treat each other unfairly.
What can we draw from all this? I feel less alone when considering that expectations may have changed a bit in 2,000 years, but that many of our sometimes truly overwhelming expectations and commitments remain. Further, clever people have protected themselves whenever they can, throughout the centuries. It’s not new to look out for one’s own interests and avoid being taken advantage of by creating some safe boundaries.
Studying these texts at this point in my life offers me a level of maturity that I didn’t have the first time I went through a bad interview. More than once, I was offered a job that took a lot of skill but offered only a low wage. I remember feeling torn up about these experiences, wondering if I was worth so little. It was also a feeling of desperation. I needed a certain amount to live, and this offer wouldn’t provide it.
One privilege of being older is that women who value themselves aren’t embarrassed to ask for what they’re worth. Earning less than what we need doesn’t do us or our families any favours but, of course, in financial desperation, many women must take those jobs anyway. This is what fuels the cycle of low wage work in the first place.
We aren’t all experts in everything. Drafting a sewing pattern doesn’t make one a professional fashion designer. Finding the right document in a bunch of storage boxes is like finding a needle in a haystack, but it doesn’t make me an archivist or a research librarian. We all have our areas of true expertise. Also, just as the rabbis debated the value of one’s roles and responsibilities in marriage, we do the same. Is our work worth something? Heck, yes.
Tractate Ketubot’s messages about the value of a woman or a wife sometimes seem mercenary, but this, too, is Torah. Sometimes, being mercenary is the way to have our work be seen, valued or compensated appropriately.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.