Gift Labor

Does being relational inhibit or promote personal growth?

Time for our Monday book club discussion. In chapter four of The Gift: Creativity and Artist in the Modern World, Lewis Hyde explores the feminine nature of gift labor.

Hyde, back in chapter three, distinguishes work from labor. Work, he says, “is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will.” We work for money (usually). Labor, Hyde says, refers “to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.”

I’m thinking of labor as more of a calling. So, along that line, “gift labor” refers to choosing a path in life that requires giving of oneself…more deeply than surface-giving…more than just punching the clock.

Hyde says that gift labor is largely a feminine thing.

Without being judgmental, he refers to “female tasks” as those types of jobs and services that deal with subjects that are difficult to quantify—nursing, teaching, social work, caregiving. These types of roles, Hyde says, require “…the kind of emotional or spiritual commitment” that is independent from market value. The relationships involved in these types of roles offer their own value; at least to most women. There is something inherently appealing about this type of work that calls to the feminine nature.

Hyde maintains that in male commerce, “relationship is a secondary concern”, and so, women typically fill these roles. Men prefer to deal in commodities, conducting their business independent of relationship.

Is this a good thing? Um, more importantly, is it natural?

Hyde briefly touches on this transition of males from the internal more spiritual matters to this capitalistic outlook: “…the nineteenth century saw a decline in faith coincide with the remarkable success of a secular, mercantile, and entrepreneurial spirit.”

Women tend the emotional world; men, the business.

It’s easy for us to accept that this has always been. But if we look at history, we see that men of the past did not shy away from “attention to inner life.”

Many of our greatest spiritual leaders and teachers were male. These guys were not concerned whether they appeared “manly” or not. Or perhaps their definition of “manly” was a bit different.

Jewish tradition holds that the father is responsible for teaching children the tenets of faith.

Yet, male Sunday school teachers (of children) are a minority today.

It’s women’s work.

Sigh. I’m not a feminist, and lest I be misunderstood I will limit this discussion. Suffice it to say that we would be better off to, as Hyde says, “…recognize that they are not ‘female’ but human tasks.” (Emphasis mine).

Sharing in the gift labor would likely yield more balance in our personal lives, as well as our society.


  1. says

    Interesting how he includes “nursing.” I thought of nursing my babies and though I never considered it labor…it was a labor of love.

    He likely meant Nursing professionally (RN)…but I was taken in my heart to a different place.

    Blessings, andrea

  2. says

    Also, I recall that he looks at other cultures. Remember the observation about the difficulty men from other types of cultures can have when trying to assimilate into Western culture? He gave the example of the Native American man who spent the $10,000 on a four-day party for his people… and how this was viewed by outsiders as irresponsible (from a business perspective). I found that fascinating.

    Great summary as always! 🙂

  3. says

    “Sharing in the gift labor would likely yield more balance in our personal lives, as well as our society.”
    I completely agree with what you said here!
    Balance would be much more likely if men took more of an active role in emotional and spiritual commitments.
    Interesting review Laura. Looking forward to more.

  4. says

    Laura, thanks for the good reflections again. For better or worse, Hyde returns to this conversation briefly in the next chapter. See p. 150, starting with the example of organic cells, then on to a walled city and finally ending with male and female roles regarding property exchange.

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