We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it



new internationalist
issue 181 - March 1988

[image, unknown]

The politics of housework
Debbie Taylor argues that women are imprisoned by
domestic work. And that men must help set them free.

In January 1973 a young criminal named Paul Giles was ordered by a UK magistrate to spring-clean an old-age pensioner's house as a punishment for his offence. On hearing this, women around the world might be forgiven for wondering just what heinous crimes they must have committed to justify their life sentences of cleaning.

But by equating it with a prison term, the magistrate showed a remarkable degree of insight into the nature of housework in modern society. It is mostly boring, isolated, unpaid, pointless, prevents one from doing anything else. And there is no escape.

Cutlery, crockery, pots and pans rotate continuously from table to sink to draining board to cupboard and back to the table again. Clothes take similar round-trips from washing-basket to laundromat to ironing board to closet to washing-basket. Like convicts' work of digging holes then filling them in again, housework never ends and is never completed. Fifty years' hard labour, with no time off for good behaviour. If this seems like an exaggeration, consider these statistics. In one US survey housewives were found to be doing an average of 99.6 hours' housework a week'1; UK mothers devote 50 hours a week just to child-care2; in France and Sweden the number of hours spent on unpaid housework is greater than all the hours of paid employment put together3. And of course the vast bulk of this labour is performed by women. In the US married men now do an impressive nine minutes more housework per day than they did 20 years ago4 and in Italy 85 per cent of mothers with small children and full-time jobs outside the home are married to men who do no domestic work at all5.

These are truly horrendous figures - enough to set many a feminist running amuck, Brillo pad and scrubbing-brush aloft, seeking some awful lingering vengeance. But wait. Doesn't 99.6 hours a week seem rather a lot for even the most house-proud housewife? What on earth are those women doing for 99.6 hours?

Doing time
A great deal of unnecessary work, it seems. Research in the UK, for instance, found that the average toilet was scoured and the living-room carpet vacuumed four times a week6. In fact women in Western societies are doing more housework now than ever before - 60 hours a week in the EEC compared with between 46 and 52 hours half a century ago7 - despite the plethora of labour-saving devices that are now standard in many households.

You need only compare the hours full-time housewives put in with those done by neighbours who have jobs outside the home to see that a large proportion of this work is unnecessary. Data from 12 industrialized countries show that housewives do around 25 hours more housework per week than women with jobs5. So clearly it is possible for a family to get by on the 31 hours a week done by the women with full-time jobs.

I do not want to imply here that the 99.6-hour housewives are incompetent or obsessional. Simply to suggest that housework is not merely a matter of supplying enough clean socks. It's about women providing the best possible lifestyle for their loved ones, in whatever time they have available. I will return to this later.

Superexploited superwomen
Meanwhile, let's look at those 31 hours the hard-pressed superwoman is forced to put in every week to keep the household running. Those hours of necessary but unpaid work are the main reason why men are the rulers of the world. It is as if women have said: 'Here, I will give you 31 hours a week each, as a gift for you to use for earning money, furthering your careers, gaining power'.

The corollary, of course, is that women earn less money, sacrifice their careers, have little or no political power. It has been estimated, for instance, that UK women lost a total of $27 billion in overtime payments in 1987 because they had to leave work to rush to the shops, collect the children from school, prepare the evening meal8. In the US only seven per cent of women workers are employed in managerial positions4. And those few who do manage to achieve power and status must often do so at the expense of their private lives. Women professionals in the UK, for instance, are three times as likely as men professionals to be unmarried and childless9.

In Marxist terms, women are not 'free' to sell their labour in the way that men are because the housework always comes first. Men are able to bargain with employers, offering to work shifts, say, in return for more money, or travelling to better-paid jobs in another part of the city. Women, on the other hand, gratefully accept any employment on offer that can somehow be dovetailed to fit in with their housework. This is why so many women work part-time - 41 per cent of married women in the UK, for instance5.

It is also one reason for the low pay of so-called 'pink-collar' occupations such as secretarial, clerical, nursing, catering and cleaning jobs, which are overwhelmingly done by women. In a mixed-sex group of workers, the demands of the men - with their greater 'freedom' of labour and bargaining power - will tend to push everyone's basic wage up. But when all the workers are women they are far easier to exploit.

Natural victims
And when the work they do for wages is so similar to the work they do for nothing in their homes, their bargaining power is further undercut by the assumption that their work is 'natural' and therefore unskilled. In fact the exact opposite might well be the case: that men's lack of skills like dexterity, patience and empathy - required for so many pink-collar occupations - means women are the only people able to do such jobs. But these skills are not reflected in the wages: in the US, where 80 per cent of working women are employed in clerical work of some kind1, a secretary with 18 years experience still earns less than a parking-lot attendant4.

These, then, are the consequences of that gift of 31 hours a week: power and wealth for men; responsibility and poverty for women. And individual husbands are not the only ones to profit from the domestic slavery of their wives. It has been estimated, for instance, that companies would have to add around 30 per cent to their wage bills if they were to pay women fairly for the paid work they do3. And if governments had to fork out for the unpaid work as well, the amount of money that would change hands would add up to around 40 per cent of GNP3. In the US the amount theoretically owed each year to women for unpaid domestic work is six times the annual military budget1.

If you had not already begun to smell a rat, then the whiff should be getting through to you about now. Because this state of affairs clearly did not come about by accident. Women in the industrialized world did not gather together over tea one afternoon and agree to work unpaid for those 31 hours out of the sheer kindness of their hearts. No, they were given little choice. They were, as Ivan Illich put it, 'flattered and threatened, by capitalist and cleric' into their current situation10.

A number of authors have investigated the history of housework and have discovered that, though domestic work has existed ever since there was a domus in which to do it, the housewife role is a very recent one indeed - and confined to industrialized societies. As sociologist Anne Oakley put it 'other cultures may live in families but they do not necessarily have housewives'9. They have women, men and children whose labour is woven together like coloured thread in a tapestry, creating home, life and livelihood for the whole family.

A woman in Kenya starts to untie the shawl securing her baby to her back, so she can wield her hoe with more freedom among the maize stalks. Before her hands have loosened the knot, another child's willing arms will be waiting to take the baby from her. While she works, the hoe flashing in the sunshine, her daughters will be pounding sorghum and fetching water for the evening meal, her sons driving goats and cattle to fresh grazing, her husband sinking wooden poles into the ground for a new house.

Growing food and children
All of these activities are work, but those that we would term housework are so intricately interwoven with agriculture that it is difficult to tease them apart The growing of food and the growing of children are both vital to the family's survival. Without children the food cannot be grown; without food there can be no children. Who would dare make the judgement that holding your youngest baby on your lap and coaxing her to eat her first mouthful of porridge is less important that weeding a few more yards in the maize field?

Yet this is the judgement our society makes constantly. Production - of nails, televisions, canned soup, Wrangler jeans - is important. Reproduction - Marx's term for that work of cleaning, feeding and caring that begets children and rekindles workers' energy at the end of each day - is unimportant. How did this degradation of reproduction or domestic work come about? And how is it that women in our societies are expected to manage it alone?

Well, according to Oakley, Illich and many others, the domestic rot set in (along with many other kinds of rot) with the growth of the cities, factories and mines of early capitalism. By 1850 half of the UK population were living in cities9. In those days factory and mine-owners did not care who did their work for them and hired whole families to dig coal or weave cloth in the textile mills. It might have continued that way, too, except for two main things.

First was the extraordinarily high infant mortality rate in the dreadful city slums where the workers lived. This came about largely because domestic work among the new proletariat had been reduced to an absolute minimum, crowded out by the demands of wage labour. Reproduction was no longer as vital for survival as it had been when families lived off the land. So babies were left untended in filthy hovels with no water or sanitation and weaned onto gruel as soon as they were born, to free their mothers for work in the factories. In fact the general 'condition of the working class' became a cause for serious concern among capitalists. Malnourished, disease-ridden, stunted and crippled by the conditions in which they lived, the workers were less and less able to do a good day's work. Epidemics of diphtheria and typhoid swept through the slums like evil floodwater and began to lap at the doors of the rich.

Meanwhile the clatter of the tumbrels in the stinking streets was drowned out by the roar of ever-more efficient machinery in the factories. And the more efficient the machines became, the fewer the workers that were needed to work them.

Redundant wives
At this point the story starts to read like a conspiracy - though in fact capitalism tends to operate more by trial and error, rather like Darwinian evolution, with the 'fittest' (by which I mean the most cost-effective for capitalists) economic arrangements surviving. It turned out that the most cost-effective way to run a workforce was to throw women out of the factories and put them to work on improving the lamentable 'condition of the working class' in their homes. This had the added advantage that only one wage-packet would need to be paid - to the man of the house - to support the working-class family.

Both women and men protested vigorously: the women because they were accustomed to providing for themselves; the men because they resented being made suddenly responsible for their wives and children (compulsory education for children and restrictive employment laws had barred children, too, from the factories by this time). 'The plebeians rioted,' says Illich. 'And the crowd was led, more often than not, by its women'.

The rioting went on until what Illich mischievously calls 'the enclosure of women' - the transformation of women into housewives - was completed. In 1737 over 98 per cent of married women in England worked outside the home. By 1911 over 90 per cent were employed solely as housewives9. And this pattern was repeated throughout the industrialized world.

The means by which this 'enclosure of women' was effected were many and various. There was the 'germ theory' of disease, for example, which led well-heeled hypochondriachal do-gooders to take the gospel of 'domestic science' to the masses. Annual spring-cleaning became a thing of the past as women were exhorted to rid their homes of 'germ-infested dust'. Doctors and scientists reinforced the laws preventing women working and confirmed their economically dependent status by 'discovering' women's 'natural' sensitivity and fragility. Religious authorities weighed in too, urging these tender-hearted creatures to be the guarantors of their husband's and children's morality11.

Divide and rule
Perhaps if women had had the support of their men from the beginning, they might have been able to resist these pressures on them to provide free domestic services. But the capitalists had effected a split between working-class men and women by, as Illich puts it, 'making working men wardens of their domestic women, one on one, and making this guardianship into a burdensome duty'. A similar antagonism between the sexes can be observed today in developing countries where the introduction of cash crops and wage-labour has given men - but not women - access to money. The men feel the money is theirs; the women resent their lack of control over the family's income.

Today the carrots and sticks used latterly to force women into domestic slavery are no longer necessary. We are trained for our servile role from the day we are born. So powerful is our training that even the massive influx of women back into the labour force in recent years has had practically no effect on the division of labour in our homes.

This is because, as I mentioned earlier, women are trained to take care of their loved ones. This means that the housewife role includes much more than the sheer drudgery of providing clean socks. It is also a cool hand on a feverish forehead in the early hours; boiling his eggs exactly the way he likes them; flowers on the table; organizing a treasure hunt for Easter-eggs. Domestic labour has become fused in our minds with love - which is why some housewives work a 99.6 hour week and why a woman's work is literally never done. What woman would put a ceiling on love?

It is probably not necessary to point out here that men do not appear to have the same problem with limiting their devotion. While this is lamentable in many ways, there is a part (a very small part) of me that sympathizes with them.

Cooking and caring
Men perceive the trap that the conflation of love and domestic work comprises. They fear that to place even one toe over the edge would send them hurtling into the bottomless pit of self-sacrifice that is women's current caring role. As soon as they do attempt a smidgeon of housework, they often find themselves caught up in a wrangle about 'standards' - a wrangle which is really about deciding when enough is enough. If housework really were only about providing clean socks, then men might be more prepared to do their share.

Women have to unpick this tangle of finite domestic labour and infinite love. Because it is a tangle that ensnares us as surely as any fly in a web. This is not to suggest that we should stop loving. Just that we should stop equating loving with unpaid domestic service as if the two were interchangeable. Ironing shirts yet more perfectly does not increase the sum of human happiness. In fact there is some evidence that the opposite is the case: that children are more likely to become delinquent, babies and women more likely to be battered9, in homes where women are full-time housewives.

Having disentangled cooking from caring, the next step is to apportion the cooking equally among all who benefit from it. In heterosexual households the agenda is clean otherwise one person's leisure and advancement is bought at the direct expense of the other's toil and stagnation. If you have children, ensure that they start doing their share of the chores too - as early possible (bearing in mind that many Third World children are working in the fields, cooking meals and going to school by the age of nine).

The key, then, is to eschew all unreciprocated domestic labour. This includes paying for the labour of a nanny, child-minder or cleaner. After all, who cleans the cleaner's house or minds the child-minder' s children? Not her (sic) employers, that's for sure. And the existence of single mothers or families on the lowest of low incomes means that the middle-class couple's solution of sharing the chores or passing the buck onto someone else will simply not work. Not every woman has a male partner available (let alone willing) to share the housework. Not every family can afford to pay for other people to do it for them.

This may sound utopian (I don't know about you, but I have nothing against utopias), but if housework were organized on a simple basis of equal distribution, then both rich and poor people, single parents and married couples, adults and children would all become equally tied to (and equally freed from) the home. And women's 50 years of hard labour, in solitary confinement, could be commuted to a suspended sentence.

1 Leghorn and K Parker, Woman's Worth, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
2 D Piachaud, Around About 50 Hours a Week, Child Poverty Action Group, UK, 1987.
3 L Goldschmidt-Clermont, Unpaid Work in the Household, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1982.
4 S A Hewlett, A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation, Michael Joseph, London, 1987.
5 D Taylor (Ed.), Women: A World Report, New Internationalist / Methuen, 1985.
6 The 1,001 Dirt Report survey of 650 housewives.
7 J Vanek, Time Spent in Housework, Scientific American, November 1974.
8 Research by the General, Municipal and Boilermakers' Union, reported in The Guardian, London, 19 January 1987.
9 A Oakley, Housewife, Penguin, 1976.
10 I Illich, Shadow Work, Marion Boyars, London, 1981.
11 B Ehrenreich and D English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women, Pluto Press, UK, 1979.

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page

New Internationalist issue 181 magazine cover This article is from the March 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »

Help us keep this site free for all

Editor Portrait New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.

Support us » payment methods

Subscribe   Ethical Shop