issue 181 - March 1988
Evolution of the Housewife
Today's world is dominated by a new species of human being: homo economicus. This species is found mainly in modern industrial societies, but is taking an increasingly strong hold in developing countries too. The animal is divided into two major mating types, or genders, which are distinguished largely by the kind of work each does. The first gender is vir laborans, the working husband, who labours outside the home for money, but who does almost no work within the home. The other is femina domestica, the housewife. She often works outside the home for money too, but her primary occupation is domestic work. Here follows an account of the evolution of femina domestica.
1. Femina agricola subsista (the woman farmer)
Found in large numbers today in the rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, but has been almost extinct in Western countries since 1900 (ousted by the superficially similar but totally unrelated femina domestica agricolae, or farmer's wife). Her main role is subsistence: the production of all the food, clothing, fuel and shelter she and her family need. She is aided in this work by other family members, including her mate and her young. The young mature early and are expected to work from the age of seven or eight. Because she and her family neither work for wages nor sell what they produce, the family simply shares what it produces.
2. Femina artesana (the woman trader)
Again, almost extinct in Western countries, once extremely prevalent in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe, where she began to replace femina agricola subsista (see above). In 1737 over 95 per cent of married women had a trade and produced, among many other things, almost all the beer and bread sold in England. Femina artesana tends to congregate in developing cities and large villages, where she is expected to provide both for herself and her young by making and selling goods (such as clothes, soap and pottery) and services (such as laundry). Today substantial pockets of this species can be found in the poorer urban areas of the Third World, where they comprise the major portion of what is known as the 'informal sector', aided by their young and (more rarely) their mates. They work mostly in their houses (which double as workshops), have control over their own income, and are economically independent of their mates.
3. Femina laborans (the woman worker)
This species tends to appear briefly in habitats undergoing a rapid transformation from field to factory. Along with femina redundata reservata (see right), into which she is prone to mutate, she is a transitory and unstable form. Historically she first appeared in large numbers in eighteenth-century Europe as factories began producing goods that were previously made by femina artesana, causing the latter to decline rapidly. She and her family live in tiny, unhygienic, crowded and badly-constructed houses (known as 'slums') in which they do little more than eat and sleep. 'Slum' habitats are very common in the cities of the Third World today.
Subspecies A: femina laborans proletaria (the factory worker): Along with her young and her mate (vir laborans), femina laborans proletaria works in mines and factories, in which she makes things like clothing and canned food in return for cash payments, with which she buys things like clothing and canned food that she needs for survival. By 1835 all cotton textiles in England were produced in factories and femina laborans and her young comprised 45 and 15 per cent respectively of all textile workers.
Subspecies B: femina laborans domestica (the servant): This subspecies works for cash payments in the houses of men (known as 'capitalists') who own the factories and shops that make and sell the things that femina laborans needs to buy for her survival. These houses are much larger than those in the 'slums' and are divided into special sections ('rooms'). Femina laborans works in one set of 'rooms'; the capitalist and his relatives eat and sleep in the other (larger) set. In Victorian England one in three women spent some time working as a servant and in 1841 there were nearly seven times as many women servants as women textile workers.
4. Femina redundata reservata (the unemployed wife)
An unstable and extremely aggressive mutant of femina laborans (see left), which appears spasmodically in industrial areas all over the world when capitalists install machinery to do the work previously done by femina laborans. The aggression arises from her frustration at being suddenly dependent on the cash payments of her mate, having previously been able to provide for herself and her young (for those few years before they are providing for them selves). This form was particularly prevalent in late nineteenth-century Europe, where laws were enacted to prevent femina laborans and her young from working in the factories and mines. By 1911 only one in 10 wives worked for cash payments in the UK; in the US in 1904 the figure was only one in 20. Apart from rioting to protest her situation, femina redundata's major occupation is, perforce, unpaid domestic work (NB: This species is not to be confused with the capitalist's wife - femina luxuriosa - a rare and fragile specimen who does no work whatsoever, apart from supervising the activities of servants.)
5. Femina domestica (the housewife)
As her name implies, femina domestica is a tame, domesticated', species, which has almost totally replaced the wild and unpredictable femina redundata in established industrial societies. In fact she was bred specifically for use in those societies. Her purpose is to maintain her house (known as 'the home') in a state of constant cleanliness and conviviality, and to care for and train her young (now legally forbidden to work and enclosed in daytime institutions known as 'schools'). No longer redundata, her work is vital for maintaining her mate in a state of readiness for work, for soothing his frustrations and preventing him rioting at his lack of control over his working life. Femina domestica believes her dependent and servile situation to be 'natural' so neither expects nor receives any cash payments for her work, which - with the discovery of germs', 'domestic science' and child-rearing' - now occupies her for at least 50 hours a week.
6. Femina domestica superioria (the superwoman)
A variety of femina domestica increasingly common in industrial societies. Though she considers unpaid domestic work to be her primary and natural' role, she also works for cash payments - because her mate has deserted her, because he earns too little to supply their needs, or because she finds domestic work unsatisfying. This means that she does much more work than either her mate (for whom domestic work is 'unnatural') or femina domestica (see below) - hence the term 'superioria'. Unfortunately the cash payments she is able to earn are severely curtailed by her responsibility for unpaid domestic work in 'the home'. In certain parts of the world, there are signs that this species is beginning to evolve into femina independenta feminista (the independent woman), a species which refuses to have her life defined or curtailed by her domestic role. Unfortunately her mate is evolving at a much slower pace and continues to refuse to do domestic work. This means the new species is often unable to have young, and is therefore already in danger of extinction.
The Information on these pages is taken from four main publications,
each of which cites numerous primary historical sources. The four are:
1 Ivan D Illich, Shadow Work, Marion Boyars, London, 1981.
2 Anne Oakley, Housewife, Penguin Books Ltd., 1976.
3 W Faulkner and E Arnold (Eds.), Smothered by Invention, Pluto Press, UK and Australia, 1985.
4 B Ehrenreich and D English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women,
Pluto Press, UK, 1979 and Anchor/ Doubleday, New York, 1978.