Wages For Housework
issue 181 - March 1988
Wages for Housework
'If women were paid for all they do, there'd be a lot of wages due',
sang women campaigners in the 1970s. But demanding money for
unpaid domestic work is a sad indictment of the Women's Movement,
argues Zoë Fairbairns - because it demonstrates that feminists have
lost the battle to force men to do their share of the cleaning.
I am the daughter of a housewife who hated housework. As a child of the Fifties and a teenager of the Sixties, I watched my mother in horror and guilt and fear: horror at the unchanging dreariness of the tasks that made her so angry, so tired; guilt at my own failure to ease her burdens; fear that her fate would be my fate.
It must be my fate. The alternative - staying single, being 'left on the shelf' - was too humiliating to contemplate. I never questioned the equation of marriage with compulsory housework. Why would my mother devote all her time to an activity that made her miserable if she did not have to?
Into the anger and anxiety of my late teens came feminism - as something contemporary and urgent and speaking to me. It spoke about the 'Politics of Housework'. The phrase alone was stunning. It brought together what I had always assumed to be risible and banal (housework) with what I knew to be important and serious (politics). It argued that the division of labour in the home went beyond private family squabbles about whose turn it is to wash up. It argued that without women's unpaid domestic work, world economic systems would collapse.
American feminist Pat Mainardi pointed out in The Politics of Housework1 that even if it takes only one hour's work per day to attend to a person's domestic needs (a very low estimate), men who offload this work onto women gain seven hours per week, almost a whole working day. And women lose those hours. In noting - indignantly - that my father had leisure, earning-power, authority, status and choices, while my mother had housework. I had been right. But I had missed the point. This unfairness was no coincidence: men's privileges existed because women did housework.
Women's Liberation writers proposed various remedies. Pat Mainardi thought men should share the housework, and suggested how women could bring this about. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique2 pointed out how mass media and advertising helped persuade women to accept that domesticity was their destiny. Once we saw through the conditioning, she implied, we would no longer be affected by it. Later Germaine Greer briskly declared - in The Female Eunuch3 - that 'if women are to effect a significant amelioration in their conditions it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry. No worker can be required to sign on for life: if he did, his employer could disregard all his attempts to gain better pay and conditions.' And, talking of pay and conditions, in the early 1970s a feminist group called the Power of Women Collective started campaigning for wages for housework.
My first response to the slogan 'Wages for Housework' was to see it as an extraordinarily good joke. I mean that as a compliment: a good joke is not something absurd or ridiculous; it is something that pleases by evoking the laughter of recognition - recognition of a truth that has often been thought but never so well expressed. Like 'the emperor's got no clothes on', 'Wages for Housework' was subversive and embarrassing and enraging and could not go unanswered.
Of course there were - and are - many answers. Supporters of male privilege are against wages for housework. But then they would be, wouldn't they? No-one welcomes the opportunity to pay for what they believe nature has decreed they should have gratis. But many feminists opposed wages for housework too, arguing, as Lisa Tuttle put it in The Encyclopedia of Feminism4, that 'paying women for child-, house-, and husband-care simply reinforces the very traditions and prejudices that keep women in the home'.
The basis of the argument has not changed all that much since the 1970s, though times have. The UK political climate of the 1970s was such that, had Wages for Housework ever become a mass campaign (comparable with campaigns for equality laws, for example, or for the protection of abortion rights), the Government might have made a move in that direction. Indeed, it is arguable that they did: Child Benefit, introduced in 1976, payable to mothers and financed out of fathers' income tax, could be seen as a token wage for housework. But under Thatcherism the fight is on to protect what welfare payments there are: the foreseeable future is unlikely to bring about the introduction of any new ones.
Yet the Wages for Housework campaigners remain vociferous, as do their opponents. Wages for Housework is more than a single demand; it offers a controversial perspective on a wide range of feminist concerns, and the politics and economics of housework have been debated in the context of Greenham Common, campaigns for the rights of prostitutes, campaigns against racism, campaigns against rape. What, in the meantime, has happened about the politics and economics of housework in people's homes? How have nearly 20 years of debate on this matter affected the custom under which women donate energy, earning power and leisure time to men by relieving them of domestic responsibilities?
Not very much, according to the UK Government's annual Social Trends survey published in l9865. Men still earn more money and have more leisure than women; women still do most of the housework; and most married people thought women should do most of the washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning. Even when couples agree that tasks should be shared equally, by and large women do them anyway. Or, as my harassed mother used to say, giving up the uneven struggle for fairness at home: 'it's easier to do it myself'.
Similar results were found in a less formal survey conducted by Marianne Velmans and Sarah Litvinoff for their book Working Mother, a Practical Handbook6. Defending themselves against the charge that their book is sexist - because its household hints are primarily directed to mothers - they say: 'As this book is essentially practical rather than campaigning,' (note the distinction) 'we are aiming ... at the average working mother who has the day-to-day running of the house to think about as well as everything else. We offer all our support and good wishes to any of you planning to change that in your own homes, and we believe that more of us can and will do so. But in the meantime there is the ironing to be done.'.
And it's easier to do it myself? This mood of resignation to - even acceptance of - inequality in the home permeates the otherwise strong rhetoric and advice of many campaigners outside it. Feminist opponents of Wages for Housework say that such women would reinforce the assumption that housework and child-care are women's business. But it hardly needs reinforcing.
A Labour Party document aimed at capturing the women's vote during the 1987 election had this to say: 'Women are told they've got equality. But the men who tell them don't understand that most women have to juggle a job, a home and a family'. Have to? A writer in the feminist magazine Women's Review mused recently on 'one of the ironies of practical feminism . mothers who wish to leave their kitchens and attain full potential must hire other, less fortunate, women to stand in for them'. Must? Why? Where are the 'less fortunate' men? Feminist organizers know that if they want events to be well attended they must provide a creche and time events to take account of 'women's domestic responsibilities'. Whose domestic responsibilities? Why, after nearly 20 years of Women's Liberation, are feminists accommodating those responsibilities rather than refusing them?
Is it because it is easier to make demands of governments (particularly unattainable demands, such as Wages for Housework) than it is to make them of the person you live with and perhaps love? Strikers negotiating with employers know that, if they hold out for too much, scab labour will be found to replace them. An individual woman refusing to marry, live with, cook for, or become pregnant by, a man who will not agree to share domestic responsibilities is on her own with the knowledge that he may find someone more pliable.
It may sound hard. But this is what it comes down to. No mass campaign, or local authority provision, or legal reform, can make individual men behave fairly at home if they don't want to and if individual women won't, can't or daren't insist.
Only a minority of the world's women are in a position to insist. Where domestic labour means not simply buying food and cooking it, but producing it in the first place, refusal could mean starvation. But if feminists who do have some room for manoeuvre resign themselves to inequality at home - and incorporate that inequality into their campaigning strategy - then the debates on Wages for Housework can be no more than an intellectual exercise. Sex equality in the home will not on its own solve the housework problem. But there can be no solution without it.
Zoë Fairbairns is a novelist and journalist whose best-selling novel Benefits, Virago 1979, was partly about wages for housework.
1 P. Mainardi, The Politics of Housework in R Morgan (Ed.) Sisterhood Is Powerful, Vintage Books, 1970.
2 B Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Gollancz, 1963.
3 G Greer, The Female Eunuch, London, 1971.
4 The Encyclopedia of Feminism, Arrow, 1986.
5 HMSO, UK, Social Trends, 1986.
6 M Velmans and S Litvinoff, Working Mother: a Practical Handbook, Corgi, 1987.
WIVES ON STRIKE
'Just imagine it - a beautiful sunny day and thousands of women streaming into the main square from all over Reykjavik,' says Gerdur Steinphorsdottir, recalling the 'Women's Day Off' in Iceland in 1975. 'There had never been any thing like it: 25,000 of us converged on the main square - right opposite the Prime Minister's office.
'It was the beginning of the UN's Decade for Women so we decided to give it a good launch. Although most women in Iceland work outside the home, they are still the ones who do the cooking, cleaning and child-care as well. So we felt it was time women's work was recognized.
'And it is hard to get day-care for children before they go to school. Only the children of single parents and students can get full day provision. We were also angry that our work in the home never counts as relevant experience when we apply for jobs. Yet women have learnt to be extremely able managers - they have to be to keep everything running smoothly in the home.'
Gerdur Steinphorsdottir was one of the organizers of the protest, which consisted of meetings and rallies all over Iceland. 'It was quite easy to organize because women had so many grievances. But we didn't realise how many would be prepared to air them publicly. Or what the men would do...
'But the weather was with us when the day came. It was bright and not too cold. As we marched to the square other women joined in; some had brought their children, but most had simply left them with their fathers, forcing the men to stay at home.
'Everything came to a standstill that day. Schools, offices, factories, banks. Nurses and doctors handled only emergency cases. And the intensity of feeling, the numbers of women who took part, took everyone by surprise. Now laws of equality between men and women have been passed in Iceland and our first woman President was elected in 1980.
'Some men trivialized what we did of course, but others supported us. There were two men watching the rally and, as a woman was making her speech, I heard one of them say: "I wouldn't like to be married to her." Imagine my delight when the other man answered "You would never be so lucky".'
Interviewed by Troth Wells.
Help us keep this site free for all
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.