issue 239 - January 1993
Ways of seeing
ways of working
What you see depends upon how you look at it - RE Pahl considers the options.
Look at an image of a woman ironing. Is this work or is it leisure? And if it is work, what kind of work is it? She could be a full-time wage worker making garments as a domestic outworker. If she is hired on a piecework basis she could be trying to iron as many garments as quickly as she can. Or she may have been hired on a fixed contract and it doesn't make much difference how fast she works.
She may be working part-time, or on shifts which include a period at home, or casual work covering for regular employees at holiday time, or taking on extra work at a particularly busy period.
In all these cases she is selling her ironing skills to an employer. If she had an accident and lost her sight or injured her ironing arm her ability to work would disappear or be reduced.
We cannot be sure her employer is honest. She might not figure in the firm's records, so the employer can avoid paying taxes or granting rights to sickness benefit and maternity leave.
She might still be preparing the garment for sale but own the material and the iron; she may have dyed the cloth, designed the style or decorated the garment. She might have her own stall or boutique or she might be selling by contract to a retail store. In this case she is self-employed, responsible for her own pace of work and the quality of what she produces.
So far we know nothing about her age, marital status, race or attitudes. Let's assume she's ironing the garment for another member of the household where she lives. She may be ironing a shirt for her lover, as an act of love, knowing that her lover does the same for her. But it is not play, done purely for the pleasure of doing it, like playing tennis or going fishing.
Alternatively, the woman may have been married for years to a man she barely tolerates. He insists on a clean, well ironed shirt every day. He may hit her if she fails in what he claims is her duty. The task is a burden and brings no pleasure; she is constrained, oppressed and resentful, brooding on the injustice of her situation.
Perhaps it is for the office next day and she's working to 'reproduce' herself as a smart worker. The way she presents herself makes a difference to her effectiveness as a worker. So she's working for her employer in her own time. Of course she's also 'reproducing' herself as a worker when she's cleaning her teeth or eating her breakfast, but she'd do these things even if she were out of work - and wouldn't be ironing her blouse if she were on holiday.
Perhaps it's her mother-in-law's blouse. Social pressures have made her care for someone who is unable to care for themselves. She's an unpaid community worker and the obligation prevents her from engaging in paid employment. Such burdens of family and kin are highly gender specific. Men would not be expected to care for the elderly in the same way. In the case of an unemployed single man with a dependent relative the social services would, in Britain, provide support that would not be available to a woman in the same position.
She may be a member of the local dramatic society and the producer has flattered her into pressing the costumes of the leading players. Or she may simply have been picked on by a male producer as the nearest woman to be cajoled or flattered into doing a tedious chore and suffered the effects of patriarchal oppression as a result.
She just might find ironing a pleasing relaxation from a mentally exhausting job. The activity is then a pleasure and would not, therefore, be classed as work.
We've been thinking about a woman doing the task. Even if I'd referred throughout to 'a person', and the image had not been gender-specific, many readers would still assume that it was a woman doing the task. The tyrannies of custom and convention may create work as much as the economic relations of production.
RE Pahi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, UK, and the editor of On Work, (Basil Blackwell 1988), from which this is an edited extract.