Angela Davis, “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective”
“The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective”
Chapter 13 of Women, Race and Class 
The countless chores collectively known as “housework” – cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, sweeping, shopping etc. – apparently consume some three to four thousand hours of the average housewife’s year. As startling as this statistic may be, ir does not even account for the constant and unquantifiable attention mothers must give to their children. Just as a woman’s maternal duties are always taken for granted, her never-ending toil as a housewife rarely occasions expressions of appreciation within her family. Housework, after all, is virtually invisible: “No one notices it until it isn’t done – we notice the unmade bed, not the scrubbed and polished floor.” Invisible, repetitive, exhausting, unproductive, uncreative – these are the adjectives which most perfectly capture the nature of housework.
The new consciousness associated with the contemporary women’s movement has encourages increasing numbers of women to demand that their men provide some relief from this drudgery. Already, more men have begun to assist their partners around the house, some of them even devoting equal time to household chores. But how many of these men have liberated themselves from the assumption that housework is women’s work”? How many of them would not characterise their housecleaning activities as “helping” their women partners?
If it were at all possible simultaneously to liquidate the idea that housework is women’s work and to redistribute it equally to men and women alike, would this constitute a satisfactory solution? While most women would joyously hail the advent of the “househusband,” the desexualisation of domestic labour would not really alter the oppressive nature of the work itself. In the final analysis, neither women nor men should waste precious hours of their lives on work that is neither stimulating nor productive.
One of the most closely guarded secrets of advanced capitalist societies involves the possibility – the real possibility – of radically transforming the nature of housework. A substantial portion of the housewife’s domestic tasks can actually be incorporated into the industrial economy. In other words, housework need no longer be considered necessarily and unalterably private in character. Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling, engineering technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively. Why the shroud of silence surrounding this potential of radically redefining the nature of domestic labour? Because the capitalist economy is structurally hostile to the industrialisation of housework. Socialised housework implies large government subsidies in order to guarantee accessibility to the working-class families whose need for such services is most obvious. Since little in the way of profits would result, industrialised housework – like all unprofitable enterprises – is anathema to the capitalist economy. Nonetheless, the rapid expansion of the female labour force means that more and more women are finding it increasingly difficult to excel as housewives according to the traditional standards. In other words, the industrialisation of housework, along with the socialisation of housework, is becoming an objective social need. Housework as individual women’s private responsibility and as a female labour performed under primitive technical conditions, may finally be approaching historical obsolescence.
Although housework as we know it today may eventually become a bygone relic of history, prevailing social attitudes continue to associate the eternal female condition with images of brooms and dustpans, mops and pails, aprons and stoves, pots and pans. And it is true that women’s work, from one historical era to another, has been associated in general with the homestead. Yet female domestic labour has not always been what it is today, for like all social phenomena, housework is a fluid product of human history. As economic systems have arisen and faded away, the scope and quality of housework have undergone radical transformations.
As Frederick Engels argued in his classic work on the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, sexual inequality as we know it today did not exist before the advent of private property. During early eras of human history the sexual division of labour within the system of economic production was complementary as opposed to hierarchical. In societies where men may have been responsible for hunting wild animals and women, in turn, for gathering wild vegetables and fruits, both sexes performed economic tasks that were equally essential to their community’s survival. Because the community, during those eras, was essentially an extended family, women’s central role in domestic affairs meant that they were accordingly valued and respected members of the community.
The centrality of women’s domestic tasks in pre-capitalist cultures was dramatised by a personal experience during a jeep trip I took in 1973 across the Masai Plains. On an isolated dirt road in Tanzania, I noticed six Masai women enigmatically balancing an enormous board on their heads. As my Tanzanian friends explained, these women were probably transporting a house roof to a new village which they were in the process of constructing. Among the Masai, as I learned, women are responsible for all domestic activities, thus also for the construction of their nomadic people’s frequently relocated houses. Housework, as far as Masai women are concerned, entails not only cooking cleaning, child-rearing, sewing, etc., but house-building as well. As important as their men’s cattle-rearing activities may be, the women’s “housework” is no less productive and no less essential than the economic contributions of Masai men.
Within the pre-capitalist, nomadic economy of the Masai, women’s domestic labour is as essential to the economy as the cattle-raising jobs performed by their men. As producers, they enjoy a correspondingly important social status. In advanced capitalist societies, on the other hand, the service-oriented domestic labour of housewives, who can seldom produce tangible evidence of their work, diminishes the social status of women in general. When all is said and done, the housewife, according to bourgeois ideology, is, quite simply, her husband’s lifelong servant.
The source of the bourgeois notion of woman as man’s eternal servant is itself a revealing story. Within the relatively short history of the United States, the “housewife” as a finished historical product is just a little more than a century old. Housework, during the colonial era, was entirely different from the daily work of the housewife in the United States today.
‘A woman’s work began at sunup and continued by firelight as long as she could hold her eyes open. For two centuries, almost everything that the family used or ate was produced at home under her direction. She spun and dyed the yarn that she wove into cloth and cut and hand-stitched into garments. She grew much of the food her family ate, and preserved enough to last the winter months. She made butter, cheese, bread, candles and soap and knitted her family’s stockings.’
In the agrarian economy of pre-industrialised North America, a woman performing her household chores was thus a spinner, weaver, and seamstress as well as a baker, butter-churner, cnadle-maker and soap-maker. And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. As a mater of fact,
‘… the pressures of home production left very little time for the tasks that we would recognise today as housework. By all accounts pre-industrial revolution women were sloppy housekeepers by today’s standards. Instead of the daily cleaning or the weekly cleaning there was the spring cleaning. Meals were simple and repetitive; clothes were changed infrequently; and the household wash was allowed to accumulate, and the washing done once a month, or in some households once in three months. And, of course, since each wash required the carting and heating of many buckets of water, higher standards of cleanliness were easily discouraged.’
Colonial women were not “house-cleaners” or “housekeepers” but rather full-fledged and accomplished workers within the home-based economy. Not only did they manufacture most of the products required by their families, they were also the guardians of their families’ and their communities’ health.
‘It was [the colonial woman’s] responsibility to gather and dry wild herbs used… as medecines; she also served as doctor, nurse, and midwife within her own family and in the community.’
Included in the United States Practical Recipe Book – a popular colonial recipe book – are recipes for foods as well as for household chemicals and medicines. To cure ringworm, for example, “obtain some blood-root… slice it in vinegar, and afterwards wish the place affected with the liquid.”
The economic importance of women’s domestic functions in colonial America was complemented by their visible roles in economic activity outside the home. It was entirely acceptable, for example, for a woman to become a tavern keeper.
‘Women also ran sawmills and gristmills, caned chairs and built furniture, operated slaughterhouses, printed cotton and other cloth, made lace, and owned and ran dry-goods and clothing stores. They worked in tobacco shops, drug shops, (where they sold concoctions they made themselves), and general stores that sold everything from pins to meat scales. Women ground eye-glasses, made cards for wool carding, and even were housepainters. Often they were the town undertakers…’
The postrevolutionary surge of industrialisation resulted in a proliferation of factories in the northeastern section of the new country. New England’s textile mils were the factory system’s successful pioneers. Since spinning and weaving were traditional female domestic occupations, women were the first workers recruited by the mill-owners to operate the new power looms. Considering the subsequent exclusion of women from industrial production in general, it is one of the first industrial workers were women.
As industrialisation advanced, shifting economic production from the home to the factory, the importance of women’s domestic work suffered a systematic erosion. Women were the losers in a double sense: as their traditional jobs were usurped by the burgeoning factories, the entire economy moved away from the home, leaving many women largely bereft of significant economic roles. By the middle of the nineteenth century the factory provided textiles, candles and soap. Even butter, bread and other food products began to be mass-produced.
‘By the end of the century, hardly anyone made their own starch or boiled their laundry in a kettle. In the cities, women bought their bread and at least their underwear ready-made, sent their children out to school and probably some clothes out to be laundered, and were debating the merits of canned foods… The flow of industry had passed on and had left idle the loom in the attic and the soap kettle in the shed.’
As industrial capitalism approached consolidation, the cleavage between the new economic sphere and the old home economy became ever more rigorous. The physical relocation of economic production caused by the spread of the factory system was undoubtedly a drastic transformation. But even more radical was the generalised revaluation of production necessitated by the new economic system. While home-manufactured goods were valuable primarily because they fulfilled basic family needs, the importance of factory-produced commodities resided overwhelmingly in their exchange value – in their ability to fulfill employers’ demands for profit. This revaluation of economic production revealed – beyond the physical separation of home and factory – a fundamental structural separation between the domestic home economy and the profit-oriented economy of capitalism. Since housework does not generate profit, domestic labour was naturally defined as an inferior form of work as compared to capitalist wage labour.
An important ideological by-product of this radical economic transformation was the birth of the “housewife.” Women began to be ideologically redefined as the guardians of a devalued domestic life. As ideology, however, this redefinition of women’s place was boldly contradicted by the vast numbers of immigrant women flooding the ranks of the working class in the Northeast. These white immigrant women were wage earners first and only secondarily housewives. And there were other women – millions of women – who toiled away from home as the unwilling producers of the slave economy in the South. The reality of women’s place in nineteenth-century U.S. society involved white women, whose days were spent operating factory machines for wages that were a pittance, as surely as it involved Black women, who laboured under the coercion of slavery. The “housewife” reflected a partial reality, for she was really a symbol of the economic prosperity enjoyed by the emerging middle classes.
Although the “housewife” was rooted in the social conditions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, nineteenth-century ideology established the housewife and the mother as universal models of womanhood. Since popular propaganda represented the vocation of all women as a function of their roles in the home, women compelled to work for wages came to be treated as alien visitors within the masculine world of the public economy. Having stepped outside their “natural” sphere, women were not to be treated as full-fledged wage workers. The price they paid involved long hours, substandard working conditions and grossly inadequate wages. Their exploitation was even more intense than the exploitation suffered by their male counterparts. Needless to say, sexism emerged as a source of outrageous super-profits for the capitalists.
The structural separation of the public economy of capitalism and the private economy of the home has been continually reinforced by the obstinate primitiveness of household labour. Despite the proliferation of gadgets for the home, domestic work has remained qualitatively unaffected by the technological advances brought on by industrial capitalism. Housework still consumes thousands of hours of the average housewife’s year. In 1903 Charlotte Perkins Gilman proposed a definition of domestic labour which reflected the upheavals which had changed the structure and content of housework in the United States:
‘… The phrase “domestic work” does not apply to a special kind of work, but to a certain grade of work, a state of development through which all kinds pass. All industries were once “domestic,” that is were performed at home and in the interests of the family. All industries have since that remote period risen to higher stages, except one or two which have never left their primal stage.’
“The home,” Gilman maintains, “has not developed in proportion to our other institutions.” The home economy reveals
‘… the maintenance of primitive industries in a modern industrial community and the confinement of women to these industries and their limited area of expression.’
Housework, Gilman insists, vitiates women’s humanity:
‘She is feminine, more than enough, as man is masculine, more than enough; but she is not human as he is human. The house-life does not bring out our humanness, for all the distinctive lines of human progress lie outside.’
The truth of Gilman’s statement is corroborated by the historical experience of Black women in the United States. Throughout this country’s history, the majority of Black women have worked outside their homes. During slavery, women toiled alongside their men in the cotton and tobacco fields, and when industry moved into the South, they could be seen in tobacco factories, sugar refineries and even in lumber mills and on crews pounding steel for the railroads. In labour, slave women were the equals of their men. Because they suffered a grueling sexual equality at work, they enjoyed a greater sexual equality at home in the slave quarters than did their white sisters who were “housewives.”
As a direct consequence of their outside work – as “free” women no less than as slaves – housework has never been the central focus of Black women’s lives. They have largely escaped the psychological damage industrial capitalism inflicted on white middle-class housewives, whose alleged virtues were feminine weakness and wifely submissiveness. Black women could hardly strive for weakness; they had to become strong, for their families and their communities needed their strength to survive. Evidence of the accumulated strengths Black women have forged through work, work and more work can be discovered in the contributions of the many outstanding female leaders who have emerged within the Black community. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells and Rosa Parks are not exceptional Black women as much as they are epitomes of Black womanhood.
Black women, however, have paid a heavy price for the strengths they have acquired and the relative independence they have enjoyed. While they have seldom been “just housewives’” they have always done their housework. They have thus carried the double burden of wage labour and housework – a double burden which always demands that working women possess the persevering powers of Sisyphus. As W. E. B. DuBois observed in 1920:
‘… some few women are born free, and some amid insult and scarlet letters achieve freedom; but our women in black had freedom thrust contemptuously upon them. With that freedom they are buying an untrammeled independence and dear as is the price they pay for it, it will in the end be worth every taunt and groan.’
Like their men, Black women have worked until they could work no more. Like their men, they have assumed the responsibilities of family providers. The unorthodox feminine qualities of assertiveness and self-reliance – for which Black women have been frequently praised but more often rebuked – are reflections of their labour and their struggles outside the home. But like their white sisters called “housewives,” they have cooked and cleaned and have nurtured and reared untold numbers of children. But unlike the white housewives, who learned to lean on their husbands for economic security, Black wives and mothers, usually workers as well, have rarely been offered the time and energy to become experts at domesticity. Like their white working-class sisters, who also carry the double burden of working for a living and servicing husbands and children, Black women have needed relief from this oppressive predicament for a long, long time.
The shortage, if not the absence, of public discussion about the feasibility of transforming housework into a social possibility bears witness to the blinding powers of bourgeois ideology. It is not even the case that women’s domestic role has received no attention at all. On the contrary, the contemporary women’s movement has represented housework as an essential ingredient of women’s oppression. There is even a movement in a number of capitalist countries, whose main concern is the plight of the housewife. Having reached the conclusion that housework is degrading and oppressive primarily because it is unpaid labour, this movement has raised the demand for wages. A weekly government paycheck, its activists argue, is the key to improving the housewife’s status and the social position of women in general.
The Wages for Housework Movement originated in Italy, where its first public demonstration took place in March, 1974.
Addressing the crowd assembled in the city of Mestre, one of the speakers proclaimed:
‘Half the world’s population is unpaid – this is the biggest class contradiction of all! And this is our struggle for wages for housework. It is the strategic demand; at this moment it is the most revolutionary demand for the whole working class. If we win, the class wins, if we lose, the class loses.’
According to this movement’s strategy, wages contain the key to the emancipation of housewives, and the demand itself is represented as the central focus of the campaign for women’s liberation in general. Moreover, the housewife’s struggle for wages is projected as the pivotal issue of the entire working-class movement.
The theoretical origins of the Wages for Housework Movement can be found in an essay by Mariarosa Dalla Costa entitled “Women and the Subversion of the Community.” In this paper, Dalla Costa argues for a redefinition of housework based on her thesis that the private character of household services is actually an illusion. The housewife, she insists, only appears to be ministering to the private needs of her husband and children, for the real beneficiaries of her services are her husband’s present employer and the future employers of her children.
‘(The woman) has been isolated in the home, forced to carry out work that is considered unskilled, the work of giving birth to, raising, disciplining, and servicing the worker for production. Her role in the cycle of production remained invisible because only the product of her labour, the labourer, was visible.’
The demand that housewives be paid is based on the assumption that they produce a commodity as important and as valuable as the commodities their husbands produce on the job. Adopting Dalla Costa’s logic, the Wages for Housework Movement defines housewives as creators of the labour-power sold by their family members as commodities on the capitalist market.
Dalla Costa was not the first theorist to propose such an analysis of women’s oppression. Both Mary Inman’s In Women’s Defence (1940) and Margaret Benston’s “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” (1969) define housework in such a way as to establish women as a special class of workers exploited by capitalism called “housewives.” That women’s procreative, child-rearing and housekeeping roles make it possible for their family members to work – to exchange their labour-power for wages – can hardly be denied. But does it automatically follow that women in general, regardless of their class and race, can be fundamentally defined by their domestic functions? Does it automatically follow that the housewife is actually a secret worker inside the capitalist production process?
If the industrial revolution resulted in the structural separation of the home economy from the public economy, then housework cannot be defined as an integral component of capitalist production. It is, rather, related to production as a precondition. The employer is not concerned in the least about the way labour-power is produced and sustained, he is only concerned about its availability and its ability to generate profit. In other words, the capitalist production process presupposes the existence of a body of exploitable workers.
‘The replenishment of (workers’) labour-power is not a part of the process of social production but a prerequisite to it. It occurs outside of the labour process. Its function is the maintenance of human existence which is the ultimate purpose of production in all societies.’
In South African society, where racism has led economic exploitation to its most brutal limits, the capitalist economy betrays its structural separation from domestic life in a characteristically violent fashion. The social architects of apartheid have simply determined that Black labour yields higher profits when domestic life is all but entirely discarded. Black men are viewed as labour units whose productive potential renders them valuable to the capitalist class. But their wives and children
‘… are superfluous appendages – non-productive, the women being nothing more than adjuncts to the procreative capacity of the black male labour unit.’
This characterisation of African women as “superfluous appendages” is hardly a metaphor. In accordance with South African law, unemployed Black women are banned from the white areas (87 percent of the country!), even, in most cases, from the cities where their husbands live and work.
Black domestic life in South Africa’s industrial centres is viewed by Apartheid supporters as superfluous and unprofitable. But it is also seen as a threat.
‘Government officials recognise the homemaking role of the women and fear their presence in the cities will lead to the establishment of a stable black population.’
The consolidation of African families in the industrialised cities is perceived as a menace because domestic life might become a base for a heightened level of resistance to Apartheid. This is undoubtedly the reason why large numbers of women holding residence permits for white areas are assigned to live in sex-segregated hostels. Married as well as single women end up living in these projects. In such hostels, family life is rigorously prohibited – husbands and wives are unable to visit one another and neither mother nor father can receive visits from their children.
This intense assault on Black women in South Africa has already taken its toll, for only 28.2 percent are currently opting for marriage. For reasons of economic expediency and political security, Apartheid is eroding – with the apparent goal of destroying – the very fabric of Black domestic life. South African capitalism thus blatantly demonstrates the extent to which the capitalist economy is utterly dependent on domestic labour.
The deliberate dissolution of family life in South Africa could not have been undertaken by the government if it were truly the case that the services performed by women in the home are an essential constituent of wage labour under capitalism. That domestic life can be dispensed with by the South African version of capitalism is a consequence of the private home economy and the public production process which characterises capitalist society in general. It seems futile to argue that on the basis of capitalism’s internal logic, women ought to be paid wages for housework.
Assuming that the theory underlying the demand for wages is hopelessly flawed, might it not be nonetheless politically desirable to insist that housewives be paid? Couldn’t one invoke a moral imperative for women’s right to be paid for the hours they devote to housework? The idea of a paycheck for housewives would probably sound quite attractive to many women. But the attraction would probably be short-lived. For how many of those women would actually be willing to reconcile themselves to deadening, never-ending household tasks, all for the sake of a wage? Would a wage alter the fact, as Lenin said, that
‘… petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades (the woman), chains her to the kitchen and to the nursery, and wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.’
It would seem that government paychecks for housewives would further legitimise this domestic slavery.
Is it not an implicit critique of the Wages for Housework Movement that women on welfare have rarely demanded compensation for keeping house? Not “wages for housework” but rather “a guaranteed annual income for all” is the slogan articulating the immediate alternative they have most frequently proposed to the dehumanising welfare system. What they want in the long run, however, is jobs and affordable public child care. The guaranteed annual income functions, therefore, as unemployment insurance pending the creation of more jobs with adequate wages along with subsidised systems of child care.
The experiences of yet another group of women reveal the probelmatic nature of the “wages for housework” strategy. Cleaning women, domestic workers, maids – these are the women who know better than anyone else what it means to receive wages for housework. Their tragic predicament is brilliantly captured in the film by Ousman Sembene entitled La Noire de… The main character is a young Senegalese woman who, after a search for work, becomes a governess for a French family living in Dakar. When the family returns to France, she enthusiastically accompanies them. Once in France, however, she discovers she is responsible not only for the children, but for cooking, cleaning, washing, and all the other household chores. It is not long before her initial enthusiasm gives way to depression – a depression so profound that she refuses the pay offered her by her employers. Wages cannot compensate for her slavelike situation. Lacking the means to return to Senegal, she is so overwhelmed by her despair that she chooses suicide over an indefinite destiny of cooking, sweeping, dusting, scrubbing…
In the United States, women of colour – and especially Black women – have been receiving wages for housework for untold decades. In 1910, when over half of all Black females were working outside their homes, one-third of them were employed as paid domestic workers. By 1920 over one-half were domestic servants, and in 1930 the proportion had risen to three out of five. One of the consequences of the enormous female employment shifts during World War II was a much-welcomed decline in the number of Black domestic workers. Yet in 1960 one-third of all Black women holding jobs were still confined to their traditional occupations. It was not until clerical jobs became more accessible to Black women that the proportion of Black women domestics headed in a definitely downward direction. Today the figure hovers around 13 percent.
The enervating domestic obligations of women in general provide flagrant evidence of the power of sexism. Because of the added intrusion of racism, vast numbers of Black women have had to do their own housekeeping and other women’s home chores as well. And frequently, the demands of the job in a white woman’s home have forced the domestic worker to neglect her own home and even her own children. As paid housekeepers, they have been called upon to be surrogate wives and mothers in millions of white homes.
During their more than fifty years of organising efforts, domestic workers have tried to redefine their work by rejecting the role of the surrogate housewife. The housewife’s chores are unending and undefined. Household workers have demanded in the first place a clear delineation of the jobs they are expected to perform. The name itself of one of the houseworkers’ major unions today – Household Technicians of America – emphasises their refusal to function as surrogate housewives whose job is “just housework.” As long as household workers stand in the shadow of the housewife, they will continue to receive wages which are more closely related to the housewife’s “allowance” than to a worker’s paycheck. According to the National Committee on Household Employment, the average, full-time household technician earned only $2,732 in 1976, two-thirds of them earning under $2,000. Although household workers had been extended the protection of the minimum wage law several years previously, in 1976 an astounding 40 percent still received grossly substandard wages. The Wages for Housework Movement assumes that if women were paid for being housewives, they would accordingly enjoy a higher social status. Quite a different story is told by the age-old struggles of the paid household worker, whose condition is more miserable than any other group of workers under capitalism.
Over 50 percent of all U.S. women work for a living today, and they constitute 41 percent of the country’s labour force. Yet countless numbers of women are currently unable to find decent jobs. Like racism, sexism is one of the great justifications for high female unemployment rates. Many women are “just housewives” because in reality they are unemployed workers. Cannot, therefore, the “just housewife” role be most effectively challenged by demanding jobs for women on a level of equality with men and by pressing for social services (child care, for example) and job benefits (maternity leaves, etc.) which will allow more women to work outside the home?
The Wages for Housework Movement discourages women from seeking outside jobs, arguing that “slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to the kitchen sink.” The campaign’s spokeswomen insist, nonetheless, that they don’t advocate the continued imprisonment of women within the isolated environment of their homes. They claim that while they refuse to work on the capitalist market per se, they do not wish to assign to women the permanent responsibility for housework. As a U.S. representative of this movement says:
‘… we are not interested in making our work more efficient or more productive for capital. We are interested in reducing our work, and ultimately refusing it altogether. But as long as we work in the home for nothing, no one really cares how long or how hard we work. For capital only introduces advanced technology to cut the costs of production after wages gains by the working class. Only if we make our work cost (i.e. only if we make it uneconomical) will capital “discover” the technology to reduce it. At present, we often have to go out for a second shift of work to afford the dishwasher that should cut down our housework.’
Once women have received the right to be paid for their work, they can raise demands for higher wages, thus compelling the capitalists to undertake the industrialisation of housework. Is this a concrete strategy for women’s liberation or is it an unrealisable dream?
How are women supposed to conduct the initial struggle for wages? Dalla Costa advocates the housewives strike:
‘We must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home… To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions.’
But if women are to leave the home, where are they to go? How will they unite with other women? Will they really leave their homes motivated by no other desire than to protest their housework? Is it not much more realistic to call upon women to “leave home” in search of outside jobs – or at least to participate in a massive campaign for decent jobs for women? Granted, work under conditions of capitalism is brutalising work. Granted, it is uncreative and alienating. Yet with all this, the fact remains that on the job, women can unite with their sisters – and indeed with their brothers – in order to challenge the capitalists at the point of production. As workers, as militant activists in the labour movement, women can generate the real power to fight the mainstay and beneficiary of sexism which is the monopoly capitalist system.
If the wages-for-housework strategy does little in the way of providing a long-range solution to the problem of women’s oppression, neither does it substantively address the profound discontent of contemporary housewives. Recent sociological studies have revealed that housewives today are more frustrated by their lives than ever before. When Ann Oaley conducted interviews for her book The Sociology of Housework, she discovered that even the housewives who initially seemed unbothered by their housework eventually expressed a very deep dissatisfaction. These comments came from a woman who held an outside factory job:
‘… (Do you like housework?) I don’t mind it… I suppose I don’t mind housework because I’m not at tit all day. I go to work and I’m only on housework half a day. If I did it all day I wouldn’t like it – woman’s work is never done, she’s on the go all the time – even before you go to bed you’ve still got something to do – emptying ashtrays, wash a few cups up. You’re still working. It’s the same thing every day; you can’t sort of say you’re not going to do it, because you’ve got to do it – like preparing a meal: it’s got to be done because if you don’t do it, the children won’t eat… I suppose you get used to it, you just do it automatically… I’m happier at work than I am at home.
‘(What would you say are the worst things about being a housewife?) I suppose you get days when you feel you get up and you’ve got to do the same old things – you get bored, you’re stuck in the same routine. I think if you ask any housewife, if they’re honest, they’ll turn around and say they feel like a drudge half the time – everybody thinks when they get up in the morning “Oh no, I’ve got the same old things to do today, till I go to bed tonight.” It’s doing the same things – boredom.’
Would wages diminish this boredom? This woman would certainly say no. A full-time housewife told Oakley about the compulsive nature of housework:
‘The worst thing is I suppose that you’ve got to do the work because you are at home. Even though I’ve got the option of not doing it, I don’t really feel I could not do it because I feel I ought to do it.’
In all likelihood, receiving wages for doing this work would aggravate this woman’s obsession.
Oakley reached the conclusion that housework – particularly when it is a full-time job – so thoproughly invades the female personality that the housewife becomes indistinguishable from her job.
‘The Housewife, in an important sense, is her job: separation between subjective and objective elements in the situation is therefore intrinsically more difficult.’
The psychological consequence is frequently a tragically stunted personality haunted by feelings of inferiority. Psychological liberation can hardly be achieved simply by paying the housewife a wage.
Other sociological studies have confirmed the acute disillusionment suffered by contemporary housewives. When Myra Ferree interviewed over a hundred women in a working community near Boston, “almost twice as many housewives as employed wives said they were dissatisfied with their lives.” Needless to say, most of the working women did not have inherently fulfilling jobs: they were waitresses, factory workers, typists, supermarket and department store clerks, etc. Yet their ability to leave the isolation of their homes, “getting out and seeing other people,” was as important to them as their earnings. Would the housewives who felt they were “going crazy staying at home” welcome the idea of being paid for driving themselves crazy? One woman complained that “staying at home all day is like being in jail” – would wages tear down the walls of her jail? The only realistic escape path from this jail is the search for work outside the home.
Each one of the more than 50 percent of all U.S. women who work today is a powerful argument for the alleviation of the burden of housework. As a matter of fact, enterprising capitalists have already begun to exploit women’s new historical need to emancipate themselves from their roles as housewives. Endless profit-making fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken bear witness to the fact that more women at work means fewer daily meals prepared at home. However unsavory and unnutricious the food, however exploitative of their workers, these fast-food operations call attention to the approaching obsolescence of housework. What is needed, of course, are new social institutions to assume a good portion of the housewife’s old duties. This is the challenge emanating from the swelling ranks of women in the working class. The demand for universal and subsidised child care is a direct consequence of the rising number of working mothers. And as more women organise around the demand for more jobs – for jobs on the basis of full equality with men – serious questions will increasingly be raised about the future viability of women’s housewife duties. It may well be true that “slavery to an assembly line” is not in itself “liberation from the kitchen sink,” but the assembly line is doubtlessly the most powerful incentive for women to press for the elimination of their age-old domestic slavery.
The abolition of housework as the private responsibility of individual women is clearly a strategic goal of women’s liberation. But the socialisation of housework – including meal preparation and child care – presupposes an end to the profit-motive’s reign over the economy. The only significant steps toward ending domestic slavery have in fact been taken in the existing socialist countries. Working women, therefore, have a special and vital interest in the struggle for socialism. Moreover, under capitalism, campaigns for jobs on an equal basis with men, combined with movements for institutions such as subsidised public health care, contain an explosive revolutionary potential. This strategy calls into question the validity of monopoly capitalism and must ultimately point in the direction of socialism.
1. Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), p. 6.
2. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, “The Manufacture of Housework” in Socialist Revolution, No. 26, Vol. 5 No. 4 (October-December 1975), p. 6.
3. Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, edited, with an introduction, by Eleanor Burke Leacock (New York: International Publishers, 1973). See Chapter II. Leacock’s introduction to this edition contains numerous enlightening observations on Engels’ theory of the historical emergence of male supremacy.
4. Barbara Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), p. 12.
5. Ehrenreich and English, op. cit., p. 9.
6. Wertheimer, op. cit., p. 12.
7. Rosalyn Baxendall, Linda Gordon, Susan Reverby, editors, America’s Working Women: A Documentary History – 1600 to the Present (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 17.
8. Wertheimer, op. cit., p. 13.
9. Ehrenreich and English, op. cit., p. 10.
10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Its Influence (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1972. Reprint of the 1903 edition), pp. 30-31.
11. Ibid., p. 10.
12. Ibid., p. 217.
13. DuBois, Darkwater, p. 185.
14. Speech by Polga Fortunata. Quoted in Wendy Edmond and Suzie Fleming, editors, All Work and No Pay: Women, Housework and the Wages Due! (Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, 1975), p. 18.
15. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, 1973).
16. Ibid., p. 28.
17. Mary Inman, In Women’s Defense (Los Angeles: Committee to Organize the Advancement of Women, 1940). See also Inman, The Two Forms of Production Under Capitalism (Long Beach, Cal.: Published by the Author, 1964).
18. Margaret Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4 (September, 1969).
19. “On the Economic Status of the Housewife.” Editorial Comment in Political Affairs, Vol LIII, No. 3 (March, 1974), p. 4.
20. Hilda Bernstein, For Their Triumphs and For Their Tears: Women in Apartheid South Africa (London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1975), p. 13.
21. Elizabeth Landis, “Apartheid and the Disabilities of Black Women in South Africa,” Objective: Justice, Vol. VII, No. 1 (January-March, 1975), p. 6. Excerpts from this paper were published in Freedomways, Vol XV, No. 4., 1975.
22. Bernstein, op. cit., p. 33.
23. Landis, op. cit., p. 6.
24. V. I. Lenin, “A Great Beginning,” pamphlet published in July, 1919. Quoted in Collected Works, Vol. 29 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1966), p. 429.
25. Released in the United States under the title Black Girl.
26. Jackson, op. cit., pp. 236-237.
27. Victor Perlo, Economics of Racism U.S.A., Roots of Black Inequality (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 24.
28. Staples, The Black Woman in America, p. 27.
29. Daily World, July 26, 1977, p. 9.
30. Dalla Costa and James, op. cit., p. 40.
31. Pat Sweeney, “Wages for Housework: The Strategy for Women’s Liberation,” Heresies, January, 1977, p. 104.
32. Dalla Costa and James, op. cit., p. 41.
33. Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974).
34. Ibid., p. 65.
35. Ibid., p. 44.
36. Ibid., p. 53.
37. Psychology Today, Vol. X, No. 4 (September, 1976), p. 76.