Silvia Federici, “The Restructuring of Social Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s”
“The Restructuring of Social Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s”
the commoner N. 11 Spring 2006
The following is the text of a paper that Silvia Federici wrote in 1980 for a
Conference convened by the Centro Studi Americani in Roma on “The Economic
Policies of Female Labor in Italy and the United States.” The Conference was
held in Rome on December 9-11, 1980 and was co-sponsored by the German
Marshall Fund of the United States.
New York, (1980)
“If women wish the position of the wife to have the honor which they attach to
it, they will not talk about the value of their services and about stated incomes,
but they will live with their husbands in the spirit of the vow of the English
marriage service, taking them ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in
sickness and in health, to love, honor, obey.’ This is to be a wife.” – New York
Times, August 10th, 1876: “Wives’ Wages”
“The most valuable of all social capital is that invested in human beings and of
that capital the most precious part is the result of the care and influence of the
mother, so long as she retains her tender and unselfish instincts.” – Alfred
Marshall, Principles of Economics (1890).
While it is generally recognized that the dramatic expansion of the female
labor force is possibly the most important social phenomenon of the 1970s,
uncertainty still prevails among economists as to its origins. Technological
advancement in the home, the reduction of family size and the growth of the service
sector are offered as likely causes of this trend. Yet, it is also argued that these factors
may be an effect of women’s entering the labor force and that looking for a cause
would lead us in a vicious circle, a “what comes first, the chicken or the egg”
problem. As this paper claims, the uncertainty among economists stems from their
failure to recognize that the dramatic increase of the female labor force in the 1970s
reflects women’s refusal to function as unwaged workers in the home, catering to the
reproduction of the national work force. In fact, what goes under the name of
“homemaking” is (to use Gary Becker’s expression) a “productive consumption”
process,1 producing and reproducing “human capital,” or in the words of Alfred
Marshall, the laborer’s “general ability” to work.2 Social planners have often
recognized the importance of this work for the economy. Yet, as Becker points out,
the productive consumption that takes place in the home has had a “bandit like
existence in economic thought.”3 For the fact that this work is not waged, in a
society where work and wages are synonyms, makes it invisible as work, to the point
that the services it provides are not included in the Gross National Product (GNP)
and the providers are absent from the calculations of the national labor force.
Given the social invisibility of housework, it is not surprising that economists
have failed to see through the 1960s and 1970s that this work has been the main
battleground for women, so much so that even their opting for market jobs must be
seen as a strategy that women have used to free themselves from this work. In this
process, women have triggered a major reorganization of social reproduction, that is
putting into crisis the sexual division of labor that has so far prevailed and the social
policies that have shaped the reorganisation of reproduction in the post-war period.
However, despite indications that women are breaking away from the wagelessness
of the home, today more than 30% still work primarily as homemakers, and even
those who hold a market job devote a considerable amount of time doing work that
entitles them to no pay, no social security or pension and none of the benefits that
come from a wage. This means that housework is still the major source of
employment for American women, i.e. that most American women spend most of
their time doing work that entitles them to no pay, no social security or pension and
none of the benefits that come with a wage.
It is also becoming clear that, in the absence of monetary compensation,
women face serious obstacles in the attempt to gain “economic independence,” not
to mention the heavy price they often pay for it: the inability to choose whether to
have children or not, low wages and the burden of a double shift when they enter the
labor market. The problems that women are facing appear particularly serious given
the economic prospectives we are presently offered, as they emerge from the current
debate on the “energy crisis” and the feasibility of a growth versus a non-growth
economy. It appears that no matter what path will prevail, women will be the main
losers in the “battle to control inflation” or energy consumption. The recent
experience of Three Mile Island, for instance, has shown what are the likely effects
on women’s lives of the type of economic growth that is presently sponsored by the
“business community” and the government, which is based on the expansion of
nuclear power, the de-regulation of many economic activities, and increased military
spending, Equally unappealing, however, is the no-growth alternative, which
promises to women an unlimited intensification of their work in the home, although
it would not be devoted to “cleaning up the nuclear mess” but to substitute (by
gardening, sowing, etc) for too-much-energy-consuming technology. The question,
however, is whether these are the only alternatives we have and, equally important,
whether American women will accept them.
The Revolt Against Housework
Although it is rarely recognized, the first signals of women’s refusal to
function as unpaid workers in the home did not come from Betty Friedan’s bestseller
The Feminine Mystique, but from the claims of thousands of mothers during the
welfare struggles of the mid 1960s. While developing in the wake of the Civil Rights
Movement and usually perceived as a minority issue, the struggle of welfare mothers
gave voice to the dissatisfaction of American women with a social policy that ignores
their work in the home, stigmatizes them as parasites when they demand public
assistance, while reaping enormous benefits from the wide variety of services that
they provide to the maintenance of the national work force. Welfare mothers, for
example, denounced the absurdity of the government policy that recognizes childcare
as work only when it involves the children of others, thus paying the foster
parent more than the welfare mother, while devising programs to “put the welfare
mother to work.” What was the “spirit” of the welfare struggles is well expressed in
the words of one of its organizers:
If the government was smart it would start calling AFDC [Aid For Dependent
Children] ‘Day and Night Care,’ create a new agency, pay us a decent wage for
the service work we are doing now and say that the welfare crisis has been
solved, because welfare mothers have been put to work.4
A few years later, discussing the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) proposal presented in
1971 by the Nixon Administration, Senator Moynihan recognized that this demand
was far from extravagant:
If American society recognized homemaking and child rearing as productive
work to be included in the national economic accounts…the receipt of welfare
might not imply dependency. But we don’t. It may be hoped – Senator Moynihan
added – that the Women’s Movement of the present time will change this. But as
of the time I write it had not.5
Moynihan was soon to be proved wrong. At the very time when he was recalling the
legislative adventures of FAP, a Wages for Housework Movement was emerging in
the U.S. and, despite the prevailing climate of austerity, the claims of welfare mothers
were reaching so deeply into the consciousness of women that the National
Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977 included in its Plan of Action that
welfare should be called a wage.6 Not only did the welfare struggle pose the question
of housework, though disguised as a “poverty issue,” on the national agenda, it also
made it clear that the government could not any longer hope to regulate women’s
work through the organisation of the male wage. A new era was beginning when the
government would have to deal with women directly, without the mediation of men.
That the refusal of housework was a widespread social phenomenon was
further dramatized by the development of the Women’s Movement. Women
protesting bridals’ fairs and Miss America contests were as many indications that
fewer and fewer women accepted the home as their “natural place.” By the early ’70s,
however, women’s refusal of housework was taking the form of a massive migration
into the waged labor force. It is a commonplace among economists to explain this
trend as the result of technological advancement in the home and the spreading of
birth control which presumably have “liberated women’s time for work.” Yet, with
the exception of the microwave oven and the food processor, little technological
innovation has entered the home in the seventies, by far not enough to justify the
record growth in the female waged labor force.7 As for the decline of fertility rates,
past trends indicate that the family size is not per se a determinant factor in the
decision of women to search for a market job, as proven by the example of the
1950s when, in the presence of a baby boom, women, particularly married ones and
with young children, began returning in record numbers to the waged labor force.8
How little women’s time has been liberated for work is also shown by the results of
several studies, like the one conducted by the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1971,
showing that, at the end of the sixties, American women were spending an average
of 45 hours per week doing housework, a number that easily escalated in the
presence of young children.
If we also consider that the highest rates for women entering the labor force
have been among women with preschool children, we can hardly conclude that it is
work per se that women have been missing, particularly since on a mass level the
market jobs women can find are usually extensions of housework. The truth, as
Juanita Kreps (1971) points out, is that women “are eager to trade (housework) for a
market job that is equally routine and repetitive (because) the difference is the job
pays a salary.”9 Another crucial reason for the record expansion of the female labor
force, particularly after 1973, has been the extensive cuts of welfare benefits in the
course of the ’70s. Starting with the Nixon administration, a campaign has been
carried out daily in the media blaming all social problems on the “welfare mess.”
Meanwhile, across the nation, eligibility rules have been tightened, cutting the
number of women who can qualify and increasing the amount of work involved,
while the benefits themselves have been reduced despite the steady increase in the
cost of living.10
As a result, while until 1969 AFDC benefits were higher than the median
female wage, by the mid seventies the opposite was true, despite the fact that the
median real wage had fallen compared with that of the sixties. Faced with the virtual
onslaught on welfare, women seem to have followed the advice of that welfare
mother who once commented that if the government is willing to pay women only
when they take care of the children of others then women should “swap their
children.” Considering that in the labor market they are concentrated in service sector
jobs involving reproductive labor, it could be argued that they have traded off
unpaid housework for their families for paid housework in the marketplace,
That the growth of the female labor force reflects women’s refusal of
housework also explains the seeming paradox whereby at the very moment when
women were entering the labor market in record numbers, housework began
surfacing as a worthwhile ground of economic investigation. The 1970s saw a true
boom of studies on housework; then in 1975 even the government decided to
measure the contribution that housewives’ chores make to the GNP. Again, in 1976,
researchers at the Social Security Administration, studying the impact of illness on
national productivity, included in their figures the dollar value of housework.11 Being
based on a market-cost approach, the estimates reached were extremely conservative.
Yet, the very fact that an attempt was made to make these calculations demonstrates
the government’s rising concern with the “family-housework crisis.” Indeed, behind
the sudden interest for housework lies the old truth that this work remains invisible
only as long as it is done. However, other factors make the housework crisis
worrisome for policy makers. First and foremost is the threat to “family stability,” as
a correlation is made between the increasing earning capacity of American women,
the escalating divorce rate and the concomitant increase of female headed families.
By the mid seventies, the government was also becoming concerned that the
expansion of the female waged labor force was growing beyond all projected
accounts,12 thus revealing an autonomous character that promised to thwart its plans
for it. For example, far from providing a “solution” to growing welfare rates, the
increase in the number of women seeking a waged job has created a buffer for
welfare benefits, for the disparity between the number of women looking for a job
and the jobs available has continually pre-empted the government’s attempts to “put
welfare women to work.” Equally worrisome, in the context of the severest recession
since the Depression and in the face of prolonged unemployment, has been the
seeming “rigidity” of female participation in the waged labor market.
Would women so easily accept to go back to the home, as they did in the
post- war period, and would they accept to go back empty handed after experiencing
the financial benefits of a wage?13 It is in this climate that a revaluation of housework
has taken place. Yet, despite much lip service little has been done. The value of
housework has been recognized in some minor legislative proposals. For example, a
government authorized retirement plan passed in 1976 (as part of the Tax Reform
Act) has allowed husbands to make contributions to an Individual Retirement Plan
(IRA) also on behalf of their non-employed wives. The contribution of the wife to
the welfare of the family is also recognized, at least on a formal level, in the no-fault
divorce laws that several states have passed in recent years, which allow for a division
of the family property on account of the services provided by the wife. (Some recent
court cases, however, have turned down the claims of some women demanding a
division of the male wage). Finally, the Tax Reform Act of 1976 has allowed parents
to deduce childcare expenses from their taxes up to a maximum of $400 per child
(parents, however, must spend $2,000 to qualify for that sum). As for the possibility
of a monetary compensation for housework, the only suggested proposal, so far, has
been a symbolic price tag functional to its calculation into the GNP. The assumption
is that this would give women a heightened sense of its value and increase their
satisfaction with this work. Typical of this approach is the recommendation made by
a task force studying work in America:
The clear fact is that keeping a house and raising children is work, work that is,
on average, as difficult to do well and as useful to the larger society as almost any
paid job involving the production of goods and services. The difficulty is … that
we have not, as a society, acknowledged this fact in our public system of values
and rewards. Such an acknowledgement may begin by simply counting
housewives in the labor force, assigning a money value to their work.14
In reality, the only response to women’s revolt against housework has been the
continuing growth of inflation which has increased women’s work in the home and
their dependence on the male wage. Yet, despite the virtual absence of supportive
legislation and the growth of inflation, women’s refusal of unpaid labor in the home
has continued through the 1970s, producing significant changes in the organization
of housework and the general process of social reproduction.
The Reorganization of Social Reproduction
Women’s relation to housework in the 1970s is a good example of what
economists call the “income effect,” that is, the tendency of workers to reduce their
work in the face of increased earnings, although in the case of women what has been
reduced has been exclusively their unpaid work in the home. Three trends have
emerged in this respect: reduction, redistribution (otherwise known as “sharing”),
and the socialization of housework.
The reduction of housework has come primarily through both the
reorganisation of many housework services on a market basis and the reduction of
family size, beginning with a dramatic reduction in the number of children. By
contrast, labor-saving devices have played a minor role in this process. As indicated,
few technological innovations have entered the home in the 1970s. Moreover, the
persistent stagnation in the sales of household appliances15 shows a tendency towards
the disaccumulation of capital in the home, in line with the reduction of family size
and the disaccumulation of the services the household provides. Even the apartment
and furniture designs – the virtually nonexistent kitchen, the trend towards modular
units and knock out furniture – are indicative of the tendency to expel from the
home large slices of its previous reproductive functions. Indeed, the only true laborsaving
devices women have used in the 1970s are contraceptives, as indicated by the
collapse of the birth rate, which in 1979 reached a peak of 1.75 children per 1,000
women aged 15-44. As we are often told, the baby boom of the 1950s has turned
into a baby bust, that is deeply affecting every area of social life, from the school
system, that has been forced to close several schools, to the labor force, which, if the
present trend continues, will see a progressively aging population, to the production
industries that are shifting their priorities to the needs of a more adult population.16
Despite predictions that a new baby boom is coming, this trend is likely to
continue since, unlike in the 1950s, American women today are willing to forego
motherhood, even to the point of accepting sterilisation, in order to keep a job,
rather than submit to the work and sacrifices that having children entails.17 (From
this point of view, current estimates pointing to the astronomical cost of having
children actually grossly underestimate it, even when they calculate the “foregone
earnings of the mother.”) A reduction of the work done in the home is also
evidenced by the increasing number of women who delay marriage or do not marry
(often living alone or in communal settings) as well as the escalating rate of divorces
(still primarily filed by women) that, in the 1970s, has marked a new record every
year. What this indicates is that marriage no longer seems to be a “good bargain” for
women or a necessary one and that, while the refusal of marriage is still not “on the
agenda,” women have gained a new mobility with respect to men and the possibility
of establishing part -time relations with them, where the work element is
substantially reduced. To what extent women are refusing to service men for free is
also reflected in the continuous growth of female-headed families.
Here, however, some clarification is needed since too often this trend has
been interpreted as a “broken home syndrome” produced by the current welfare
policies that prevent the payment of Aid To Dependent Children (AFDC) in the
presence of a husband in the home. In other words, too often the growth of female
headed families is seen in a perspective of victimization that ignores women’s
attempt to reduce the work and the discipline that come with a male presence in the
home. That the impact of welfare policies has been overrated is shown by a recent
experiment conducted in Seattle where welfare benefits were given to intact couples.
After one year, these couples had the same rate of marital dissolution as other
welfare families. This indicates that it is not that families break up to qualify for
welfare but that welfare buys women more autonomy from men and the possibility
of terminating a relationship only built on monetary constraints.18
Not only have women reduced housework, they have also changed the
conditions of this work. For example, women have challenged the right of the
husband to claim sexual services from his wife, independently of her consent. The
1979 trial of a man charged with raping his wife was a landmark in this respect, since
never before had forcing one’s wife to have sex been considered a crime. Equally
significant has been women’s revolt against battering, that is corporal punishment in
the home, traditionally condoned by the courts and the police, that implicitly
legitimized it as a “condition of housework.” Also in this case the right to selfdefense
that the courts have increasingly recognized to the battered wife has been
won on the basis of the power women have gained and their determination to refuse
the traditional “hazards” of work in the home.
Another growing tendency in the 1970s has been “sharing the housework”
which has long been supported by some feminists as the ideal solution to the
housework problem. Yet, precisely when we consider what has been accomplished in
this area, we realize the obstacles that women face when they try to enforce a more
egalitarian division of labor in the home.
Undoubtedly, men are more likely today to do some housework, particularly
among couples where both partners have a job. Moreover, many new couples
stipulate a marriage contract that establishes the division of labor in the family. In the
’70s a new phenomenon has also begun to appear: the househusband, possibly more
widespread than it is acknowledged, as many men are reluctant to admit that they are
supported by their wives. Yet, despite a trend towards a desexualization of
housework, as a recent survey indicates, most of the work done in the home is still
done by women, even when they have a second job. Even couples that establish
more egalitarian relations face a true turn of the tables when a child is born. The
reason for this change is the wage benefits that a man forfeits when he takes time off
from work to take care of his children. This suggests that even such innovations as
flexitime are not sufficient to guarantee that housework will be equally shared, given
the decline in the standard of living that the absence of the men from work involves.
It also suggests that women’s attempt to redistribute housework in the family is more
likely to be frustrated by the low wages they command in the labor market than by
entrenched male attitudes towards this work.
Finally, the clearest evidence that women have used the power of the wage to
reduce their unpaid labor in the home has been the explosion of the service
(reproduction) sector in the 1970s. (US Department of Commerce 1975: 3-13).
Cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, even problem solving and companionship
have been increasingly “taken out of the home” and organized on a massified,
industrial basis. It is calculated that, at present, Americans eat half of their meals
away from home, and the fast food industry has grown in the ’70s at a yearly 15%
rate, despite the fact that inflation has encouraged the revival of the “do it yourself”
habits. Equally significant has been explosion of the recreation and entertainment
industry which are picking up the traditionally female task of making one’s family
happy and relaxed. In fact, as wives and mothers have “gone on strike,” many of
their previously invisible services have become saleable commodities around which
entire industries are built. A typical example is the novel growth of the body industry
– ranging from the health club to the massage parlor, with its multiple– sexual,
therapeutic, emotional– services, and the industries that have been created around
jogging (the popularity of jogging is itself an indication of the new general awareness
that you have to “take care of yourself” because nobody else may be doing it).
Further evidence of the trend towards the disaccumulation of services in the home
has been the growth of daycare centers and the dramatic increase in the number of
children enrolled in preschool. (194% for age 3 between 1966 and 1976).19
Taken as whole, these trends indicate a major transformation in the
organization of social reproduction, in the sense that this work is increasingly
desexualized, taken out of the home and, most important, waged. Thus, while the
home is still the center for the reproduction of labor power (or “human capital”
from a business viewpoint), its importance as the backbone of reproductive services
is waning. What has entered into crisis is the organisation of reproduction that
prevailed in the Keynesian economic model of the post-war period. Within it,
housework was commanded and regulated through the organisation of the male
wage, that was to function both as a direct investment in human capital and as an
incentive to production through its demand-consumption role. In this model, not
only did women’s work in the home become hidden in the male wage, while the only
activity recognised as work was the (waged) production of commodities, women
became appendages, dependent variables of the changes and transformations in the
workplace. Where your husband lived, what job he had and what wages he made
directly dictated the intensity of women’s work and their required levels of
productivity. However, in refusing to work for free, women have broken with the
home/factory, male wage/housework cycle, posing themselves as “independent
variables” that the government and employers must confront directly, even at the
point of reproduction. This development is also causing the reproduction of laborpower
to assume an autonomous status in the economy with respect to the
production of commodities, so much so that the productivity of reproductive work
is no longer measured (as it used to) by the productivity of the male worker on the
job, but directly at the point where the services are delivered.
Undoubtedly, throughout the 1970s the government and business have
attempted to use the reorganization of reproduction to (i) dismantle the social
welfare programs which sustained the policy of “human capital development” that
characterized the post-war period up to the Great Society, (ii) to contain the male
wage that has been climbing through the 1960s. Claiming that social welfare
spending has failed to produce the expected results, the government has encouraged
the reorganisation of reproduction on a market basis, for it seems to guarantee
(despite its low productivity level, at least measured in conventional terms)
immediate returns, independent of the productivity of the labor-power produced.
Yet, while succeeding in reducing welfare spending and creating a climate where
welfare is blamed as one of the main problems of American society, the government
has failed to eliminate what can be considered the first “wages for housework.” Most
important, while the “female welfare wage” has fallen and women and poverty are
still synonyms, the total wage in the hands of women has decisively increased. As
for the attempt to use women’s increasing demands for market jobs to contain male
wages (via a reorganisation of production that “underdeveloped the manufacturing
sectors while encouraging the development of the service sector”) this too has failed
to provide the expected results.
It has been noticed that despite the high rates of unemployment, we have not
witnessed in the 1970s the backlash against women’s employment (particularly
married women’s employment) that was so pronounced in the ’30s and ’40s.20 Men, it
seems, have recognised the benefits of a double income, as indicated by the
continued reduction of male participation in the labor force. It is even claimed that
men are behaving increasingly like women as far as their work patterns are
concerned. Not only is the husband-breadwinner-wife-homemaker model breaking
down (according to the statistics by the Department of Labor this applies today to
only 34% of men of working age), but husbands with wives holding a market job are
less likely to accept job transfers (often turning down job promotions rather than
face a move that would disrupt their wives’ employment), they also change jobs more
frequently, prefer jobs that entail shorter hours to higher salaries, and retire earlier
than in the past. Moreover, the double pay-check in the family has provided a crucial
buffer against unemployment and inflation, as shown by the experience of the last
few years when a predicted recession would not “take off” because consumer
demand (and consumer debt) kept expanding. Cushioned by the prospect of a
double income, families were less afraid of borrowing and spending, to the point that
inflation has had the opposite effect that it has had traditionally: it has increased
spending rather than diminishing it.
This paper has argued that women’s refusal to be unpaid workers in the
home has caused important changes in the organization of reproduction and the
conditions of women’s work. What we are witnessing is the crisis of the traditional
sexual division of labor that confined women to (unwaged) reproductive labor and
men to the (waged) production of commodities. All the power relations between
men and women have been built on this “difference,” as most women have had no
alternative but to depend on men for their economic survival and submit to the
discipline that comes with this dependence. As already indicated, the main change in
this respect has been accomplished by women literally migrating into the waged labor
force which, in the 1970s, has been the main factor of women’s increased social and
economic power. This strategy, however, presents many limits. While men’s work
has decreased over the last decade, women today work even harder than in the past.
This is particularly true for women heads of families and women with low wages,
who are often forced to moonlight to make ends meet.21 The burden women are still
carrying is well reflected in their medical history. Much is made of the fact that
women live longer than men. Yet, medical records tell a different story. Women,
particularly in their early thirties, have the highest rate of suicide among the young
population, as well as the highest rates for drug use (tranquilizers), mental
breakdown and mental treatment (in-patient and out-patient), and they are more
likely to report stress and discomfort than men.22 These statistics are a clear symptom
of the price that women are paying for either their life as full-time homemakers or
the burden of a double shift, that is, the burden of a life built exclusively on work.
Clearly, no positive change can occur in women’s lives unless a profound
transformation occurs in social and economic policies and social priorities.
However, if what the newly elected Reagan Presidency has promised comes
true, women will have to fight a hard battle just not to lose what they have gained in
the ’60s and ’70s. We are told in fact that welfare spending will be cut, the military
budget will be increased, and new tax cuts are planned that will certainly benefit
business while giving very minor relief to low income people and none to people
with no income. Furthermore, the kind of economic growth that the supply-side
economists of the Reagan entourage are promoting threatens women with the
nightmare of a continuously growing pollution, brought about by increasing nuclear
waste and far-reaching industrial deregulation. This means more Three Mile Islands,
more Love Canals, more diseases in the family, more day to day worrying about
one’s health and the health of one’s children and relatives, more work to cope with it.
At the same time, it is doubtful that a slower rate of economic growth, based
on reduced energy consumption, “could have a beneficial effect on women’s role in
society.”23 The slow-growth economic model usually presented is the model of a
society based on intensive labor, and intensifying in particular that “component” of it
that is not waged: housework. What “creative personal activities” the soft technology
path opens to women is well indicated in the words of one of its supporters, the
English economist Amory Lovins: gardening, canning, weaving, do-it-yourself
carpentry, making preserves from your own fruits and vegetables, sewing clothes,
insulating windows and attics, recycling materials, etc.24 In exalting the return to “do-it-
yourself habits” as a victory of quality over mediocrity, individualism over the
System (the emotions such activities release –are “powerful, lasting, and contagious”)
Lovins complains that:
We have substituted earning for an older ethics of serving and caring, as the only
legitimate motivation for work. Thus, alienation in the place of fulfilment, inner
Along the same lines Nancy Barrett envisions that in a slow-growing economy:
the line between work and leisure may become blurred…(and) the person who
stays at home would not feel useless, if he or she were contributing to fuel
conservation and increasing the food supply. To the extent that non-market
activity is felt to be socially useful, it is much more likely that non-working
people (predominantly women given the prevailing patterns of behaviour) will
feel more content with staying out of the labor force than in the recent past.26
But – it is legitimate to ask – is not this seemingly idyllic picture of a life all built
around reproducing oneself and others the life that women have always had? In
other words, are we not hearing again the same glorification of housework which has
traditionally served to justify its unpaid status, by contrasting this “meaningful,
useful, and more importantly unselfish activity,” with the presumably greedy
aspirations of those who demand to be paid for their work? Finally, are we not
facing, once again, a variety of the old rationale that has been traditionally used to
send women back to the home?
However, if the changes women have made over the past decade are any
indication of the direction in which American women are moving, it is unlikely that
they will be satisfied with an increased in their workload in the home, though
accompanied, as it may be, by a universal, but purely moral, recognition of the value
of their work. In this context, we definitely agree with Nancy Barrett that women:
may find it necessary to center their interest on financial support for non-market
activities (and) Wages for Housework, Social Security…and other fringe benefits
for housework will be matters of increased concern.27
Becker, Gary. “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,“ The Economic Approach to
Human Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Work in America. A Report of a
special task force to the Secretary of HEW (Health, Education and Welfare).
Cambridge, MIT, 1975.
Kreps, Juanita ed. Women and the American Economy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
______________. Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work. Policy Study
in Employment and Welfare N II, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1971
Industrial and Labor Relations, April 1980
Lovins, Amory. Soft Energy Paths. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Marshall, Alfred. Principles of Economics. London: Macmillan and Co., 1938. (First
Monthly Labor Report, Vol. 103, No. 5, May 1980.
Moynihan. Daniel P. The Politics of a Guaranteed Income. New York, 1973
Oppenheimer, Valerie K.The Female Labor Force in the United States, Population
Monograph Series, Number 5, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Smith Barrett, Nancy. “The Economy Ahead of Us.” In Kreps ed. (1976).
US Department of Commerce. Service Industries. Trends and Prospects.
Washington D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1975.
Women and Health, United States 1980. Public Health Reports, U.S. Government
Printing Office: Washington, 1980.
Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Work in America. A Report of a
special task force to the Secretary of HEW (Health, Education and Welfare).
Cambridge, MIT, 1975.
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Milwaukee County Welfare Rights Organization. Welfare Mothers Speak Out. New
York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1972.
1. Gary Becker, “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,“ The Economic Approach to Human
Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
2. Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics. London: Macmillan and Co., (First edition 1890), 1938:
3) Gary Becker, “A Theory of the Allocation of Time,“ The Economic Approach to Human
Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976: 89.
4) Milwaukee County Welfare Rights Organization. Welfare Mothers Speak Out. New York, W.W.
Norton & Co., 1972: 79.
5) Daniel P. Moynihan. The Politics of a Guaranteed Income. New York, 1973: 17.
6) The text of the proposal reads: “Congress should approve a Federal floor under payments to
provide an adequate standard of living based on each State’s cost of living…And, just as with other
workers, homemakers receiving income transfer payments should be afforded the dignity of having
that payment called a wage, not welfare.” National Plan of Action adopted at the National Women’s
Conference held in Houston in November 1977.
7) Also from the point of view of consumer expenditure on household appliances, the 1970s have
experienced no growth (compared with the 1960s) and a decline compared with the 1950s. It is also
questionable whether more technology can liberate women from work. It has often been the case that
labor saving devices have increased women’s work.
8) This point is convincingly argued by Valerie K. Oppenheimer in her study The Female Labor Force
in the United States, Population Monograph Series, Number 5, Berkeley: University of California
9) Juanita Kreps. Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work. Policy Study in Employment
and Welfare N II, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1971: 68.
10) In New York, welfare benefits are frozen to 1972 levels (adjusted in 1974), despite the fact that
the cost of living has practically doubled over the last eight years.
11) It was calculated that a fulltime housewife is worth $6,000 a year, a very low figure compared with
the $13,000 of the Chase Manhattan Bank study and the $20,000 of a contemporary study by
economist Peter Snell.
12) By 1976 women’s entrance into the labor force had reached figures that the Department of Labor
did not expect until 1985.
13) It is important in this context, to mention the proposal for a revised unemployment insurance that
was debated during the Ford Administration. Although not openly admitted, it aimed at cutting
unemployment benefits for those persons – read housewives – who had just ‘left the home.’ It also
proposed that unemployed persons with working spouses should not be counted as recipients of
unemployed benefits. Persons “whose lack of education or previous job experiences renders them
unqualified” would also be excluded from unemployment insurance. See Eileen Shanahan, “Study on
Definitions of Jobless Urged.” In New York Times, January 11, 1976.
14) Work in America. A Report of a special task force to the Secretary of HEW. Cambridge, MIT,
15) Compare the sales of the service industry with the sales of household appliances. The increase of
services sales (compared with appliance sales) has doubled in less than ten years.
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the commoner N. 11 Spring 2006
1965 1970 1975 1976
6.3% 8.7% 11.8% 11%
16) The present collapse of the birth rate plays an important role in the current discussions on
immigration policies (see Industrial and Labor Relations, April 1980).
17) This was the case of a female worker at a chemical plant in West Virginia in 1978, who had
themselves sterilized for fear of being dismissed or being transferred to a lower paying job. As it
turned out, in the wake of a suit brought by United Auto Workers (UAW) against General Motors
(against restrictions for women of childbearing age) this was not an isolated case.
18) The highest rate of increase for female headed families has been among divorced women. The
situation of female headed families shows the hardships women must face when they try to “make it
on their own,” as they score the lowest income levels for all population groups. This is due both to
the low levels of AFDC payments and the low wages the “displaced homemaker” commands when
she takes a market job. As long as housework is not recognized as work, the housewife is considered
to have no skills and is forced to accept the lowest paying jobs.
19) Yet, as of 1977, it was calculated that only 3% of children up to age 2 and 5% of children of age
between 3 and 5 were going to a daycare centre. In 1975, in a study by the Census Bureau on
childcare arrangements, most of the parents surveyed listed themselves or the public system as the
main caretakers of their children. The responsibility for the gap between the number of daycare
centers available and the needs of working women – including those who work in the home – lies
with the policy of the Federal government that considers daycare services legitimate only in the case
of “handicapped” families, thus restricting daycare benefits to the recipients of AFDC. With the
exception of the Federal Tax exemption, Federal involvement in daycare services has decreased in the
1970s (particularly after 1975). Under these circumstances, mothers do not have any alternative but to
seek personal arrangements or face the substantial costs of a for-profit-run day-care centre, averaging
$50 a week, a sum that cuts into their earnings while failing to provide an adequate service.
20) As Valerie Oppenheimer points out, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, negative attitudes prevailed
towards married working women, as it was feared that they would take jobs away from men. Bills
against the employment of married women were passed in the legislature of 26 states. Oppenheimer
also points out that even before the 1929 crash “the majority of the school system would not hire
married women as teachers, and about half required single teachers to retire upon marriage.”
Oppenheimer (1970), 127-128, 130.
21) Women’s share of moonlighting nearly doubled during the 1969-1979 period, although figures
may be higher if we include employment in the underground economy. By 1969, women were 16% of
all moonlighters, while by 1979 they were 30%. It is calculated that women who moonlight work an
average of 52 hours per seek (Monthly Labor Report, Vol. 103, No. 5, May 1980).
22) Women and Health, United States 1980. Public Health Reports, Washington D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1980, 9-11, 36-37.
23) Nancy Smith Barrett, “The Economy Ahead of Us,” In Juanita Kreps, ed., Women and the
American Economy. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1976: 165.
24) Amory Lovins. Soft Energy Paths. New York: Harper and Row, 1977: 151.
25) Ibid. 169
26) Smith Barrett (1976), 166.