Is housework work? Revisiting the feminist challenge to capitalism

Despite John Maynard Keynes’ musings in ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ (1930) that technology would eventually liberate men from work and free housewives to become bored like those of the well-to-do classes, people are working longer and harder than ever and women likewise have found little relief from the tyranny of housework.

Housework has been in the feminist spotlight for fifty-odd years, with women sick of their hard work going unrecognised and viewing paid housework as the first step to equality. But far from the waged housework many had hoped for and the revolution it would bring, women overwhelmingly continue to struggle with unpaid housework and are now increasingly working part-time jobs on top of their duties as a ‘housewife’. While First World countries have a higher standard of living and technology has certainly reduced the most back-breaking of tasks for even the moderately affluent, new housekeeping ideals in these countries have meant “the productivity gain associated with appliance use seems to be taken in the form of increased domestic output – and none of it in the form of reduced housework time” (Heisig 2011: 76). In other parts of the world and for the poorest in many rich countries, housework is inescapable and generally tougher, and that the most affluent can outsource at least part of their housework duties only shows how valuable yet inherently unequal it can be. Indeed, this is one aspect where housework is fundamentally different to paid work – the less (house)work one does, the more affluent they tend to be. But without housework, particularly time-inflexible work like looking after children, cooking, cleaning up and washing clothes for work, capitalism as we know it would cease to function – having too much housework to do without help as a full-time worker is directly related to how productive one can be, and it’s also difficult to be truly healthy, happy and comfortable without it.

This essay will argue housework is indeed work, and work that should be recompensed: because of its supporting role in allowing the full-time worker to be fully productive; because it decreases the economic productivity for those who have to balance housework with waged work, and requires more time-flexibility in paid work with concurrently lower wages; because of its ability to be just as physically and mentally taxing as some paid work while also largely defining women as ‘housewives’; and because it’s inherently unequal, with the most housework being done by the poorest and the outsourcing of housework creating gendered and racialized workforces, perpetuating poverty. It will assert, like many feminists, that capitalism and indeed society needs to be restructured, particularly for the poorest, in order to better serve full-time workers who shouldn’t have to rely on others in order to be industrious.

It’s firstly important to remember the feminist ideology that brought housework to the fore, most prominently that for feminists the struggle for paid housework was supposed to be part of a wider revolution – wages were viewed as a political perspective rather than simply reimbursement for hours worked, and efforts for paid housework were designed to empower women to enter the labour workforce. Moreover, many took inspiration from Marxism and saw capitalism as fundamental to women’s exploitation. A vocal advocate of this school of thought was Silvia Federici, who in ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1975) argues that rejecting unpaid housework (or indeed housework entirely) requires a redefinition of what capitalism and the working class is – “wages for housework, then, is not one demand among others, but a political perspective that opens a new ground of struggle, beginning with women but for the entire working class” (Federici, 1975: 16). Looking beyond notions of a radical economic revolution however, it’s clear capitalism benefits exponentially, and appears set up to do so, from the housework that has been and continues to be done largely by women. It may be the “most pervasive manipulation, and the subtlest violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated” (Federici, 1975: 16), but it’s also absolutely vital to its function.

Indeed, it can be argued that housework is paid because it “carries significant financial rewards for the workers and their families” (Blackburn 1999: 1), and the idea of a wife supporting her husband though the daily grind stems from Marx and Engels’ belief that it kept “family functioning, productive, and participatory in the capitalist market” (Bryan 2011: 3). On a basic level, housework is certainly cheaper than outsourcing labour. Cooking one’s own meals is more cost effective and often healthier, for example. But housework is much more than this – as Federici points out, “it is not an accident, then, if most men start thinking of getting married as soon as they get their first job. This is not only because now they can afford it, but also because having somebody at home who takes care of you is the only condition of not going crazy after a day spent on an assembly line or at a desk” (1975: 17). Without someone doing the housework, being an ideal worker becomes increasingly difficult even without children. To achieve maximum productivity a worker needs as few distractions as possible, and coming home only to do more work would only decrease one’s productivity the next day. To be clothed, fed, have a clean and comfortable house and a loving, caring wife helps to ease the burden of the capitalist market in which one works. In ‘Counterplanning from the Kitchen’ (1975), Federici along with Nicole Cox discuss that housework is “servicing the wage earners physically, emotionally, sexually, getting them ready for work day after day. It is taking care of our children – the future workers – assisting them from birth through their school years, ensuring that they too perform in the ways expected of them under capitalism” (31). In this way, while the institution of marriage has always come with certain gender specializations in the division of labour, the capitalist system appears to be set up to take fullest advantage of and perpetuate this state of affairs.

Key to this is the concept of ‘time-inflexible’ tasks such as cooking, washing clothes and basically anything involving children, which time-inflexible full-time work makes difficult to achieve alone. With this in mind, it’s difficult to argue that housework isn’t work as it seems to carry many of the same burdens that come with paid labour while also aiding the economy. Indeed, while Robert Blackburn argues that “some aspects of the domestic work may be far from enjoyable, but it does not have the basic alienating features of market employment” (1999: 7), research suggests that “low schedule control is linked to psychological distress” (Hook 2010: 1481) and that “wives who do more housework are more depressed” (Goldberg 2013: 94). Housework is perhaps even more alienating in that housewives have little choice in the role they have been given by society, and housework becomes seemingly central to one’s societal worth and identity. For male workers, “exploited as you might be, you are not that work. Today you are a postman, tomorrow a cabdriver. All that matters is how much of that work you have to do and how much of that money you can get” (Federici 1975: 16). While men are certainly pressured to maintain work hours, at least there’s an option to change professions – women, it seems, can never truly get out of housework unless they’re single, childless and rich.

As an example of the economic benefits (and disadvantages) of housework, a study of British workers (Bryan 2011) found that those who had more housework to do suffered a penalty in wages. This was true of households with multiple children, but most interestingly was also true of single people – many who are single tend to hold jobs that, despite being full-time, still allow a certain level of time-flexibility and thus carry a lower wage. The higher the wages, the longer the work hours and harder the workload, and in turn the more taxing housework becomes for an already overworked full-timer. Many choose jobs that allow a more balanced life. Obviously, the most affluent singles can afford to offload these time-inflexible tasks to outsourced domestic labour, however this study shows it can be difficult to reach such affluence without enough help around the house.

Similarly, women’s relegation to part-time work is a direct result of time-inflexibility, “because they cannot fit an unencumbered ideal-worker norm” (Hook 2010: 1485). Despite hopes that full-time male workers would take up part-time jobs and help around the house, “part-time work remains a primarily female response to work/family conflict” (Hook 2010: 1486). While there’s certainly been a rise in stay-at-home fathers and career mothers, overwhelming the status quo has remained, with women largely working part-time jobs to supplement their partners’ middle (or lower) income full-time job. Housework remains primarily a duty for the partner with the most time-flexibility and Katherine Maich asserts that “when women finish working and return home, they actually begin their second shift of housework, instead of encountering a peaceful respite. This term encompasses the phenomenon of the stalled revolution – women have successfully joined men in the formal labour market, yet they still remain responsible for a disproportionate amount of housework” (2013: 5-6). For Cox & Fedirici, essentially having two jobs has only led to “less time and energy to struggle against both” (1975: 32), with much of this work being an extension of housework. Indeed, “low-wage service work that mimics the crucial elements that constitute housework are still devalued with low wages and little respect or recognition” (Maich 2013: 3), which in turn creates gendered and racialized workforces (Maich 2013: 4).

An incredibly enlightening study into same-sex couples (Goldberg 2013) shows that, despite higher levels of equal distribution of housework in these relationships, “couples found it very hard to enact egalitarianism, given the time and financial constraints” (Goldberg 2013: 90), and that housework was only able to be shared equally where both partners had time-flexible full-time or part-time jobs. Abbie Goldberg observed “couples who had been together for longer tended to have more specialized divisions of labour, in which one partner specialized in paid work and one partner specialized in unpaid work. Some couples may struggle to achieve egalitarianism early on in their relationships, before determining that such an arrangement is not necessarily functional, practical, or mutually satisfying” (2014: 90). Through this research, same-sex couple confirm the notion that housework is of upmost importance to supporting full-time labour and productivity in the capitalist market and that, unless there’s a level of unpaid work, paid work cannot properly occur. Thus housework absolutely has an economic value that should be suitably reimbursed.

But not only is housework required for capitalism to properly function, its current distribution helps to create an inherently unequal society through deepening gender, class, and racial divides, particularly in countries with strong migrant workforces. “Inequality in household labour is linked to inequalities in the labour market and vice versa” (Hook 2010: 1480) – as previously mentioned, underprivileged women’s part-time work is generally a time-flexible yet low-wage extension of their household duties, and the rich are most able to take advantage of these services that extend housework into the labour market. Perversely, unlike paid work, housework isn’t recompensed for time and effort, with higher income households having more comfortable homes, more labour-saving devices, restaurant or prepared meals and possibly some domestic help (Blackburn 1999: 9). Indeed “women from the poorest 10th of households spend an additional 7.7 hours on housework each week compared with women from the richest 10th” (Heisig 2011: 93). With the poorest families having the most housework to do, these women in particular should be reimbursed for their efforts, not only to create a more equal society but a more productive one.

Within this essay is the implication that society, rather than the partner, should in some way reimburse housework on a means-tested basis – an admittedly radical notion that would likely bring about the feminists’ hopes of a revolution in capitalism. To have full-time male workers pay for the work of their housewives, when they already do to an extent through ‘providing’, misses the point – for society to pay for housework is for it to recognise that a productive capitalist economy requires much more than workers simply turning up and doing a job, and paying for it would not only give women a greater flexibility in how they live their lives but also reduce class divides. This rejects the idea that marriage is a necessity, at least for individual economic prosperity in the capitalist system, in that workers shouldn’t have to balance a full load of housework with paid work in order to be prosperous. Because capitalism appears so centred around housework being provided to full-time workers, a reconfiguration of capitalism, though perhaps not a revolution, is required to better serve everyone and in turn make everyone more productive.

Whether this feminist dream will ever come true is perhaps doubtful, but paid or unpaid, ask any housewife if housework is work and they’ll almost certainly reply with a resounding ‘yes!’. Maybe one day they’ll be properly reimbursed for their efforts.