Housework: the issue time forgot?

Second wave feminist writing is full of complaints about domestic drudgery. Housework, in all its mind-numbing, unproductive tedium, was at the heart of what Betty Friedan dubbed the ‘problem with no name’. Men’s refusal to do their share (and their endlessly inventive excuses for shirking) were mercilessly skewered in Pat Mainardi’s ‘The politics of housework’. The subject also attracted attention from academic theorists. In 1974 Ann Oakley wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of housework; Marxist feminists debated the economic value of women’s unpaid domestic labour, and arguments raged about the proposal, made in 1972 by Mariarosa Dallacosta and Selma James, that women should demand wages for housework.

Today’s feminists seem less exercised by this issue (the web is awash with tips for male allies, but they rarely touch on such mundane topics as noticing when the bin needs houseworkemptying or cleaning the toilet without being asked), but I’m not sure why: it can’t be because the problem has been solved. According to a recent report from the OECD, women around the world continue to spend significantly more time than men on tasks like cooking, cleaning and laundry. The gap is larger in some places than others (in India, where it’s particularly large, men spend an average of 36 minutes a day on domestic tasks, whereas for women the figure is around six hours), and there are also class differences within countries (the poorer the household, the more time women spend on housework). But there is no region and no type of household where domestic labour is equally shared, or where men do more than women—a finding the researchers put down to a combination of ‘discriminatory social institutions’ and ‘stereotypes on gender roles’.

The most radical second wave thinkers were not just critical of the gendered distribution of housework, they were critical of housework itself. Although their politics were different in many ways, both Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis thought housework was soul-crushingly oppressive, not only because it was unpaid (it wasn’t always: as Davis pointed out, doing white families’ housework was a source of income for many Black women), but also because it had no tangible product that the worker could take pride or pleasure in. The meal a woman cooked would be eaten, the floor she cleaned would get dirty, and a few hours later she’d have to do the same thing all over again.

The solution they favoured was to industrialize and mechanize. Angela Davis suggested that

Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling [with] technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively.

Reading this now is a bit like reading those 1950s predictions that by 2000 we’d all work two days a week and get our nourishment from pills rather than food. Why have our domestic arrangements changed so little—give or take a few labour-saving devices, hardly at all?

In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone pondered the failure of various experiments with alternative ways of living, such as the communes of the early Soviet Union and the Israeli kibbutz. She acknowledged that these attempts to collectivize domestic labour were often unpopular with women. On one kibbutz she visited, the women were campaigning to be allowed their own family kitchens in addition to the communal kitchen where most of them (regardless of their skills or preferences) were obliged to work.

A criticism that was often made of the Soviet communes was that they contributed to the rise of totalitarianism by depriving people of ‘the last refuge for intimacy, comfort, privacy, individualism, etc.’ But in Firestone’s view the problem with the communist approach was not its lack of respect for the family as an institution, but its narrowly economic analysis: it ‘drafted women into a male world’ without changing–or even understanding–what was oppressive about the way that world operated.

Because no provision [was] made to re-establish the female element in the outside world, to incorporate the ‘personal’ into the ‘public’, because the female principle [was] minimized or obliterated rather than diffused to humanize the larger society, the result [was] a horror.

Since Firestone wrote, advanced capitalist societies have also drafted more and more women into the workforce without changing the traditional terms of participation. For instance, as Teresa Green noted in her recent post, a ‘standard’ working day continues to be defined on the assumption that someone other than the worker will cook, clean and take care of the children. Women are thus required not only to do their paid jobs, but also to work an unpaid ‘second shift’ at home.

One consequence has been the growth of a global trade in domestic labour: professional women in the rich world sustain careers on the male model by delegating ‘their’ domestic responsibilities to lower-paid cleaners, nannies and carers. The majority of these workers are also female, and in many cases they are migrants from poorer countries (often with children of their own, who have been left in the care of relatives).

Another consequence has been a level of dissatisfaction among women that has led, in some quarters, to a new version of the cult of domesticity which Betty Friedan denounced in 1963. Since the mid-noughties there has been a trend, documented in Emily Matchar’s 2013 book Homeward Bound, for educated middle-class women to turn their backs on the rat-race and seek fulfilment by immersing themselves in home and family life. The women Matchar interviewed really had made domesticity a full-time occupation: they weren’t just doing routine housework, but also home-schooling their kids, growing and preserving their own food, making most of the family’s clothing and relearning old domestic crafts like soap-making and rug-hooking. While only a minority can afford to make this choice, the idea of it clearly appeals to a lot of women–witness the proliferation of blogs, books, TV shows and products (from cupcakes to Cath Kidston) which celebrate it.

This trend underlines Shulamith Firestone’s point that women are not liberated by being drafted into what remains a male-centred and male-dominated world. Joining the paid workforce hasn’t even liberated most women from economic dependence on men, and it certainly hasn’t liberated them from the expectation that they will do a ‘second shift’ at home.

Of course, the new domesticity doesn’t liberate women either. However, as Delilah Campbell commented in a review of Homeward Bound:

The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.

If you can’t avoid being a domestic drudge, it’s rational to prefer an arrangement that gives you maximum control over your own drudgery.

That’s also what the sociologist Ann Oakley found in 1974: while 70% of the women she studied expressed negative attitudes to housework, 50% also said that at least it allowed you to ‘be your own boss’. Maybe that’s why the women of the kibbutz wanted their own kitchens: they weren’t hankering after bourgeois lifestyles, just yearning for some personal autonomy.

It’s not hard to understand why women are reluctant to cede the only sphere where they have an unquestioned ‘right to be in charge’; but as Ann Oakley comments, the result is a vicious circle. By clinging to their authority in the domestic realm women implicitly accept that housework is their responsibility, and that allows men to go on treating it as something they might ‘help with’ if they feel like it. Pat Mainardi urged feminists to resist that idea, and to recognise that ‘participatory democracy begins at home’. Probably with a conversation about who cleans the toilet.



You say you want a revolution?

This week I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ a show about the 1960s counter-culture from which the feminist second wave emerged. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election had been announced just a few hours before I arrived, and I kept thinking how different the experience would have felt if I’d been there even one day earlier.

The exhibition uses various cultural artefacts—records, clothes, photographs, posters, pamphlets, furniture, spacesuits—to recreate the spirit of the counter-culture in the US, Britain and (to some extent) France between 1966 and 1970. For those involved it was a time of optimism, a time when activists looked forward to a new era of peace, justice and freedom. Their efforts to bring that about were met with opposition, and not infrequently brutal repression, by the agents of the state; but still it was said that the revolution could not be stopped, because it had already happened in people’s heads.

On 9 November 2016, contemplating the ascendancy of a man whose campaign was fuelled by everything the 1960s radicals opposed, it was impossible not to ask what went wrong.

I found myself wondering why the mood of our time feels so much less optimistic. It’s not as if 1960s radicals lived in a kinder, gentler world: on the contrary, the problems facing activists then were at least as daunting as the ones their successors face today.  The US was waging an increasingly unpopular war abroad (in Vietnam), but in the 1960s it was fought by young men who had been conscripted; many didn’t want to fight, and some found the whole enterprise politically repugnant. (As someone memorably put it—the exhibition credits Stokely Carmichael, but the attribution is disputed—‘the draft is about white people sending Black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people’.) The Civil Rights Act had only recently been passed, and racism remained overt and vicious.

Women were still in many ways second-class citizens, and those who were active in radical movements, from Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers, had to contend with the entrenched sexism of many of their male comrades–an indifference or contempt when faced with women’s own aspirations to justice and freedom that was one important factor in the emergence of an autonomous Women’s Liberation Movement. There’s a small section in this show about the second wave, which was incipient in 1966 and gaining real momentum by 1970, but I found that part of the show a bit unimaginative, as well as sparse. It doesn’t feature, for instance, some of the early feminist actions–like the 1968 Miss America protest–which seem to me very much in the spirit of the counter-culture.

More generally it could be said that the presentation of women in this show (with the partial exception of musicians like Janis Joplin) exemplifies the art critic John Berger’s maxim that ‘men act, women appear’. We see young women modelling the new Carnaby Street fashions, posing for trendy photographers and film directors, or having their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, but we don’t see them featured prominently as radical political activists.

There is, though, one major exception to that rule. Towards the end of the show there’s a point where you look up and see a poster depicting Angela Davis. It was produced during the international campaign to free her after she was incarcerated on charges relating to her involvement in the defence of the Soledad Brothers, three African American inmates of a California prison who had been accused of killing a guard.


In 1970 the brother of one of the three men tried to secure their release by entering a courtroom and taking the judge and three jurors hostage. The guns he used were registered to Angela Davis, and although she had not been directly involved, she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and the murder of the judge. She was briefly a fugitive, and on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list. After she was captured she spent more than a year in prison. When the case came to trial, though, she was acquitted on all charges.

Angela Davis was a key figure in the radical political culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.  She was born in 1944 in segregated Alabama, and later moved to New York City to attend an integrated (and radical) high school.  She went on to join the Communist Party and to study in the US and Europe with, among others, the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse, sometimes described as the ‘father of the New Left’. Returning to the US, she became an active supporter of the militant Black Power movement, and in particular the Black Panthers. She was also a feminist and an early advocate of what we would now call intersectional analysis. Her classic book Women, Race and Class, which was one of this week’s course readings, reflects all these political commitments. Its primary focus on the experiences of Black women produces an analysis which illuminates the situation of all women.

During her later career as an activist, academic and public intellectual, Angela Davis has sometimes spoken critically about the tendency to do what I’ve just done myself—present people like her as exemplary figures. In an interview in 2014 she pointed out that the achievements often credited to individuals, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, cannot be detached from the work done by the thousands of other people who participated in the movements they led. She went on:

It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

In a week when so many people who share the 1960s radicals’ aspirations are feeling so demoralised, I think it’s worth reflecting on those words. Communities of struggle have been built before, and they can be built again.