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.