Valuing Domestic Labour

While I’ve talked about domestic workers, and I’ve talked about the gendering of work, I’ve never actually taken on the housewife and the bile, condescension, and history that surrounds her. Perhaps this is because so much has been written on the subject (indeed, entire texts) that it seems almost superfluous to add my thoughts, but when has that ever stopped me from commenting?

One of the things this society has a very difficult time doing is valuing domestic labour. We see it with the abuse of domestic workers, who are often undocumented women of colour performing work for far below minimum wage, labouring in sometimes unsafe conditions for hours long past all reason. We see it in the way that attempts to get protections for such workers are met with disbelief that anyone should care about such a thing; they’re just maids, after all, or nannies, or cleaners, housekeepers or cooks. Their work isn’t important, because it takes place within the home and within the context of what is traditionally regarded as a woman’s domain.

Meanwhile, of course, millions of women are doing this kind of work for free, as part of a social obligation created when they enter into family relationships. Their work is devalued because of a long history of misogyny and sexism, of course, but the attitude that the home is the woman’s responsibility while the outside of the home is the man’s is naturally bound up in heteronormativity and a long, complex history of how houses are run, and who runs them, and why.

The housewife actually holds a position of considerable power in the home, if you stop to evaluate her role for a bit. Traditionally housewives managed the household budget (funds, of course, being controlled by the man of the house), determining how money should be spent. They controlled what was served at dinner, when people ate and how they ate. But this power was somewhat illusory, because it also, of course, came with corresponding responsibilities: the obligation to put food on the table, the requirement to be constantly involved in cleaning and household maintenance, the ability to suddenly flex and flip and schedule to sit the needs of others because work done in the home is ‘not important.’

Housewives were also, of course, tasked with childrearing responsibilities, a complicated tangle of awesome responsibility, power, and obligation that didn’t apply to the male head of household. The result was a divided world, where women lived in the house in isolation and men forged into the world at large, and women thus fought long and hard to dissolve the archetype of the housewife, to defend their right to be in the workplace. In the process, though, some fatal mistakes were made, and one of the most grievous was the inadvertent devaluation of domestic labour, to the great cost of women who still perform such labour, paid and unpaid.

While women have resisted the archetypes that demand they do work for free, often on top of having to perform duties outside the home, some critics of the abuse of women of domestic labourers have sadly made the argument that such labour doesn’t have merit and isn’t as valuable. In fact, domestic labour is incredibly valuable and important, and should be treated very seriously: so seriously that it merits its own pay, both for women who perform it professionally and for those who are providing these services to their families. Domestic work is serious business.

Cleaning is serious business. So is cooking. So is raising children. So is managing household expenses. So is performing the myriad little tasks that keep a house running, like getting bills in the mail and putting up storm shutters in the winter and making sure the pantry is stocked and getting the dry cleaning taken care of and picking up cat litter at the store. These are tasks that primarily fall to women, even in supposedly ‘equal’ heterosexual relationships where somehow men manage to do almost nothing around the house while their female partners perform domestic labour on top of their work outside the house, because we live in an era where many people require a dual income to survive.

In wealthier homes where these services are provided by someone who is paid to do them, that person’s work is undervalued and she (for it is usually a woman) is expected to be invisible. Unseen and unheard, and certainly not involved in labour organising and efforts to improve her working conditions and her workplace. Her efforts to organise are stymied by the fact that ‘women’s work’ has always been disdained and treated as lesser, but also by the fact that women trying to break out of archetypes put down housework as offensive and beneath them, thus setting it up as unimportant and suggesting that the people who performed it were somehow worthless, below, not deserving of the same social rights and protections that other workers have.

Disdain for housework shines through in indictments of women who choose to stay at home (in relationships of all orientations and configurations), as though they’re somehow letting the side down by volunteering to be housewives; even when the context of their decisions isn’t known or understood. There’s nothing wrong with performing domestic work, nor is there anything wrong with choosing to perform such work for a given period of time, including, potentially, your whole life. What’s wrong is beingĀ forcedĀ to perform domestic labour without an opportunity to make a considered choice, and to be performing work that’s so devalued, you’re not provided with meaningful compensation for it.