Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:
- 💪 Did you know that we have feminists to thanks for the ideas behind « quiet qutting » and the great resignation?
- 💰 The Wages for Housework camapign of the 1970s forever changed the way we think about paid and unpaid work.
- 🚽 Yet 50 years later, women still find themselves doing the majority of chores for free.
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‘They say it is love, we say it is unwaged work’ – 50 years of fighting to be paid for housework
By Rosa Campbell
This year, the Wages for Housework campaign turned 50. Born in 1972, the movement was based on a provocative idea that forever changed the way feminists thought about the quotidian household chores that fall disproportionately to women. Doing the vacuuming or the laundry were no longer simply boring and repetitive, but were instead central to shaping women’s role in capitalist society.
As it is classically discussed by Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici – all big hitters in the Wages for Housework campaigns – women toil in the home for free, while men toil for a wage. The campaigners’ demand seemed simple: that free labour done in the home should be remunerated in the same way as other types of work.
But if we dwell here, things become quickly complex. What, after all, is housework? Is it just mopping the floor and washing the dishes? How about child care? Does it include sex and romance?
It is clear from reading the early publications of the Wages for Housework movement that “housework” represents no less than the entirety of the domestic and emotional labour that is carried out for free in the home in order to reproduce the labour force. As it was theorised in the 1970s, this meant all the work women did to provide physical support and emotional comfort to enable a (male) worker to return to work the following day, included cooking and cleaning, sex, care and the raising of children.
“They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work,“ Federici wrote in 1975.
The idea for Wages for Housework came from the “Hot Autumn” in Northern Italy in 1969-1970. In a series of increasingly militant strikes, workers demanded higher wages, fewer working hours and control of their workplaces. Wages for Housework was also directly inspired by earlier movements, including the movement of mostly Black US “welfare mothers”, who had previously demanded payment from the state for housework.
Some women in the British arm of the campaign demanded an actual wage from the government. But Federici suggested the question of how much women should be paid for housework was not the right one. Rather than thinking about a “lump of money”, she held that we should think of the campaign as a “political perspective,” which has the power to “produce a revolution in our lives … as women.”
The political perspective Federici speaks of provides a useful explanation about where women’s oppression actually comes from, and how campaigning for a wage could revolutionise gender roles. Wages for Housework suggests that gender inequality comes not from biological difference; nor from an ill-defined patriarchy which seems to float in the air with a cosmic, conspiratorial quality; nor the hatred of individual men, or women’s inferiority. Instead, it comes from the gendered division of labour.
The difference between housework and paid work, Federici explains, is that “housework has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality”. The doing of housework came to represent what it means to be a woman. This is unlike paid work outside the home where, as Federici wrote in 1974, “today you are a postman, tomorrow a cab driver.” Perhaps now we might say, “today you are a Deliveroo rider, tomorrow you work in an Amazon warehouse”. What remains the same for men is that, “exploited as you might be, you are not that work”.
To struggle for a wage for housework, writes Federici, is to “refuse that work as the expression of our nature”. It is to redefine housework as work and so redefine what it means to be a woman. This is the revolution she is talking about.
Wages for housework also explained why women earned less than men outside the home. If women did paid work, those roles were often extensions of their unpaid work. As one of the first Wages for Housework leaflets put it: “We are teachers and nurses and secretaries and prostitutes and actresses and childcare workers.” The pay in these jobs was – and remains – low because they resemble the work initially done for free by women in the home.
Wages for Housework came out of the women’s liberation movement, which has been justly criticised for being too white and middle class. But Wages for Housework suggested that all women around the world were unified by the fact of their doing more than their share around the home: “The crime against us internationally, from which all other crimes against us flow, is our life sentence of housework,” reads another early leaflet.
Women involved in the international campaign, including Clotil Walcott from Trinidad and Tobago, attended the UN conference on the status of women in Nairobi in 1985, where they successfully lobbied for the economic contribution of women’s unpaid work to be counted across nations. Today, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development collects statistics for time spent in unpaid work, by sex. This shows that across the board, the amount of unpaid labour women do is much higher than men in every OECD country.
Thanks to the leadership of women like Wilmette Brown, Wages for Housework also understood that Black women and other women of colour often have to work as cleaners, cooks, nannies and carers for wealthier, mostly white women to the neglect of their own children and families. This perspective has become even more important as women’s participation in the workforce has increased. Now, in many middle-class, two-wage, heterosexual households, poorer, racialised women are employed to pick up the slack around the home – to do the work that maintains the lives of others – on very low pay.
A film produced by the British Wages for Housework campaign called All Work and No Pay in 1976 shows, “ordinary”, working-class women interviewed on the street, outside the supermarket, their arms laden with shopping and children. The idea of being given money for their unpaid work had broad appeal. One woman said, “Well, more money for women anytime, really.” But she smiles in disbelief like she is witnessing someone spin a pleasant fantasy.
Perhaps her smile spoke to something deeper, because Wages for Housework, while full of electrifying ideas, has remained on the periphery of the feminist movement for the past half-century. Campaigns for women’s shelters, for greater representation at work and in parliament, for equal pay, for nurseries, for anti-sexist education and against sexual and domestic violence have yielded greater results.
This may be because the broad definition of “housework” present in the campaign, which certainly extended feminist sightlines, is strategically difficult to organise around. To get better wages and conditions in paid work you collectively stop working: the trains don’t go, and neither does the mail. But how would we strike from housework? Would it mean not doing dishes? Not feeding children? Not smiling politely at work, at home, on the street? Would we refrain from sex, including sex we want to have? As much of this labour takes place in our homes, how might we collectivise this strike?
Wages for Housework poster by Jacquie Ursula Caldwell in 1974. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Wages for Housework is a great provocation and full of potential, but I’m not sure it’s clear about the levers we might pull or the strategic steps we might take to get there. As historian Barbara Taylor writes in her book, Eve and the New Jerusalem: “History of all progressive movements is littered with … half-remembered hopes, with dreams that have failed.”
And yet, Wages for Housework is more than a failed dream or a leaflet ground into the wet pavement after some demonstration fifty years ago. Its legacy can be
found in some of the most interesting social movements since.
In 1975, 90% of women in Iceland went on strike from paid and unpaid work, resulting in the passing of equal pay legislation the very next year. This inspired the Black Monday strikes in Poland against the total ban on abortion in 2016.
But the feminists behind Wages for Housework never saw salaried work as a way for women to get free. Instead they wrote: “Now we want to decide when we work, how we work, and who we work for. We want to be able to decide not to work at all.” We can detect this sentiment in the COVID-related “great resignation” and the growing movement for people to “quiet quit” their jobs. The ideas of Wages for Housework can also be found in the growing calls for a Universal Basic Income.
Today, more and more social movements seek to bring the tactic of the strike out of the workplace and into the home. In movements for rent strikes, fuel bill strikes, and women’s strikes, we can see the influence of Wages for Housework.
Like the screaming baby and the dirty dishes in the sink, Wages for Housework continues to demand our attention as it asks that old feminist question: Who changes the nappies in your house? It then goes on to urge us to think about why that matters, and how things might be different.
— Rosa Campbell has just finished her PhD in history at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the global history of feminism.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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