Thursday, 12 September 2013

House Work

From Spinach and Yoga.
About a year ago, I was away from home for three or four days. Piglet was in school and I made arrangements for her to go to various friends afterwards. I set out all the clothes needed before I left. I made a list with details of what the Fella should feed himself, the two of them, on which days; who she was with on any given day and their contact numbers; a few domestic tasks which I asked the Fella to undertake in my absence. (Thursday: Put out bins!)

I was tempted to blog about how ridiculous it was to make this list for a grown man. Then I had a rethink.

Available from Abe Books
Very often as women we have ended up with responsibilities way below our capacity. We undertake domestic tasks which we can do with barely the flicker of two brain cells. It can seem like we have an easy job; one butch lesbian friend once wistfully said to me if some guy were willing to keep her just for making sure his house was tidy and clean she would go for it. (Unfortunately the combined responsibilities of maintaining a happy home and bringing up children are not quite covered by an occasional flick of the feather duster over china ornaments.)

Housework is an intellectually undemanding task. We may feel resentful about having the lioness's share loaded into our hands and then perhaps we make ourselves feel better by laughing at the ineptitude of men when it comes to the domestic. "He may be Mr. Big, Chief Executive of Worldwide Stuff and Important Things, but he wouldn't be able to get out the door without me tying his shoelaces."

From Sussex University
Marx viewed the economy as the exploitation of working people (the proletariat) by bourgeoisie who took labour and paid slightly less for it than the end product was worth; creaming off the profit. Even lower in the hierarchy were women, who were merely reproducing the producers. By providing the means to live (food, cleanliness), women enabled workers to go out and work, no more than that. 

Feminists adapted Marx's thinking in developing the campaign Wages for Housewives. This remains a Utopian rather than realistic political project, although as more families are based on a dual income, more are buying in domestic support. This will probably slowly lead to a financial value being placed on what has for generations been an invisible service; it is 'wages for housework' at least although there is often a wife who is organising the paid housework and childcare in an unpaid managerial capacity.

When I looked at the list I produced for the Fella, I did think it was similar to the kind of list the Fella might have to give me if I were to do his job for a few days. We work in the same field and I have considerable research and teaching experience so you might expect me to know how to teach his students and manage his junior researchers. However, I would appreciate some notes explaining the detail of particular modules and projects I would be keeping an eye on for him. Is housework work which ought to be paid for too, then? 

I think the main reason housework still isn't being paid for is that women don't want money for working to maintain the home and family. What women want, to answer Freud's famous question, in return for often repetitive, sometimes dull and frequently exhausting labour provided 24/7, is respect. 

I'm not sure if Respect for Housewives can be gained in a capitalist culture which sees monetary value as the touchstone for deciding what is worth how much. I would like to think some respect could be won for the many skills and abilities it takes to run a home and family. It's often pleasurable - I would never call it easy. I sometimes wonder if we could go down a more radical feminist route. Perhaps we can revalue paid labour and make it worth doing and paying for only if it is done in a way which is nurturing and considerate and if it contributes to the wellbeing of others, rather than making the bourgeoisie a profit. 

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