Housework Under Capitalism
by C. A. L'Hirondelle
written March 2000, revised March 2005

(A shortened version of this article was published in the U.S. magazine "Off Our Backs" in Jan/Feb 2004)

I've worked laying sod, painting cars, selling donuts, flipping burgers and working in an office yet nothing compares with the intense and high stress work of being "only a mom". Housework and unpaid care work gets no recognition, no status, and is the most wearing work I have ever done. The idea of the "worker" gets some glory. Paid work gets status, recognition and pay. It is "real" work, no matter what kind of work it is. But the subject of unpaid household labor gets ignored even by most social justice and labour groups. The most common and essential work in the world is done for free yet it is invisible everyone except those who do it.

Maria Mies in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale emphasizes that the non-wage labour of women and other non-wage labourers as slaves, contract workers and peasants in colonies "constitutes the perennial basis upon which 'capitalist productive labour' can be built up and exploited."

Domestic labour is a central process of industrial capitalism and yet as a woman who was immersed in it for years and as an activist who has attended countless meetings and protests and who has read stacks of progressive magazines, I was unaware of the role that domestic labour played in the larger economic picture. Even though I was intimately familiar and often exhausted by domestic labor, I had never understood its significance.

I found my first book on the subject of unpaid work at a closing-out sale of a feminist bookstore in Victoria several years ago. At one dollar, it was the cheapest book on the discount table. There was a stack of them. The book, More Than a Labor of Love by Meg Luxton, examined three generations of housewives in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Meg Luxton writes that the political left has tended to focus on the 'production of the means of existence and have left out of their analysis the production of human beings themselves" and that the eight hour work day does not fully explain capitalist labour processes. Maria Mies also points out that Marx defined productive labour as production of surplus value and thus "theoretically contributed to the removal of all 'nonproductive' labour ... from public visibility."

All industry is built on the backs of unpaid workers all over the world. Most of these unpaid workers are women and most of the unpaid work takes place in the home. Domestic labor does two things: It reproduces humans -- labour power-- and it prepares and maintains workers to go to work daily. Canada estimated in 1994 that the value of housework, if it were paid, would be $318 billion.  

The variety of tasks you must do when you look after home and children are endless: cook, maid, laundress, health-care provider, mediator, teacher, counselor, secretary, transporter of children and household supplies, entertainment and social planner, special events coordinator, appointment keeper, and if you have a husband you are also his status enhancer (which will increase his potential income) and must also keep your 'looks' or you may find yourself divorced, trying to feed your children with an income of 73% less than when you were married.

All this work goes on quietly, unheroically, with no awards, medals or statues of recognition. With other jobs you 1) get paid and 2) have free time away from work and 3) you work usually with others as opposed to the isolation of working by yourself doing care and housework. Mothers are told they get paid in "hugs", however try paying your landlord or grocery store with hugs.

Many women in the world who toil away for no pay are ground into an early grave through the physical exertion of bearing and raising children while struggling against squalor, disease and poverty. But we probably only think of ourselves as workers when we work outside of home. This was noted by writer Susan Stasser for her book Never Done when during an interview an 88- year-old woman said she could not believe that her unpaid work (as opposed to her "jobs") could have any importance to a historian.

One of the first women to challenge the view that domestic labor was not productive work was Maria-Rosa Dalla Costa, who wrote from Italy in 1972 that the housewife and her labour was the basis for the process of capital accumulation. Capital commands the unpaid labour of the housewife as well as the paid labourer.

Dalla Costa saw the family as a colony dominated by capital and state. She rejected the artificially created division between waged and unwaged labour and said that you could not understand exploitation of waged labour until you understood the exploitation of unpaid labour.

Other feminist writers have criticized this viewpoint because it does not acknowledge that men directly benefit from having women work in the home. Heidi Hartmann writes in Women & Revolution that while union men early in the 19th century wanted women, children, and 'non-whites' out of the work force because it lowered their wages. They asked for a wage for men high enough so that their wives could afford to stay home and tend to the house and children.

Hartmann sees this as men colluding with capital for their own personal benefit and capital realized that housewives produced and maintained healthier workers and future workers. So the family wage cemented the partnership between patriarchy and capital. Men benefited directly from controlling women's labour and capital benefited from the efficient unpaid maintenance and reproduction of workers.

The tradition of women working for free in the home, and men working for wages out of the home, has changed. Many women now have paid employment in addition to their unpaid household and family care work. Ruth Schwartz Cowen notes in her book More Work for Mother, while the tasks that women do in the home have changed, the time spent on domestic labour has not.

This is partly because houseworkers and mothers today in industrialized countries are held to higher standards of cleanliness, have more appliances to clean, spend more time as consumers (approximately 8 hours a week buying and transporting goods which were previously delivered), face greater pressure to provide enriching experiences for their children, have less help from adult relatives, and not nearly enough help from male partners. When both male and female household partners have full-time jobs, the woman still does significantly more housework than the man --15 more hours per week, totaling an extra month of 24-hour days each year.

Single parents find themselves trying to comply with two incompatible demands by society: 1) be a good mother and, 2) don't be a leech and earn a living. Both goals are compromised causing continuous stress, anxiety and guilt. It is extremely difficult to be a good mother when you do not have enough money to do the job. It is extremely difficult to earn a living when you are trying to competently raise healthy children.

In Feminist Issues (Fall 1992), Reva Landau warns women that the consequence of leaving paid work for a few years to look after kids will bring lifelong economic penalties through missed promotions, training opportunities, and pension contributions. Men who have a partner working in the home for free have an unfair advantage over women in the workplace who do not have a free labourer at home tending to their needs.  

Around the world women are coming to the conclusion that if men refuse to do their share of domestic work, women must go on strike. This is the idea behind the Global Women's Strike, started initiated by the National Women's Council of Ireland, International Wages for Housework Campaign and the International Women Count Network for International Women's Day in 2000. It is estimated that women make up 52% of the adults on this planet and do 75% of the work required to maintain 100% of the population. Organizers of the Global Women's Strike assert that whoever is doing all this work has real power to effect change.

But, as Maria Mies points out in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, there must be solidarity between women in overdeveloped and underdeveloped countries if we want to make this change: "If one set of women tries to better its material condition as wage-workers, or as consumers, not as human beings, capital will try to offset its possible losses by squeezing another set of women."

However an underlying theme of some feminist literature seems to be that 1) women should have the right to be well paid oppressors too and 2) in order to do this children should be mass produced in daycare centres. Allowing everybody equal opportunity to be an oppressor is not a solution. Nor is warehousing children so parents can do jobs that exploit other people or the environment.

Women who provide all this free labour in a market system where nothing else is free must stop being so nice. It makes us sick, poor and tired. Why do we continue to do so much extra free work that is only strengthening a system that is killing us and the planet?

Anyone (male or female) who does unpaid care work of any kind (looking after elders, children, or family members with illness or disability) faces financial penalty. World society has not declared that they want the human species to go extinct, therefore this work is not a "lifestyle choice", it is work that is essential for society and the economy to function. Historically men have never wanted to do this work, mostly they still don't although there are some exceptions. But men are not all rushing to quit their jobs to stay at home and raise the kids. It is not surprising then that women around the world are now on an unorganized strike -- a baby strike-- causing birth rates to fall in all countries except those with high infant mortality rates. (See Mothernomics)

At some point, all those who do care work for people and the planet must "work to rule," do the least amount of unpaid work as possible, then call for strike days and holidays. In BC in 2003 and 2004 the Status of Women Action Group organized a series of Womyn's Walkouts, based on some of the goals of the Global Women's Strike, with the demand to do away with the punitive and starvation-level welfare system and replace it with a universal guaranteed livable income. In 2005 SWAG formed a "Women's Anti-Slavery Committee" and declared March 8 (International Women's Day) to be a holiday.

It is also high time that we invisible workers at least got a few words of recognition from those who raise their fists about "worker's" rights, whose calls for "solidarity" only extend to those who get a pay cheque.

Unpaid labor is a taboo subject because acknowledging it would undermine the ideological foundations of the market economy. The owners of the world would have to admit that they can only prosper by not paying for 75% of the true work of the planet. Not speaking about unpaid labour allows capitalist industry to go on profiting without ever recognizing the true cost of doing business. Nobody likes talking about slavery.

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