"Wages for Housework Revisited"

Originally published in the print edition of the Harvard Kennedy School's Women's Policy Journal in March 2019.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, then President Barack Obama declared: “Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.”[i] Although the 77 cents statistic varies significantly according to race and age—in the US, white women make 82 cents, black women make 65 cents, Latina make 58 cents,[ii] and the wage gap widens and narrows as women approach and surpass their thirties[iii] – it is widely used and frequently written on protest signs during women’s marches.

By focusing only on a single statistic, neon-pink-pussy-hat-wearing protestors are doing a disservice to the historical feminist debate on wages and to the debate on wages for housework. These debates offer a rich discussion on how best to recognize the value and worth of domestic work, the social and economic conditions that make it invisible and unpaid, and the unequal division of labor that defines it as ‘women’s work.’ We must then ask: Are wages the be all and end all of liberating women? What about other non-financial means of compensation, such as childcare, healthcare and social security? Why are men’s wages the benchmark?

Housework is a gender issue because it is still mostly done by women. In 2016, women in Britain did almost 60 percent more unpaid housework than men.[iv] A study of the United States in the same year reveals that even same-sex couples are biased, perceiving childcare, groceries, laundry, and cleaning as predominantly feminine tasks.[v] Another study suggests that, if the value of nonmarket household production were incorporated into the measurement of GDP in the US, nominal GDP in 1965 would have been 39 percent higher and 26 percent higher in 2010.[vi] Other countries have conducted similar calculations that underscore the hidden value of unpaid domestic work. In Mexico, unpaid housework is worth approximately 2o% of GDP,[vii] more than twice the added value of petrol rents—a source of wealth and pride that has long been considered the backbone of Mexico’s economy.[viii]

Should housework be commoditized and therefore waged? This question has been the subject of intense scholarly debate since the first international campaign on this issue, ‘Wages for Housework,’ was launched in Padua, Italy in 1972. Shortly afterwards, the New York Committee that formed part of the same movement stated that, as Marxist feminists, they sought to “end the exploitation of women in the home.”[ix] Activists within the movement asserted that acknowledging housework as work was not only a demand for wages, but the germ of a political revolution that would redefine women’s power in society—a movement that has lately been revived in industrialized countries in the aftermath of #metoo.

For feminists both at the time and since, ‘Wages for Housework’ has been a divisive issue. On the one hand, some have regarded housework as tedious and repetitive work that perpetuates economic dependency on breadwinners, typically men. On the other, critics of this view have opposed the idealization of waged work and underscored the intrinsic value of housework without the need to commoditize or put a price tag on it.

Wages for Housework

In her book, Revolution at Point Zero, the activist and figurehead of the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement, Silvia Federici, builds her argument in favor of wages for domestic work out from the initial premise that wages are a crucial component of the social contract in our modern capitalist system. Work (and the wages that define it as such) does not come naturally as something humans want to do, she argues. Rather, it is “the only condition under which you are allowed to live.”[x] The ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign built upon many of the Marxist ideas set out by Friedrich Engels in his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which drew an explicit parallel between the economic dependency of both women and the proletariat on those who have accumulated wealth: “In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat.” [xi]

Marxist feminists argue that housework has become normalized as unwaged work because the division of labor between the public (waged) sphere and private (unwaged) sphere has made it invisible to society. Federici adds that housework’s association with essentialist notions of womanhood—such as domesticity and a propensity for unconditional care and love—have further relegated it to the low-status arena of ‘women’s work.’[xii] She argues, furthermore, that wages are the means to demystifying femininity.

The main condition for housework to be recognized as work, according to Federici, is compensation through wages. This idea comes from the ideological position taken by Engels and Karl Marx, who argued in favor of the socialization and collectivization of household tasks by sharing responsibility for them with the larger community.[xiii] Unlike Marx and Engels, Federici stopped short of advocating for the centralized state planning of housework. However, she did draw closely on their thinking in arguing that assigning wages to housework brings women within the realm of public life, affording them equal class status without the need to socialize these tasks. As Federici explains, there is a fine line between these perspectives, which turns on the role of the state:

It is one thing to organize communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups) and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organize our meals. In one case we regain control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.[xiv]

Federici has been criticized for the seeming contradiction inherent in subverting capital’s plan for women while fighting for wages—which enable the existence and continuation of capitalism in the first place. Federici’s riposte was that the struggle for wages is not about entering capitalist relations because we have never been out of them.[xv] To the contrary, it recognizes how indispensable housework is for capitalism. Nonetheless, Federici does fail to propose a solution that avoids perpetuating an unequal division of housework between the sexes.

Industrialization of Housework

Less than a decade later, the academic, activist, and former member of the US Communist Party Angela Davis fundamentally shifted the discussion around ‘Wages for Housework’ by critiquing the movement’s assumptions about the value of housework and considering its implications for working-class women and women of color. Davis’s argument rested on her view that the countless chores of housework—cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, sweeping, and shopping—are not creative nor productive by nature. These burdens should be lifted from women and men, she argued, by incorporating them into the industrial economy.[xvi] By contrast, simply providing women with a paycheck for the housework they are already doing—as advocated by the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement—maintains the existing division of labor and creates perverse incentives for women to remain trapped in a life of degrading and crushing work.[xvii]

For Davis, industrializing housework through engineering and technologically advanced machinery was an optimal solution that shifted domestic tasks back into the light of the public sphere and erased its associations with the private sphere—the same associations that render it invisible.[xviii] Unlike Federici, Davis—who abided by a more literal interpretation of Marxism than Federici—trusted state intervention to redefine housework and considered some domestic tasks worth socializing, such as childcare and meal preparation:

[…] the notion that the burden of housework and child care can be shifted from their shoulders to the society contains one of the radical secrets of women’s liberation. Child care should be socialized, meal preparation should be socialized, housework should be industrialized—and these services should be readily accessible to working-class people.[xix] 

Davis draws from examples of women’s experience in non-capitalist economies to argue that sexual inequality is born alongside the creation of private property. In agrarian and pre-industrial societies, domestic chores were part of the daily means of production for securing the resources necessary for survival—food, clothing and shelter. With the birth of industrialization, such means of production are taken into factories and domestic chores are transformed into dull and unproductive work. Because women simultaneously became responsible for all matters within the private sphere, the work they did assumed a lower status and domestic work became not a special kind of work, but a certain grade of work.[xx] 

The ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign assumed a largely one-dimensional ‘housewife’ experience, which in the early 1970s mostly resonated with middle- and upper-class white women. As a movement, it thus largely ignored the experiences of working-class women and women of color, who frequently bore the dual burden of working for a minimum wage outside the household, while simultaneously doing unpaid work at home. As Davis writes:

Like their men, Black women have worked until they could work no more. Like their men, they have assumed the responsibility of family providers. The unorthodox feminine qualities of assertiveness and self-reliance of Black women are reflections of their labor and their struggles outside the home.[xxi]

In this light, Davis emphasizes that paying housewives would allow upper-class white women to be glorified as ‘workers,’ without acknowledging that wages tend to be insufficient for women who bear the double burden.[xxii]

For Davis, women’s liberation rests not on wages but on lifting the burdens of domestic chores from society as a whole. Without better pay and working conditions under capitalism, wages are not sufficient to liberate women from economic dependency or their subordinate position in society because they allow for the continuation of the status quo, which saddles women with the vast majority of domestic labor and condemns working class women and women of color to the doubly heavy burden of working both inside and outside the home.

Adult Responsibility

The scholar and intersectional feminist activist, bell hooks, made a significant contribution to this debate in the early 1980’s by re-assessing whether housework should be waged at all and formulated a particularly novel argument on the matter: “housework ought not be seen as demeaning or tedious, rather, it should be recognized as intrinsically valuable work that addresses the human needs for material order and paves the path toward adult responsibility.”[1] This argument is not dissimilar to that of Japanese home organizer and Netflix-sensation, Marie Kondo, who coaxes us to care for our material possessions and spaces that “spark joy.”[xxiii] Furthermore, hooks disagrees with Davis in arguing that women should deem their work as valuable, regardless of whether men recognize it as such. The value of housework thus lies in the fulfillment of human needs and not in its price tag or level of productivity.[xxiv]

According to hooks, housework should not be perceived as a commodity for sale in the market economy. By trying to frame it as such, she argues, feminists fall into a capitalist trap of not valuing housework unless it has a money sign next to it:

Women, like other exploited and oppressed groups in this society, often have negative attitudes towards work in general and the work they do in particular. They tend to devalue the work they do because they have been taught to judge its significance solely in terms of the exchange value. [xxv]

Moreover, hooks suggests that domestic chores provide important lessons for children in developing adult responsibility. Learning housework, she writes, teaches children to appreciate and respect their surroundings while ordering their material reality.[xxvi] Boys need to be taught housework as a means to develop a healthy sense of autonomy (rather than relying on other women), and girls need to be taught that housework is not demeaning, but rather valuable in itself, so they are not deprived of personal satisfaction when carrying out these tasks.[xxvii] The implications of hooks’ argument point toward a new generation of boys and girls who value cleanliness and order and for whom housework will be more equally distributed.

Lastly, in contrast to Davis, hooks breaks away from the traditional capitalist concept of value—that which is attached to productivity and monetary worth—and proposes a radical new way to think about housework: one which does not require acknowledgement from the economically powerful. By rejecting the classification of domestic chores as a commodity, the value of housework is allowed to rest on its intrinsic universal dignity as a basic human need.

Like Davis, hooks believes that the wider movement in favor of wages for housework alienates poor women of color, and fails to take into account a broader, more inclusive definition of work.[xxviii] This implies that greater recognition of women’s different experiences is needed and gives non-working-class women the opportunity to become active allies by advocating for a set of policies that address gender-related problems that go beyond their own.[xxix]

Policy Implications

The ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign demanded that women’s work in the household be acknowledged by extending the social contract beyond the public and into the private. To do so, Federici and other supporters of this campaign demanded that housework be waged and argued that the struggle for wages was the only vehicle to redefine women’s role in society. As later scholars have argued, however, waging housework is not enough for it to stop being considered women’s work. ‘Female liberation’ requires more than wages; it requires social benefits and better working conditions. Putting too much emphasis on wages is counterproductive, because it fails to enhance autonomy and agency for women.[xxx]

Wages also reaffirm a traditional definition of work and reproduce the relationship between patron and laborer. Re-thinking the relationship between domestic work, wages and economic dependence is crucial to interrupt the gendered division of labor between the private and the public. Kathi Weeks—a feminist and Marxist academic—writes:

Waged work remains today the centerpiece of late capitalist economic systems; it is, of course, the way most people acquire access to the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. It is not only the primary mechanism by which income is distributed, it is also the basic means by which status is allocated, and by which most people gain access to social services and benefits.[xxxi]

Thus, alternatives that do not rely too heavily on wages, but offer a social security net including better services and the flexibility to allocate time more freely ought to be considered. While wages for housework may reduce dependency, it does not help gender roles to be rethought; for this to happen, we need policies that offer social services and benefits regardless of labor condition. Two such policies are universal care and Universal Basic Income.

For capitalism even to exist, it is necessary for humans to reproduce and become consumers. However, the low levels of social benefits frequently sustained by capitalism—even in industrialized countries—make it increasingly difficult to have children and consequently care for them. This is a contradiction in the current stage of capitalism because it hinders reproduction and subsequently, consumption. Nancy Fraser—a critical theorist and philosopher—has called the seeming contradiction between capitalism and care a “care crisis.”

In its failure to provide a sufficiently comprehensive care system, the current stage of capitalism fails to provide a framework that allows for sustainable reproduction. Instead, it free-rides on the unpaid work of large, predominantly female sections of the population to provide care and maintain the bonds that allow families to exist and consume goods.[xxxii] This argument is carefully crafted by Nancy Fraser, who demonstrates that relegating reproductive labor and care to the domestic sphere, “where its social importance is obscured,” jeopardizes the necessary social conditions for a profitable market economy.[xxxiii] In this context, universal care systems can fill this gap by facilitating the most basic condition for human existence and consumption—reproductive labor.

Child care in the United States is expensive. In states where professional child care is available, annual tuitions cost up to $20,000. Other states don’t even have access to these services and are considered ‘child care deserts.’ [xxxiv] In 2016 alone, approximately two million parents had to quit or turn down a job because of a lack of childcare in the United States.[xxxv] A universal care system for children and the elderly provides one potential solution to the current care crisis. Compared to wages for housework, it offers a solution that is both more comprehensive and more flexible for parents because it gives them the choice to socialize care rather than do it themselves.

A universal childcare system (but not an elderly care program) is already in place in a number of countries around the world, such as France.[xxxvi] The French government provides families with care according to their income brackets. Care centers begin accepting children from the age of three months, who are then secured a spot in preschool until they reach the age of six. There is a clear case for replicating a system like this one around the world, accompanied by a system of care for the elderly, as part of a universal system of care that fills the ‘care gap.’[xxxvii]

Yet even a comprehensive universal care system has gaps: it provides a service for families, but not individuals. A more truly comprehensive alternative could, therefore, be Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is paid unconditionally to individuals regardless of their household relationships, other incomes, or employment status.[xxxviii] Variations of UBI are currently being implemented at the local level in Barcelona, Glasgow, and Edinburgh and was tested at the country level in Finland during 2017-2018. Advocates of UBI stress that its three main components—universality, individuality, and unconditionality—can radically alter the unequal distribution of power in order to advance gender equality, although evidence to prove this has yet to be published.

More so than a universal care system, UBI implies a major overhaul not only of care, but of the composition of the private sphere itself. By providing individual transfers, and not household transfers, men and women would be free to divide their time between work and leisure as they like, regardless of their standing within a traditional nuclear family setting. An unconditional income would also—at least in theory—break the relationship between work and income, eroding the sexualized division of labor. Wages would no longer be the main divide between work performed inside and outside the home.

To achieve these ambitious ends, however, UBI would have to provide an income at least large enough to cover basic needs without a supplementary wage. Otherwise, it runs the risk of subsidizing precarious employment, and fails to eliminate the vicious economic dependency cycles that affect both housewives and women working double shifts inside and outside the home.

Ultimately, this points to a fundamental decision that governments and constituents must make: are we willing to accept a significant increase in taxation and public spending to fund a Universal Basic Income or system of universal care in exchange for gender equality to be accessible for everyone? While alternatives like wages for housework can play a role in helping some women to become members of the social contract, these fall short when it comes to reshaping the gendered dimensions of housework and its implications for the role of women in society. Waging housework, as well as closing the gender wage gap, are in essence ‘good.’ However, they are band-aid solutions for more extensive problems spawned by capitalism. For a truly feminist and ethical treatment of all humans, a genuinely comprehensive solution will need to address the contradictions of the current care crisis and fundamentally rethink the nature of work in the private and public spheres.

[1] Bell hooks is the penname of Gloria Jean Watkins. Watkins has explained that she does not capitalize her penname in order to emphasize her ideas, rather than herself.

[i] Barack Obama, “State of The Union,” Washington, D.C., 28 January 2014, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2014/01/29/president-obamas-2014-state-union-address.

[ii] Eileen Patten, “Racial, Gender Wage Gaps Persist In US Despite Some Progress,” Pew Research Center, 1 July 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/01/racial-gender-wage-gaps-persist-in-u-s-despite-some-progress.

[iii] Sarah Kliff, “The Truth About The Gender Wage Gap,” Vox, 8 September 2017, https://www.vox.com/2017/9/8/16268362/gender-wage-gap-explained.

[iv] Oliver Burkeman, “Dirty Secret: Why Is There Still a Housework Gender Gap?,” The Guardian, 17 February 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/feb/17/dirty-secret-why-housework-gender-gap.

[v] Natasha Quadlin and Long Doan, “Making Money, Doing Gender, or Being Essentialist? Partner Characteristics and Americans’ Attitudes Toward Housework,” (paper presented at the 11th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Washington State, 20-23 August 2016), http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/pr_am_2016_quadlin_news_release_final.pdf.

[vi] Benjamin Bridgman et. al., “Accounting For Household Production in the National Accounts, 1965-2010,” Survey of Current Business, May 2012: 23, https://apps.bea.gov/scb/pdf/2012/05%20May/0512_household.pdf.

[vii] Rubén Migueles, “Unpaid housework equals 23.3% of Mexico’s GDP,” El Universal, 12 December 2018, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/english/unpaid-housework-equals-233-mexicos-gdp-0.

[viii] “El Petróleo: ¿Cuánto Aporta a la Economía?” INEGI, http://cuentame.inegi.org.mx/economia/petroleo/pib.aspx.

[ix] Sarah Jaffe, “The Factory in the Family”, The Nation, March 14, 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/wages-for-houseworks-radical-vision/

[x] Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 20, http://www.churchland.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Federici-Silvia-Revolution-Point-Zero-Housework-Reproduction-and-Feminist-Struggle.pdf.

[xi] Josette Trat, “Engels and the Emancipation of Women” Science and Society 62, no. 1 (1988): 94, https://philpapers.org/rec/TRAEAT-3.

[xii] Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, 16.

[xiii] Trat, “Engels and the Emancipation of Women”, 95.

[xiv] Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, 21.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981), 1, https://legalform.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/davis-women-race-class.pdf.

[xvii] Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class, 3.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid., 2.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid., 5.

[xxiii] bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1984), 103, https://www.amazon.com/Feminist-Theory-Margin-bell-hooks/dp/0896086135.

[xxiv] hooks, Feminist Theory, 103.

[xxv] Ibid., 104.

[xxvi] Ibid., 103.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid., 96.

[xxix] Ibid., 105.

[xxx] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 127, https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-problem-with-work.

[xxxi] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work, 127.

[xxxii] Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review, no. 100 (2016): 101, https://newleftreview.org/II/100/nancy-fraser-contradictions-of-capital-and-care.

[xxxiii] Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital”, 102.

[xxxiv] “The US and the High Cost of Child Care: A Review of Prices and Proposed Solutions for a Broken System,” Child Care Aware, 2016, https://usa.childcareaware.org/advocacy-public-policy/resources/research/costofcare/.

[xxxv] “The US and the High Cost of Child Care,” Child Care Aware, 2016.

[xxxvi] Bryce Covert, “A New Deal for Day Care,” The New Republic, 1 May 2018, https://newrepublic.com/article/147802/new-deal-day-care-america-change-care-kids.

[xxxvii] Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” 114.

[xxxviii] Weeks, The Problem with Work, 138.