Paid Housework? Wages for, Wages Against.

Lawyer and ex parliamentarian Giulia Bongiorno is proposing the introduction of a salary for women who do housework as a way of “changing the direction” of the domestic violence debate in Italy. The original impetus behind the initiative is the acknowledgement that for many women lack of economic independence remains an important factor affecting their decision to leave an abusive relationship. “Obviously”, the proposal adds, “the salary cannot be guaranteed to women only as victims of domestic violence… The issue is another one: it is necessary to rethink the housewife’s role tout court: it is necessary to gratify and not humiliate the woman who chooses to be one”.[1] Hence the proposal for a salary to be provided either by the state or, in the case of very affluent households, by the well-off partner. Beyond domestic violence, Bongiorno’s hope is that the economic and social recognition bestowed on housework will in time enable it to be become “gender-free”.

There is much to be said about the link made here between domestic violence and women’s “invisible” labour but I’d like to briefly reflect on another aspect of the proposal, that is the fact that while referring to the normative, jurisprudential and administrative recognition that housework has received in Italy in the past three decades, the proposal is silent about an apparently similar initiative. This is the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s, which Italian feminists promoted for over a decade and was in turn linked to similar campaigns in Britain and the United States. I said apparently because these are very different initiatives in terms of both the premise on which they are based and the arguments they make. The common point is the recognition of domestic labour as work but this is where the similarity ends.

For the Wages for Housework campaigners, this work was certainly not a woman’s “choice”: it corresponded to a particular division of labour under capitalism which separated the sphere of production from that of reproduction, assigning (capitalist) value to the former while considering the latter unproductive. Hence, the point was to make domestic labour visible and show how crucial it was to capitalist accumulation rather than celebrating it as a woman’s choice. As Federici (1975) put it

“To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking. At the same time, it shows that we have cooked, smiled, fucked throughout the years not because it was easier for us than for anybody else, but because we did not have any other choice”.

The title of her essay, Wages Against Housework, conveyed the struggle that recognising this labour as work comported, that is the need to valorise it while subverting the processes that made it “work”, thus starting to address the separation between production and reproduction. Examples of such provocations included, in addition to the demand of wages for housework, the demand that social services be organised at community level while paid by the state so to retain control and autonomy over their nature and quality (Dalla Costa and James, 1972). One such demand in England took the form of community-run nurseries, the same communities which are currently been dismantled under austerity (Barbagallo and Beuret, 2012).

Thirty years later both Dalla Costa and Federici have reflected on the limits of the wage struggle as conducive to “women’s liberation”, while also dispelling the myth that “due to increased women’s employment, unpaid domestic work and gender based hierarchies have vanished”, pointing instead to the need for self-valorization initiatives outside the logic of the market and capital (Federici and Barbagallo, 2012). This is not to say that domestic and care labour should no longer be considered work. Indeed, as Selma James has recently pointed out ‘The refusal of feminists toˇacknowledge that work enabled Tony Blair to call mothers “workless” and made way for welfare reform’s definition of aˇgoodˇmother: she goes out to a job, even below the minimum wage, with whatever childcare she can afford’ (The Guardian, 7 March 2014). The point is rather to show how problematic it is to argue for wages for housework without a political perspective that sees it as part of a system of capital accumulation which is based on the separation between the productive and reproductive spheres.

At a very basic level, providing wages without confronting the isolation, repetition and relentlessness this labour comports (and therefore without affecting the underlying social relations) is likely to reinforce the view of housework as women’s work. And the suggestion in the proposal that the wealthy spouse pays for the housework carried out by the less well-off certainly points in this direction, not in that of housework becoming “gender free”. But at a time when austerity is squeezing the costs of social reproduction to the bare minimum, it is even more important we look at the ways in which the social reproductive field is being re-configured, particularly at the new division of reproductive labour worldwide and its relationship to the productive sphere. To argue that domestic and care labour is work means to acknowledge and trace the multifarious ways in which it contributes to making (capitalist) value. Arguing for the remuneration of such labour without challenging the basis on which it contributes to capitalist processes of valorisation is a very different kind of politics from that envisaged and practiced by Wages for Housework activists.


Scratching the ‘from scratch’ movement: considering ‘care’ through a description of ‘new domesticity’ in the United States

By Abigail Lance-De Vos

The recently published Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar (2013) offers an extensive account of Americans whose lives have come to be organized around a ‘from scratch’ or ‘do it yourself’ philosophy. This entails filling days with the tasks of, literally and figuratively, farming, rather than farming out. Rather than working to convert a paycheck into consumption items, new domestics – whom Matchar identifies as a largely middle class set of women — expend their energies making food, clothes, crafts, and cleaning products, while tending home, garden, farm, and children. She also tells us that this group is opting out of getting children routinely vaccinated, and choosing to homeschool. Notably, the group also heavily participates in social media and web-based trade of their homemade crafts.

Matchar spends much of the book persuasively poking holes in some of the movement’s assumptions; she exposes how difficult it actually is to make a living through web-based craft commerce on sites like Etsy, and the biological determinism underlying the positions of some of the most revered ‘locavores’ (thanks, Michael Pollan). Matchar also articulates a more sweeping argument, in which she positions the new domestics as a manifestation of an America that no longer ‘works.’ She says, “New Domesticity is, at heart, a cry against a society that’s not working. A society that doesn’t offer safe-enough food, accessible health care, a reasonable level of environmental protections, any sort of rights for working parents…”

Matchar’s argument is in-step with George Packer’s recent book on America’s unwinding; for her, the “re-embrace of home and hearth” is a reactionary move to re-animate lives made unstable and dead-end. New domestics are not idealists with a calling, but struggling to regain a sense of purpose in an alienating and untrustworthy world.

This critique certainly offers a grim outlook on the political-economic landscape. Whether or not we feel persuaded, Matchar’s book also offers a nice lens to think about the topic of care. It seems that, in fact, care is precisely what is ‘at stake’ for the book’s subjects, as they feel it comes up lacking in a world that is either too heavy handed (eprescriptive vaccines) or not engaged enough (no child care). Care, then, is being re-calibrated by new domestics and so we can ask: what is there to learn about care through its deployments and contestations, in a time when things are ‘coming undone’?

One of the central features to emerge is how care articulates a different arrangement between the individual and the social good. On one hand, self-reliance surfaces as a trope in which subjects focus their energies on making and maintaining their own, individuated standards of responsibility; one of Matchar’s informants describes insurance as not something one buys into, but generates “taking care of ourselves, being healthy, eating organic food.” Home-schooling and vaccine opt-outs appear to be areas where people take particularly strong stands to question imposed notions of what is right for them to do. The ‘stranger,’ ‘the man,’ the ‘school,’ the ‘daycare center’ are referenced by Matchar’s characters as vivid foils for their self-determinations of what is right for them and their families.

Yet, this is not only a story of opting out. The capacity to forge common interests appears very much within the new domestic project. Take the craft-commerce arena and the blogosphere, two areas Matchar explores at length. In both of them, her narrators offer a well-developed sense of an audience for concern and commerce. The various projects to mediate, protect, and enhance life are brought together; food/family/garden/home/creativity/trade represent a continuous framework as new domestics constellate domains they present as having porous boundaries.

Here, claims to belong contain a desire to forge commonalities between people, history, practice, and value. Baking a cake, for example, ties one subject to her past as she imagines sharing a skill-set with her grandmother. This kind of fantasy may be read as a problematic return to dusty gender norms. Yet, it might also be a way to glean a kind of yearning for deep connection through common, everyday practices. But what is shared is not rule-following per se (i.e., we all go to the doctor to get our children vaccinated), but the work of following whatever rules come to be laid out in this new world.

The issue is, then, not to pit ‘take out’ meals versus ‘from scratch’ cooking, and whether we might find some apocalyptic traces of an irreversible divesting from the institutions that have already failed us. Rather, an examination of care through this book shows how embedded in new domestic self-determination is the desire for interconnection. Further, interconnection is not only a concept, but an active endeavor borne of everyday practice; to work on one’s own life can be the way to reach out to others. This paradox cannot be understood through our classical categories of sameness, conformity, and differentiation. Rather, questions should be asked about what it means to imagine and then enact this world in which what binds us is also a site offering the potential for radical departure, in which elevating the everyday is what brings about something hopeful and new.