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”. 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.