by Ria Modak
When my grandmother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, her doctor told her to stop doing the dishes. When she returned a week later with more severe pain in her wrists, she was told to stop doing all housework: no laundry, no cooking, no cleaning, no ironing, nothing. After 60 years of maintaining a perfectly pristine home, those household chores had become not just her unpaid livelihood, but also an implicit duty, her labor.
But unlike any other kind of laborer, her work, and the work of billions of other housewives/women must maintain their households, is economically invisible and receives no credit for contributing to the economy. Despite the plates scrubbed spotlessly and the knuckles swollen red from toxic chemicals that irritate skin, my grandmother’s labor was ignored. She received no protection against future disability (a fully plausible fate for anyone who spends hours near scalding irons or burning stoves). No Social Security after retiring from housework as my grandmother was forced to do. No tax benefits from policies designed to support working families.
Though the burden of housework affects several populations, like two-earner couples or single fathers, the responsibility of maintaining households falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women , whether by choice, lack of alternative, or through pervasive media that coerce them into the domestic sphere. Financial independence is critical to equality among genders and “unwaged” housework undervalues the tasks women have historically done. The problem intensifies for working women, who not only labor for an outside employer, but also come home and do all the housework. These women often have no choice; their domesticity is imposed upon them by societal norms or by necessity (i.e. single mothers). Through a Marxist framework, the disparity between these kinds of labor–working for an employer and working for the household–is obsolete; Das Kapital condemns capitalism as the exploitation of workers whose unpaid labor gives rise to surplus value and profit that funnels into the hands of the few. Housework plays right into the shortcomings of the capitalist system as women’s labor in the home is abused.
The Wages for Housework Movement in the 1970s enumerated certain rights for women: the right to demand services that assist with tasks typically relegated to women (like daycare centers), the power to take a vacation from housework, and the power to demand free medical care. Though these demands largely ignore a host of race-and class-related issues, they attack the fundamental inequality that unpaid housework has created. Women must receive wages, social security and other benefits for their work. As feminist activists of the 1970’s sang as they protested their unpaid labor: “If women were paid for all the work they do, there’d be a lot of wages due.”