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International Socialism, June 1976


Irene Breugel

Wages for Housework


From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, p.22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


All Work and No Pay: Women, Housework and the Wages Due
Edmond and Fleming eds.
Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 70p

The majority of women in Britain have hardly a penny to call their own; they work 50 hours a week on average in the house and have nothing to show for it at the end. Even now when 40 per cent of married women go out to work, women’s lives are still dominated by their domestic role; their low wages stem at least in part, from the fact that women have been trained from childhood to work for ‘love’, from the idea that they work for ‘pin money’, and from the continued presence of a reserve army of housewives depressing wages for ‘women’s work’. As a result, women remain dependent. Even working women are tied as much as ever to the family. Entry into productive work has not brought the liberation early socialists expected.

All Work and No Pay argues for a radically different strategy towards women’s oppression. Instead of the traditional demands – socialisation of housework and the integration of women in the wage economy outside the home – ‘Wages for Housework’ is put forward as the demand for the women’s movement. All Work and No Pay is a rather haphazard compilation of papers, speeches and leaflets written by members of the ‘International Campaign for Wages for Housework from the State’ and suffers from the limitation of that form. The papers range widely in subject – from shoplifting through lesbianism to Ireland – and in depth. While some are interesting in themselves (particularly those describing nursing) they don’t add up to a coherent or consistent argument.

The book is written from a libertarian feminist perspective. That is, it is concerned, above all else, to develop a theory and strategy which unites all women, regardless of class, while at the same time avoiding any contamination by the existing organised working class. ‘Wages for Housework’ is seen as just such a unifying demand. According to Edmond and Fleming all women are housewives and, as such, ‘unwaged’. However, the book provides no thoroughgoing analysis of housework under capitalism; it tells us little of what housework actually is, of how it developed as such a peculiar form of work, of how some of it has come to be socialised nor how it came to be the almost exclusive preserve of women.

The assertion that all women are housewives is arrived at only by stretching the concept of housework to include just about anything a women does, outside of factory employment. So sleeping with a man is unwaged housework (the servicing of men for capital and the State) and much of the work a single women might do in employment is classed as unwaged housework (bringing the boss a cup of tea or letting him weep on your shoulder). If men do it, the analysis does not apply; sleeping with women is not work (unless you are another women, in which case it is ‘workers’ control’).

Any gains which may have been made within the traditional socialist/feminist perspective are disparaged. In various essays in the book it is pointed out, often vividly, that women are badly paid, that unions sell out on equal pay demands, the State nurseries are inadequate, that employment involves unneccessary health hazards and can be oppressive. The general conclusion drawn is that the development in women’s employment outside the home is a development in slavery and is therefore something to be resisted. But what is, is taken as given. In their analysis there is no conception whatsoever of a collective class struggle which determines, as much as it is determined by, the development of capitalism. Unions are taken as monolithic, fixed entities so rather than press for rank and file organisations to push them into fighting for higher wages, less boring jobs and the provision of creches etc., the book hails the individual politics of rejection. The secretary who becomes a temp, the agency nurse who leaves the restrictions of the NHS, the shoplifter, the mother who dumps her child on the local authority are taken as models to be followed in the campaign for wages for housework. By challenging the legitimacy of existing institutions in these ways the writers believe women can shake ‘the natural order of things’ and indeed see these actions as implicit demands for ‘wages for housework’.

Housework is seen by those writing in the book as no different from other work in society except that women do it and through some massive (male?) conspiracy they are cheated of their just payment for it. Selma James argues explicitly that housework is productive in the Marxist sense of the term; the housewife produces a commodity – labour power – just as, say, an electricity supply worker produces electrical power or a car worker, cars. But to argue like this is to be mesmerised by appearances. Though the housewife may undertake the same physical tasks as for example, a canteen worker in a factory, the social relations are quite different. Housework is not wage labour. The housewife has not sold her labour power; she is not in fact a free labourer able to move from job to job; her work is not directly controlled, in time or intensity; there is thus no relationship between the time she puts in and the value of the commodity she is held to produce, as is the case for wage labour under capitalist social relations. While housework is certainly necessary to make a labour force available for capital, given the way society is currently organised, it is not productive for capital in that it doesn’t itself create surplus value. In fact housework is one of the few remaining areas where production takes place for use and not directly for exchange; women tend to sleep with men, look after the old, play with children etc it fulfils those people’s needs rather than because it increases the value of their labour power. While it is certainly oppressive to spend one’s life in this way and it is certainly of benefit to capital to have women in the home, this does not mean that housework is qualitatively the same as other work and therefore ‘due’ a wage. Wages for housework within capitalism would mean an expansion of capital’s control and domination without in fact raising the working class’s share of the total product it has produced.

What is said of nursing in the book is true of housework: ‘Caring and compassion are degraded, they become chores and an area of exploitation when they become capitalist work’ and as the most superficial analysis of capitalist social relations shows the payment of wages is dependent on doing capitalist work.

Nevertheless, while the demand for wages for housework is misplaced, the issues raised in All Work and No Pay do warrant far more serious consideration from socialists than we have yet seen. Women do need an income of their own: women, forced to go grovelling to their men for every penny as millions of women do, remain chattels. It would seem from the record that the whole of the labour movement accepts and even upholds this fundamental dependance. Even revolutionaries who tend to be concerned with the ultimate abolition of housework, tacitly accept the existing oppression. Thus the whittling away of the family allowance – the housewife’s only independant source of income – has barely been opposed; the cohabitation rule which denies thousands of single women their own money, remains; and the promised guaranteed maintenance allowance for single parents has been chopped without trace. Despite the weakness of the arguments put over in All Work and No Pay, the demand for ‘Wages for Housework’ could produce a backward facing movement of some importance, if socialists fail to take up the identification of housework with women, and the right of all women to an independant income alongside the fight for the socialisation of housework.

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