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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Judith Hamilton & Elana Dallas

We come to bury housework
... not to pay for it


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, p.22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It’s not the function of a review (All Work and No Pay – Irene Breugel – IS 89) to go through the basic arguments against the demand for wages for housework. But in an economic climate where housewives are in the front line of stress in coping with reduced living standards, and therefore the demand is attracting a significant response, these arguments should be restated.

The discussion falls into three parts:

  1. According to a Marxist analysis, the work done by the housewife is different from that of an employed worker and cannot be paid a wage.
  2. The demand, even if for a ‘transfer payment’ like family allowances, is a reactionary one.
  3. Revolutionary feminists should organise to abolish housework, not to reinforce the oppression of women within the family by institutionalising it.

1. The nature of housework.

The heart of capitalism is accumulation. Capital is accumulated through the exploitation of workers. Workers sell their labour power in exchange for a wage. The difference between what they actually produce and what their wage is worth is ‘surplus value’ – the source of profits for capitalists.

In assessing labour costs, just like machinery costs, the capitalist is only interested in replacement – so that there will be enough workers of sufficient ‘quality’ to continue production tomorrow. In South Africa wages are below the poverty line because it doesn’t matter to the employer if his employees only last a few months, unless they’re skilled and expensive to replace. There are plenty more labourers in the ‘homelands’. In Britain, where there is a relatively limited labour force and a need for much higher productivity to maintain profits, wages have to be much higher.

The wage paid to a worker has to be enough to keep him working ‘efficiently’ and to ensure that when he is worn out a replacement is ready. His wage has to cover his own needs, those of his children and those of the housewife whose job it is to service and maintain this generation of workers and the next.

Housework is not unpaid wage labour. The employed worker works directly for capital, whether he or she is productive like a car worker, or unproductive like a policeman. His working life is controlled by the employer – what he does while at work and whether or not he has a job. The housewife on the other hand has no direct relationship with any capitalist employer. Her work is not controlled, and she cannot be hired and fired. Her work is non-productive – which is not to say it is not useful to capitalism – but it takes place outside the capitalist production process.

To claim that the housewife should be paid a wage, as if housework were another area of productive labour, is to fall into the trap of seeing wages as payment for work performed. It is not. It is a payment to cover subsistence, a necessary cost of production for capitalists, the cost of reproducing the labour force.

2. Why we oppose the demand

Many campaigners for wages for housework will accept the above argument. They claim that they are in fact demanding not a wage but a transfer payment from the State. [1] They point to family allowances as an example of the possibilities.

Wages for Housework is a reactionary demand. Its implementation would establish and institutionalise housework as the major role of women – restricting even further our limited freedom to choose. The authority and control exercised by men – husbands or an even more exclusively male establishment – would be extended into every detail of our lives.

From a revolutionary point of view the results would be disastrous. By forcing women back into the home, the ideological role of the family within capitalism, as a socialiser of children, and a sub-verter of class militancy, would be greatly reinforced. It is just this process which is taking place at present – when women are losing their jobs and families are more and more dependent on just the sort of payments from the state that the campaigners want.

A payment by the state to housewives would neither raise the family income, nor the share of society’s wealth that the working class gets. The current trade-off of family allowance against tax is a clear illustration that the family wage would not necessarily rise if the method of payment was reorganised. We must demand higher wages – not a redistribution of the same wage.

The demand is essentially a diversion. To achieve it would require a massive social upheaval, and were we leading such a movement we would be in a position to fight for the abolition of housework and genuine equality, not that ‘men should pay for our services’. Of course many feminist demands relate to personal relationships, and the battle to achieve them will continue. But to focus our energy around wages for housework would privatise our struggle as though our oppression was entirely the fault of individual men. It would obscure the class nature of our oppression and divert and divide our attack on the ruling class.

3. Our perspectives as revolutionary feminists

The struggle against our oppression is a class struggle, our enemies are the ruling class and their ideology. Women’s demands must expose capitalism, and must be directed at the abolition of the family’s economic and ideological function. There are two demands which are fundamental to this. The first is to demand the right to work on an equal footing with men. This is a demand both for equality and for the right to organise within the class against capitalism, with the power derived from the status of being labour which contributes directly to the lifeblood of capitalism. The second demand is inseparable from the first. It is to demand the socialisation of housework – free laundries, adequate maternity leave, and above all free nurseries. It is only when housework, and childcare in particular is neither the responsibility of women, nor performed in isolation within the family, that the preconditions for equality will be reached.

All revolutionaries must counter the demand for wages for housework by arguing that women’s oppression can only be ended by the abolition of the family, private property and the state.


1. Alternatively the payment could come directly from the husband. The problems of administering such a system hardly need spelling out. As it is, it is virtually impossible to police the payment of maintenance to divorced mothers.

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