Antoinette Konikow

Letter to Housewives

What Socialism Will Mean to
the Women Who Toil at Home

(30 March 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 13, 30 March 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In our March 16 issue we published a letter from a worker whose sister-in-law, a housewife, wanted to know: “What will socialism do for us housewives?” Part of the answer to that important question is contained in the following letter written by comrade Antoinette Konikow, physician, mother and – above all – a revolutionist for over fifty years. We are glad to note that comrade Konikow promises other letters on this question. And let’s have letters from our reader-housewives – we want to know what you think about comrade Konikow’s letter. – Editor.



Are housewives paid for their work? I heard an amusing story on that problem. A woman collecting statistics visited a worker’s family. No one was at home but a little boy. The woman inquired about father’s wages, brother’s and sister’s. At last she asked about his mother’s earnings. “Oh,” said the little fellow very proudly, “My mother does not work.”

“She does not work?” asked the woman. “But doesn’t she cook and wash and iron and mend and clean? Is she not on her feet the whole day long always doing something? Don’t you call that work ?”

The little boy was a bit perplexed; then he said, “Yes, that is true, but, you see that kind of work does not pay.”

The little boy was right. Work done by the housewife does not pay. In fact her work is not recognized as work at all, nor even respected. It is the old story; the less you are paid for your work, the more it is held in contempt and if you are not paid at all – well, all the drudgery you do is hardly recognized even by your own family.

This raises the question: why does a housewife get only board, room and clothing for her long hours of work? “She works for her children,” is often the answer. Holy motherhood means continued sacrifice. But it seems strange that the glory of motherhood’s sacrifice is only known to wives of workers or wives of the lower middle class. Mothers in well-to-do families don’t mind losing the halo of holiness – by hiring help to do all the hard work of motherhood. And hard work it is! The readers of the Ladies Home Journal voted overwhelmingly that women having small children work harder than their husbands in the factory.

The Wife Works for Her Husband’s Boss!

Is the wife of a worker really exploited by her children and her husband? My answer is “no.” When the worker sells his “hands” to the boss, he sells at the same time the “hands” of his wife to the same boss, because only the unpaid labor of his wife makes it possible for him to live with his family on the wages paid to him. The wife thinks she slaves day and night for her husband and children – in reality she works for the same boss who exploits her husband. The housewife has a right, then, to ask the question: what of my work under socialism? What will I get out of it?

To give a correct answer, one must first give an adequate explanation of what socialism really means. I hope to cover this problem another time more in detail. Socialism means the management of business and factories by the workers themselves, because the factories then will not belong to the bosses. Part of the income will go to the Workers’ State to cover expenses of education, health and management, but each worker will get a larger income and at the same time will work shorter hours. A larger income for the worker will give him a chance to relieve the work of his wife. Laundry can be paid for, part of the meals can be eaten in cooperative lunch rooms; sewing can be done away with; and even some of the house cleaning can be paid for. A better income will naturally relieve women of many of the tasks which she undertakes now because she has no money to pay for them.

The October Revolution Showed the Way

Let us see what was done for mothers in Soviet Russia before the Stalin bureaucracy stepped in. I was there in 1926 and was deeply impressed by the advantages which workers and their wives had secured. To lessen mother’s work in Soviet Russia, nurseries were created for babies and smaller children. Almost every large factory had such nurseries under the management of reliable nurses.

The husband in the factory could buy a good dinner for a small sum in dining rooms connected with the factories or with his trade. His wife and children were allowed to have their dinners in the same dining room. Women workers expecting motherhood received two months vacation before and after delivery with full pay; also a layette for the baby and free milk for the baby or nursing mother. Working women nursing the baby could stop work every four hours to nurse the baby in the nursery. The workers had free medical care, free hospitals and a month’s vacation with pay. In case of illness the worker received his full wages for a certain time and then half of the wages indefinitely.

All these rights which the workers achieved in Soviet Russia through the revolution were afterwards whittled away or reserved only for the Stalinist bureaucracy and its yes-men. The factory meals became so bad and expensive that workers stopped patronizing factory dining rooms. The free medical care turned into poor service by overworked physicians who were afraid to testify to the illness of workers because they were blamed and persecuted by authorities for granting sick benefit rights too easily.

The paid time for expectant mothers before and after delivery was reduced to one month. Women who had free time, instead of enjoying it, had to work in factories because their husbands’ wages were inadequate, or had to spend their time standing in line to buy food or clothing.

Thus the Stalinist bureaucrats took away from the workers the benefits which had begun to lighten the lot of the housewife. When the Russian workers overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy, they will revive and expand these benefits. Along the same line we will go in this country.

How We Would Begin in the United States

After attaining workers’ power the first task to relieve women’s life would be the creation of nurseries, kindergartens and playgrounds in a sufficient number – here in the United States their number is deplorably small. The next would be the organization of cooperative lunch rooms to relieve mothers of their kitchen drudgery. Even then mothers would still have plenty of work left: taking care of smaller meals, keeping the house in order, taking care of clothing, entertaining or supervising the children out of school and nurseries, nursing children with minor illnesses. Yes, even under socialism the mother will have her 6–8 hour day of work.

But then the husband, getting a better income, would be able to give her an “allowance,” as men of the middle class call the money they give their wives. I think housewives would prefer to call it “pay for their work.” In fact, I should like to discuss in another letter the possibility that under socialism motherhood should be considered a profession and be paid for by the state just like nurses and teachers today.


Antoinette Konikow,
Boston, Mass.

Last updated: 14 July 2018