by Carol Hanisch
Who Benefits from Housework?
In a city of 500,000 people, containing, say 100,000 working and lower middle class homes, 100,000 women are planning how to get the windows washed, the curtains cleaned, the clothing washed and ironed and the shopping done. … On 100,000 fires, skillets are smoking and pots boiling as 100,000 cooks cook 100,000 meals…. When all is ready, 100,000 women will serve 100,000 suppers and then wash 100,000 sets of dishes…. Now there are in the United States not 100,000 but 26 million households, where a minimum of 26 million persons, either in the capacity of servants or housewives, expend 200 million hours of labor every day. … If women in 26 million households are ever to escape the present out of date method of performing household work, their work must be reorganized so that it can be done more efficiently. …
It is also fallacious to assume, as some socialists do, that nothing can be done under capitalism to improve housewives’ outmoded method of work, and that we must first have socialism before women put their minds to this problem and tackle its solution.
— Mary Inman, In Defense of Women, 1940
The crucial and key women’s liberation demand that housework, including childcare, be shared equally by men and women—both individually and as public policy—is strangely almost absent in current feminist discussion and action, except for a few single-issue initiatives. How and why that demand has all but disappeared needs examination, but what is clear is that housework and childcare are still considered “woman’s work.” We’re going to have to change that if women are ever to achieve liberation.
The problem certainly isn’t new. The overwhelming work and boredom of housework largely impelled Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mother of several small children at the time, to call the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. She wrote in her biography Eighty Years and More:
The general discontent I felt with woman’s portion as wife, mother, housekeeper, physician, and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular.
Black suffragist and journalist Gertrude Bustill Mossell wrote an imaginary conversation with a young boy entitled “An Estimate of His Mother’s Work” (c. 1886) in the New York Freeman in which he lists his mother’s many household duties and the amount of workday pay received by her husband and children, and is then asked:
“How much does your mother get?”
With a bewildered look, the boy said: “Mother, why, she don’t work for anybody.”
“I thought she worked for all of you.” “Oh, yes, for us she does, but there ain’t no money in it.”
In 1969, Barbara Susan, a member of Redstockings, wrote in an article “About My Consciousness Raising”:
The first consciousness-raising session I attended was about housework. We went around the room and each woman in turn told how she felt about housework and how she felt when she was standing over the dishes or stove, or what happened when she asked her husband or a man she was living with to do the dishes. It came my turn and I explained my husband always helped with the housework. … I listened to other women also telling about how their men “helped” with the housework. … The group began to feel that something was wrong with the whole idea of men “helping” with the housework. It meant that he was helping me with MY job. … Whether or not I worked [outside the home], housework was my job.
Therein lies the snag. That housework is unpaid labor and continues to be “women’s work” has challenged the feminist movement for at least two centuries, with various theories and solutions proposed by feminists, socialists and communists. One of the most interesting but largely neglected is that which emerged from the U.S. Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.
Although the history of their accomplishments has been pretty successfully suppressed, U.S. communists—male and female, black and white—played a major leadership role in the economic and social movements of the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the 1930s and early 1940s. In fact, the “intersection” of the triple oppression of women, blacks and workers (class) was a major focus of the Communist Party in the U.S. long before academics recently started talking about “intersectionality.”
Women schooled in Marxist economic theory began to analyze women’s labor in the home, sometimes going against the political positions of the Party on the issue. Many of their male comrades, like men in general, referred to housewives disparagingly as “kept women” while others conceded that housework was “necessary” or even “important” work, but argued it wasn’t “productive” in any Marxist sense.
Into this controversy stepped Mary Inman with a column in the West Coast Communist Party newspaper, the Daily People’s World. Later collected into the book, In Women’s Defense (1940), her columns indeed lived up to the book’s name as she admirably defended women, including prostitutes and housewives, by pointing out the very real necessity embedded in their “choices.” (She was not foolish enough to confuse prostitution with productive labor, however.) Of married women, she wrote:
All women who haven’t been corrupted by the ideals of a parasitic class, want to do their share of the work and bear their part of the responsibilities. But, the question is whether it is “ideal” under capitalism for her to reach her work through marriage, and whether she can thereby “escape” economic insecurity. Marriage, under such an economy as we live today, is necessarily a job for a great many women. Like other job needers, if she cannot get the job she would like she has to sometimes take what is available. But, unlike others when forced to take jobs they do not want, she has to live, eat and sleep with hers.
On the other hand if she likes her husband but not her work, she is stuck anyhow, because she married her work when she married her husband. Women engineers, chemists, stenographers, etc., don’t reach their work through marriage. They marry their husbands but not their work.
Inman maintained that the 22 million housewives who worked only at home were not “kept women,” but did productive labor that benefited the capitalists by keeping male workers (and themselves if they also worked outside the home) ready and able to go to work. That is, the housewife produced the commodity “labor power” (and future labor power in the case of children) which is essentially “sold” to the employer by the husband in exchange for “an unacknowledged stipend in his salary” to “maintain” his wife and children–sometimes referred to as “the family wage.” (This has been the rationale for paying men more than women for doing the same work, though women who are the primary breadwinner of a household don’t receive this “stipend.”)
She pointed out there was no difference to production between the work of a cook in a logging camp or the workers in laundries who wash clothes for production workers and the labor of the woman who cooks and does the laundry in a home. Both prepare the laborer for work and “are a necessary link in the productive process.”
“If a man cook in the lumber camp could be held to a subordinate economic position, directly under another worker and required to work, not nine hours, but an indefinite number, from ten to twelve, or more, and be paid nothing directly but have to get his keep from the little extra given the worker over him, and then be scornfully referred to as being “kept,” it is easy to see that his employer would be further enriched by the decreased status and lengthened hours of the cook.”
Although she constantly reassured her readers that men receive no material benefits from women’s oppression, she was very clear that someone does. In a precursor to the pro-woman line materialism advocated by some early women’s liberationists in New York Radical Women, Gainesville Women’s Liberation and Redstockings, she wrote that women’s oppression was about more than traditions from the past:
We hear a great deal about how tradition binds woman to inequality. We hear about woman’s “traditional” method of work, and her traditional this and traditional that, until one might conclude that the only pressure on her to conform are past practices of having conformed.
The subjugation of women has a long evolutionary background and great many aspects of the problem are clear only when this background is taken into account. However, her subjugation does not exist because of this background, but because it has a very practical use right now, today.
Inman’s major argument was that women’s work in the home, i.e. housework, is not only productive labor, but that “the most valuable of all commodities is still produced there: Labor Power.” She saw clearly its benefit to the capitalist class, but not to the male class; for her, the “practical use” of women’s subjugation went only to the capitalists. Had she thought a little further or called a consciousness-raising meeting as radical women would do nearly 30 years later, she might have come up with some ways that men exploit women in the home.
In 1969 as women united again in demanding men share the housework and childcare, Pat Mainardi wrote in “The Politics of Housework”, a paper that became widely read far beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement that spawned it:
Participatory democracy begins at home. If you are planning to implement your politics, there are certain things to remember. … He IS feeling it more than you. He’s losing some leisure and you’re gaining it. The measure of your oppression is his resistance. … A great many American men are not accustomed to doing monotonous repetitive work which never issues in any lasting, let alone important, achievement. That is why they’d rather repair a cabinet than wash dishes. If human endeavors are like a pyramid with man’s highest achievements at the top, then keeping oneself alive is at the bottom. Men have always had servants (you) to take care of this bottom strata.
While housework is productive and its fruits accrue to the capitalists, it also accrues to those husbands, mates, brothers, fathers and sons in the form of leisure time, the avoidance of often tedious, repetitious, unpleasant work, and the planning and general responsibility that goes with it, including being on call 24/7 if children are involved (and sometimes even for her demanding mate)–all of which would be costly to replace with waged labor out of his own paycheck.
By daring to hold men accountable and filling in how they benefit both personally and as a sex class from male supremacy, the radical women of the Women’s Liberation Movement would supply a missing part of Inman’s analysis.
Inman also somehow did not make the leap beyond perceiving housework as “women’s work.” The idea that to truly liberate women, housework—collectivized outside the home or not—must be shared by men and women alike never made it onto the socialist/communist agendas, even in countries where women were encouraged into the workforce and such policies as public childcare centers and maternal leave were widely implemented. Getting women into the public labor force proved not to be enough. “Public” housework was still “women’s work” that men wanted little or no part of and most had the power to avoid. When childcare centers have been set up, for instance, in both capitalist and socialist countries, it has been mostly women who have ended up organizing and working in them, though those set up by women’s liberation activists often tried to included men. In the capitalist U.S., childcare is one of the lowest paying jobs, no doubt resulting from its history as “women’s work.”
Theorizing that housework is productive labor was not just an intellectual exercise for Inman; she tried to implement it. She insisted housewives were productive workers and should be organized in their own right and not as “ladies auxiliaries” to the working class. This was going too far. As no good feminist deed goes unpunished, Inman was forced out of the Communist Party after a bitter struggle. She had refused to submit to its line on women, holding fast to her own analysis despite being outnumbered and under intense criticism. She, of course, became defensive, as people are wont to do when cornered, and was then attacked for having a bad personality, among other things. Ironically, she had advanced the Party’s consciousness of the issue and they eventually adopted some of her program.
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One of Inman’s contemporaries in the Communist Party on the West Coast during the uproar caused by publication of her theory was Hodee Edwards. She initially sided with the Party against Inman, even writing several articles in the Daily People’s World, one of which accused Inman of “taking an emotional approach,” which Edwards later came to rue (correspondence to me as Meeting Ground editor, 1977).
Though basically a Marxist, Edwards insisted Marx and Engels were wrong, or at least incomplete, in their analysis of women’s oppression and that women must brave criticism and retributions and step up and do that theoretical work themselves. She eventually built on Inman’s theory, critiquing it in some cases and taking it further in several important ways, which made her a feminist non-grata in many Left circles. Fortunately, she connected with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Her article “Housework and Exploitation” was published in Boston’s No More Fun and Games #5 in July of 1971, and is cited in several books. Meeting Ground published some of her other articles including “Wages for Housework: A Second Dissent” which appears in Part I of this series.
Whereas Inman asserted capitalists were the sole economic beneficiaries of women’s household labor, Edwards argued that men shared in that arrangement. She wrote in “Housework and Exploitation”:
If exploitation consists in realizing a profit out of a commodity produced by the labor power of hired hands, the classic example, he does not exploit her. But one part of the process whereby the capitalist class does realize its profits is by selling commodities which it did not produce; it hired others to produce them. This part of exploitation the husband does carry out. And by carrying it out, he enables the capitalist class to make its profits. That he, the husband, does not make one is due entirely to the peculiar nature of the commodity, labor power, which the wife produces and the husband sells.
By selling and allowing the capitalist to use the commodity his wife has produced, the worker enables the capitalist to make his profits. He is therefore the conveyor belt whereby the capitalist benefits out of the unpaid labor of the housewife. This is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether and how the husband exploits the wife. …
The thesis of this writer is that women as a class (irrespective of other classes they may also belong to as workers, middle class women and so on) have as their main task in our society…the production of labor power. Women must REproduce as well as produce this commodity; this and this alone is the function of “childrearing” among women’s overall housework. Such a view does not exclude the increasing need for women in the West to produce and reproduce their own labor power in the course of their household duties. But the main task is, was and remains, to prepare male labor power for the market.
Edwards wrote that all women were included in this class regardless of whether or not they are single or have children:
That is also what they are doing when they are “childrearing.” They do it whether or not they happen individually to be “childrearing, and even if they happen to live alone except in a tiny minority of specialized cases–because it is women as a class who do this, whatever some individuals among them may be doing. Moreover, they do all the job for no wages, because the man’s wages cover the cost of subsistence of women and children, since they are both necessary to the capitalist class and to the man in order that the value-producing commodity, labor power, should reach the market daily for use in producing value (and hence, surplus value and profit). …
The man also – in all but name – owns the “means of production” of “his commodity,” namely the individual woman. … Although this happens in individual “family cells,”… the totality of these cells conceal the existence of two classes: men, as owners of the “means of production” and the commodity resulting (i.e. women and labor power, including the labor power of the woman and the potential labor power of the children); and women are slaves equally with the children. All this revolves around the unique commodity, labor power.
Embedded within this analysis is why abolishing “women’s work” is necessary to the liberation of all women, not just those who are doing it or when they are doing it. Women not partnered with a man may avoid the struggles over the division of labor in the home, but they still pay a price in the workplace and in how bosses treat them because they are female. Women are a class and are treated as a class, both by the capitalist class and by the male class. How this spills out into other aspects of women’s lives is an area needing more theory, but, along with women’s special reproductive (child-bearing) capacity, it no doubt is strongly linked to the current highly visible feminist issues of rape, pornography, prostitution, abortion/contraception rights, and sexual exploitation in general and keeping women “in their place.”
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Getting Beyond “Women’s Work”
Mary Inman’s starkly visual recounting (see Part II above) of the repetitive labor taking place in homes in her city as “skillets are smoking and pots boiling as 100,000 cooks cook 100,000 meals” each day points up clearly the need for finding ways to further socialize and/or industrialize ridiculously repetitive housework.
Initially, many socialists, communists and feminists, both in the U.S. and abroad, had predicated women’s liberation on simply getting women into the public workforce. All else would follow. But all else has not followed. Women often have found themselves doing the same work they did at home for their own families. For the most part, they have filled the lower status, poorly paid public jobs in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, food preparation, day care, and so forth. While that labor when performed outside the home has involved more men, it has been “especially in controlling positions” as Renate Bridenthal pointed out in a 1975 paper.
Canadian Margaret Benston, one of the earliest writers in the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement to tackle the issue, was among those who stressed both the necessity and the problems of moving the work of the housewife into the public work arena as women joined the public workforce. In an article in Monthly Review in September 1969 (also reprinted there in 1989, and included in Leslie Tanner’s 1971 anthology, Voices from Women’s Liberation), confirmed the necessity of such a move and proceeded to set forth the particular obstacles of doing so under capitalism:
Industrialization is, in itself, a great force for human good; exploitation and dehumanization go with capitalism and not necessarily with industrialization. To advocate the conversion of private domestic labor into a public industry under capitalism is quite a different thing from advocating such conversion in a socialist society. In the latter case the forces of production would operate for human welfare, not private profit, and the result should be liberation, not dehumanization. In this case we can speak of socialized forms of production.
She wrote of the difficulty of even talking about moving housework out of the home, acknowledging the reaction many people were sure to have, given the political atmosphere created in previous decades and the dilemma of living in a capitalist society—and the implications for the nuclear family:
For most North Americans, domestic work as “public production” brings immediate images of Brave New World or of a vast institution–a cross between a home for orphans and an army barracks–where we would all be forced to live. … [T]he fear of the barracks-like result of introducing housekeeping into the public economy is most realistic under capitalism. With socialized production and the removal of the profit motive and its attendant alienated labor, there is no reason why, in an industrialized society, industrialization of housework should not result in better production, i.e., better food, more comfortable surroundings, more intelligent and loving child-care, etc., than in the present nuclear family. …
[S]uch structural changes imply the complete breakdown of the present nuclear family. The stabilizing consuming functions of the family, plus the ability of the cult of the home to keep women out of the labor market, serve neocapitalism too well to be easily dispensed with.
One might ask if the remaining economic and lingering patriarchal aspects of the nuclear family are removed, whether it is necessary to assume that a complete end to the nuclear family must follow for women’s liberation to be realized. After all, a considerable hunk of what was once produced by the nuclear family has already moved into the public sphere—including nearly all of men’s work and much of women’s work from the making of clothing and preservation of food to the education of children to the care of the elderly (think nursing homes).
I’ve heard many women testify that they actually like their families, but hate the endless work and inequality that they now carry. “Smash the nuclear family” was not a slogan that caught on in the Women’s Liberation Movement much beyond the small faction that raised it. Might not a “nest” to retreat to still be possible and desirable, aided by the availability of 24-hour public childcare centers and the socialization of meal preparation, cleaning, laundries and other public housework replacements, at least for those who desire it? This would clearly mean a move toward restructuring housing with both small private areas for families and single people (who will no doubt always exist) plus shared areas, such as communal kitchens, community gardens for food production, and indoor and outdoor recreation areas. Some housing design began moving in the direction of more shared areas until subsidized public housing that included middle income people was all but halted after being attacked by Sen. Joe McCarthy and his cronies as a Communist plot in the late 1940s. Public house became only for the poor and in often in “warehousing” type structures. (See PR! A Social History of Spin by Stuart Ewen and Picture Windows by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen.)
The worsening climate crisis is going to force changes in how we live anyhow. Collectivization of housework could contribute to a major reduction in consumer products, like the duplication of home appliances, while providing for local community gardens and orchards to cut down on food transportation. Siting schools and playgrounds/parks within walking and biking distance could cut down on student transportation. We need to put our imaginations and political work into high gear to move now in directions that will accommodate the needs of women and provide everyone with as soft a landing as possible in the demanding climate crisis time we’re entering.
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Anja Meulenbelt, a Dutch feminist socialist, agreed in an article reprinted in the Winter 1978 edition of Quest that “women’s domestic labor has not been taken over by the public sector, as Engels expected. And we have not much reason to suppose that will happen as long as capital has so little interest in the socialization of domestic labor.” She went on to discuss various difficulties facing women attempting to organize around housework:
A man who loathes his work and revolts is called class-conscious. A woman who loathes her work and revolts is called frustrated, neurotic and unfeminine.
In addition, women have very limited concrete possibilities for giving shape to their revolt. Collective resistance hardly exists, individual betterment is only reserved for a small group of women. To strike is almost impossible: you can hardly starve your children to wrest better labour conditions from capital. Because domestic labour is related to capital in indirect and complicated ways, housewives find it difficult to discern against whom or what they should revolt. The old patriarchal and new capitalist forms of oppression meet in the family.
Like Mary Inman, she defended women against criticism of housewives in their peculiar dilemma and pointed to the lack of support from male Leftists in female labor struggles:
If it is true that housewives are a drag on the class struggle (as was the case, for instance, in a British strike where women tried to break the strike more with the family interest—bread on the shelf than with the class interest), the reversal is also true. Men are a drag on women’s struggle for an independent existence. Even leftist men, even proletarian men, have difficulties in accepting that women do not belong in the kitchen by nature, especially if it implies that they must largely fend for themselves. During an Islington strike not so long ago in which women had occupied a factory, the strongest resistance did not come from the manufacturer but from the men who were against the occupation because it forced them to cook their own dinner and sleep alone. …
Many Marxists still maintain that the labour movement is fighting their battle for everyone, as opposed to the feminist movement which is representing only limited interests. We are not of this opinion. It is not only a matter of seeing how much women can contribute to The Class Struggle! It is also a matter of seeing how much the labour movement is contributing towards women’s liberation.
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So how do we get beyond “women’s work”? How do we get to fairness in this crucial, unavoidable area of reproduction of both individuals and labor power? What will get men fully sharing the housework, both in the home and in the public sphere? What changes in the structure of the workplace and of society are necessary? How does the current shift in the U.S. from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism, from an industrial economy to a service economy in the U.S. affect the shift of housework? Such questions need to be put back on the feminist agenda.
There are not nearly as many full-time housewives today in the U.S. as there were in the 1930-40s when Inman was writing, or in the 1970s when Edwards put forth her theory, but someone is still doing the work–and it isn’t usually men, despite all those househusband articles in the mass media. Although fewer women are marrying, or marrying later, couples who live together share in this dynamic.
While it’s true that some of the work done in the home by previous generations has been largely taken over by capitalist production, such as making clothing and growing and preserving food, in most cases women are still pulling a double or triple shift, except those with sufficient income and insufficient political consciousness to hire a maid. Women of even “ordinary means” in the U.S. often don’t mend socks or clothes anymore; they are able to throw or give them away and buy a new one because of the even cheaper labor of others in countries with a super-exploited working class, as well as those employed here at very low wages in retail stores.
While these reductions in housework coupled with modern appliances have lifted burdens somewhat, there seems to be more work to take its place as women are pressured toward a more decorated home (think Martha Stewart), more complicated meals, and more responsibility for transporting, protecting and monitoring their children. Meanwhile, austerity policies are adding to women’s work in the home by imposing cutbacks on public educational, recreation and health-care programs. In some cases, capitalism has privatized portions of them, making them economically inaccessible to many.
We are also living in a period where women working outside the home are being encouraged to go back to their “primary job”, which has actually occurred at a total increase of about 10 percent over the past 15 years. At the same time, an austerity economy, and more women than ever as heads of households, has forced others out of the home and into one or more additional, often low-paying, jobs. What Inman pointed out is still true:
“The ‘solution’ offered by capitalism’s spokesmen is a most transparent fraud: they tell the unemployed housewives to go into industry, and the unemployed industrial women workers to marry and become housewives.”
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We can’t get rid of reproductive caretaking as women’s work until it becomes socialized AND until men share it equally, not just “help” with it. We need a strategy that agitates to go beyond capitalism even while we fight for what we can get under it. Here are a few general proposals of where we can begin:
We can fight now for a sharing—by men and by society—of the burden that falls on women because they are still relegated as the caretakers of the young, the old, and the sick. Some women have managed to escape that burden, but it is usually because they can afford to hire some other woman, often a woman of color or an immigrant, to do it. Even many rich Black women have maids. It is oppressive to have to choose between work and having a child or trying to do it all or foisting it off on another woman. Public childcare and eldercare and parental leave are a place to start, but by no means are they the only needs.
We can fight now for changes in the workplace that recognize the necessity of housework and child-bearing and rearing, and allow time for both men and women to be a parent. That millions are unemployed while overtime becomes the norm is not intelligent planning benefitting anyone except the capitalist class. The 40-hour workweek has actually been increasing for many people while others are underemployed.
We can demand workplaces be transformed so the majority of men can really become full partners in home life and women can stop being penalized for parenting. Such demands as a shorter workweek or shorter days, parenting leave, time off to care for sick children, and other family “friendly” measures must be taken up by men as well (which often means women must demand that men demand them). Childless people of both sexes must recognize that they are escaping this parenting work now and will benefit in their own lives from the future work of children and therefore support such demands, materially and politically.
We can make demands now that protect women from exploitation as the world’s baby-makers. Woman’s oppression is rooted in her ability to reproduce the human race, which is why others want to control her. Our child-bearing function is the only important difference between men and women. There are no male brains and no female brains or caretaker hormones racing around only in women’s bodies. Once a baby is born, a man is as capable of caring for it as a woman, but without extensive, expensive and risky technological intervention, gestation and childbirth still are women’s labor and this must be taken into account. There is the question of how that reproductive labor that only women can do gets recompensed. It can be painful, dangerous work, especially in a country like the U.S. where maternity deaths are surprisingly high. To institute fairness, pregnant women may need some flexibility and accommodation in the workplace while they are pregnant as well as assurance that their job will be waiting for them when they return from paid leave. All of society benefits from this special female labor, yet currently, instead of being compensated, women are further penalized by losing jobs or seniority or not getting adequately paid maternity leave.
We need both an immediate strategy for what can be done under current conditions and a long-range idea of where we want to go, making sure our short-range demands fit into the long-range ones, rather than obstruct them, and as we continuously hold up our long-range goals. How we get from here to there—or even where “there” is exactly—will take a great deal of collective thought. This is a plea to put getting beyond “women’s work” back on the feminist agenda with a renewal of the study and discussion of–and struggle over–both what we want and how to get it. Some good old-fashioned consciousness-raising would seem in order.
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Suggested questions for a few consciousness-raising sessions:
Do/did some or all members of your family do both housework and paid work? How is/was housework divided up in your family (including any children)? Who had/has the main responsibility for organizing it, for seeing that it gets done?
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What do/did you like about your family? What do/did you dislike? Knowing what you do at this point in your life, do you want to live in a family? Why and/or why not?
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Are there aspects of daily life that you can imagine sharing more broadly than just among close family members? Would you want to live in some kind of cooperative situation? If so, what would it look like?
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