Housework, Reproduction and Women’s Liberation


When the Women’s Liberation Movement got underway in the late 1960s, housework arguably came in second only to issues around sex as an area of discussion of what women wanted to change in our lives. The result was the demand that men share the housework/childcare and that 24-hour childcare be provided by the government. 

Betty Friedan had written about the plight of the middle/upper-income housewife in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique. Radical feminist position papers that dealt with housework made their way around the early Movement, then into mainstream magazine and book anthologies, and sometimes around the world. Among them was co-author Bev Jones’s part of “Toward a Female Liberation Movement” (1968—also known as “The Florida Paper”), which laid on the line a non-romanticized look at housework and childcare and advocated isolated women band together to change their situation. On its heels in 1969 came “The Politics of Housework” written by Pat Mainardi of Redstockings against the ploys men use when confronted with the demand they do their share of it. 

Eye-opening, crucial and popular as these writings were, what was missing was theory that fit work done in the home into a broader understanding of its place in production/reproduction of, in and by society as a whole, particularly in the capitalist system under which we live. We didn’t know then the extent to which socialist/communist women in the 1930s era had tackled this question, often at personal cost (and we probably still don’t know the full extent but Kate Weigand has discussed some of these early battles in her book Red Feminism). The anti-Communist terrorism of what is known as the McCarthy Era cut us off from much of this important theory. Only those with access to books that included communist women writers of that era or who knew through family or friends of the housework debates that had taken place in the Left were savvy. Had we known more, it’s possible that the WLM would have moved farther faster and perhaps have avoided some of the pitfalls that have beset the Movement. 

Many women have come to expect their mates to share the housework and childcare, but–in addition to resistance from men–have discovered limitations in the structure of how work is done in capitalism, where the owners manage the public workplace to maximize profits, not meet the needs of working people, and certainly not working parents. We are also aware that times have changed somewhat, and today many more households are headed by women.

Some of us now find ourselves trying to catch up with and understand and use this theory from the past in our current thinking, even as we encourage today’s young feminists to glean ideas from the past to move forward in their own time. Feminist learning, we now know, is lifelong.

This blogzine can never take the place of a full examination of the existing material on housework, but we can provide some pieces we have found especially useful in the hopes of stimulating others to join in thinking along these lines. Housework may not be as sexy as the “sex issues” or seem as immediately compelling as abortion rights or the need to stop rape, but gaining an understanding of this root of women’s oppression to form a strategy to get women out from under its unfair burden will provide a basis of theory to other areas of women’s lives as well.

We start with “Part 1: Wages for Housework?”–comprised of two articles from Meeting Ground published in 1977. Both authors disagree with such wages as the solution advocated by some feminists to women’s unpaid labor in the home. 

Because we are among those who believe that women’s oppression is rooted in our reproductive capacity, we will be reaching further back in the weeks to come to provide some of the suppressed pre-1960s and 1970s debate, with the intent of reigniting interest in coming up with a more advanced feminist position on the labor of housework, child-bearing, and childcare: reproduction in its broadest sense. –The Editors

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by Irene Osborne

 [Reprinted from Meeting Ground #1, January 1977]

Housework is oppressive because it is compulsory for women and exempted for men. Women do the housework for the whole of society. Every man grows up knowing that he can have a woman “do his cooking, clothing care, and housekeeping all of his life, and this without any special merit on his part, simply as his due as a man. It is another turn of the screw that this work is unpaid, but surely it would not be unpaid if it were not compulsory. To arrange for payment without affecting this fundamental condition of compulsion may well make matters worse.

If women are paid for housework, we will be less likely to undertake a proper rebellion against its sex-linked imposition, less able to get men to take any responsibility for it, less impelled to seek jobs in the employment market. If we’ve scotched the notion that housework for women is “fulfilling”, how readily we could substitute the idea that it is a good route to financial stability. What a buttress this would be for the concept that women don’t “need” to work or don’t “need” standard wages. Wages for housework will be another of the bribes that keep our potential militancy in check. Even if earnings were adequate, state-paid wages for housework would be counter-revolutionary for this reason. And who believes that they would be adequate? If, instead of emancipation we had had compulsory allowances for slaves, they would still have been slaves, wouldn’t they?

There is a substantial question of whether wages for housework would really put money in women’s hands. In how many cases would it end up in the pockets of husbands, as prostitutes’ earnings go to pimps? Will the women have to use it for food, because the man is now freer to use his earnings for his own pleasures?

Given the situation of the married/cohabiting woman, will her wage become a subsidy for men while she goes right on being the universal servant?

Let us be mindful, too, that a system of payments made by the state will lay the perfect groundwork for a woman’s work in the home to be “inspected”, rated, supervised, under threat of withholding money. Will a government worker or her own husband be able to report her as delinquent in her “job”? Don’t say it can’t happen. Knowing about governmental snooping on welfare mothers, knowing the extent of wife abuse, how can we doubt it?

There are those who say that the wages for housework concept is so radical that it can’t happen. I disagree. The great danger is that it can happen. It is a natural for a liberal platform that could be made to seem pro-woman, readily supported by male-dominated labor groups happy to stave off competition from women, and ripe for settlement for a great deal less than half a loaf. Wages for housework does not get to the root of the matter and is therefore not radical at all. This is reformism of a dangerous sort. As a feminist I cannot support it.

Originally printed in TELL-A-WOMAN, April 1976.

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by Hodee Edwards

[Reprinted from Meeting Ground #2, May 1977]

Your reprinted contribution from TELL-A-WOMAN of April 1976 by Irene Osborne was most welcome. I would like to add my own observations in support of hers, through what I hope will be a “class analysis.” Karl Marx made such an analysis for wage workers; but nobody, to my knowledge, has ever done this for women’s slavery.

Before starting my analysis, I would like to suggest that virtually all the campaigns carried on by the Women’s Liberation Movement of the Western world are for demands applicable mostly to women in the West, such as the right to abortion, Wages for housework is another such demand: it could not furnish any sort of solution for the women of the world. 

[When MEETING GROUND expressed objections to the above paragraph, the author sent the following clarification:

I quite agree that our campaign against high heels and girdles “mesh neatly” with drives against bound feet elsewhere. I’d like to see some sort of overt acknowledgement that we understand that issues we raise pertinent to our lives are not necessarily universally applicable in all cases; that we are not expecting our Third World sisters to campaign for abortion if they’d rather campaign against involuntary sterilization. I feel sure that, as women, we are universally in agreement; but because of the contradictions between the actual conditions of Third World women as opposed to those of the wives and sisters of labor aristocrats in the West, I’d like to see that agreement made explicit rather than left implied.]

However, I further believe this demand would not furnish even us with any solution to our basic problems, any more than did our achievement, after a massive, draining effort, of the franchise.

Irene Osborne states quite casually that “even if (women’s) earnings were adequate, state-paid wages for housework would be counter-revolutionary.” (My emphasis –HWE). Why state-paid?

According to V.l. Lenin’s masterwork, “The State and Revolution,” the State is seen mainly in laws, prisons, the military and the police; obviously, what is meant here is “the Government,” a small and not even significant part of the state. Can we women realistically expect the Government, which serves the big monopolies, to pay us wages?

But let’s start at the beginning.

Exactly what are wages? Who pays them? For what?

I go along with Karl Marx’s definition, accepting it as scientific; i.e., based on the facts. He said wages represent “socially necessary” costs (i.e., consistent with the existing state of social technology) of all the commodities (such as rent, groceries, doctor bills. clothing, education) required to get working people to the machines to produce. In exchange for receipt of these costs, working people give their energy, their ability to work, to the purchaser of that energy or labor power, for an agreed-on time. In short, what workers sell is their labor power, their ability to work. They sell it to a boss, who then uses it for the agreed-on time. This boss owns both the machines which the hired hands operate AND the results of their expenditure of the purchased energy. 

So it is the BOSS—NOT the STATE—who pays wages. The only time Government pays wages is when it hires workers for an industry or service it actually runs. It certainly cannot be expected to pay wages to people who are working for someone else.

OK. So for whom does the housewife work? For the State? By no stretch of the imagination! She works for her boss, namely, the men on whose behalf she performs her housework—and for his children. Thus, it would be to the husband, and to him alone, that we would have to direct any demand for WAGES for housework.

From what fund would he pay?

In his analysis of wages, Karl Marx noted that a man’s wages include an “increment” for the subsistence maintenance of a wife and children. (In proving this, he inadvertently defined the working class as MALE.) With this increment included in his always higher wages, the male worker maintains his wife while she is in the house performing housework. Just as the plantation owner was forced to maintain his slaves on the plantation, so must the husband maintain his wife while she stays home. This is a maintenance quite analogous to slave conditions; it is certainly not a wage, even when some of it dribbles down to her in the form of cash.

Here is why, as long as the capitalist system lasts, men’s wages will ALWAYS be higher in general than women’s. The housewife knows by bitter experience the difficulty of squeezing any cash, even needed cash, out of “Daddy.” She gets, in general, what his whim decides. Can you picture forcing this man, who thus far has maintained a wife and kids out of his “increment”, agreeing to pay her straight wages for the job?

Even where the Government does pay women some sort of allowance, as for single mothers, it is merely—and just barely—taking the place of an absent man.  What is so stingily doled out to such women consists of only that portion of man’s wages which would normally be assigned by the man for the subsistence of the wife and children. Therefore, again, if there were a man in the house where housework was being performed, no excuse could be offered why Government should pay wages to women performing housework for individual men able to support them.

This fact about men’s wages shows again why the demand for wages for housework is not possible to achieve within the existing system. Nor would it be any more desirable to achieve it than it would have been to demand wages for the slaves on plantations. What needs doing is to smash the plantation and find some other way to farm.

This stumbling block to the Wages for Housework slogan becomes even clearer when we ask for what wages are paid. Simply, they are paid to keep workers producing, to ensure that they return each day to repeat the previous day’s lucrative performance.

Hence, if wages were paid for housework, the only purpose would be to keep the woman producing—whatever it is that she produces, which we shall soon see. But the subsistence increment in men’s wages already paid accomplishes exactly that. In order for the husband to buy the woman’s labor power by paying her cash wages, she would have, like wage workers as industrialization began, to be separated from her tools; that is, from her home. She would become a worker quite “free” from any encumbrance, such as a home, and could legally be required to furnish her own food, clothing and shelter with the wages paid, as well as continuing to produce. From being a domestic slave, she would “graduate” to being a “free” worker. She would still be at the whim and mercy of the same man; formerly, her owner; now, her employer.

In his classic, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Frederick Engels specifically stated that, in the bourgeois family, husband and wife stood to each other in the same relationship as capitalist and proletarian.

What is the relationship between capitalist and proletarian? The former exploits the latter. More specifically, the boss takes for himself, by virtue of having bought the workers’ labor power, all the commodities those workers produce—and he continues owning the machines on which they are produced.

Does the housewife produce any commodity (that is, goods produced for sale primarily rather than mainly for use) which the husband, the· “capitalist” of the family, expropriates for himself.

When capitalism was just coming into existence, the family had for long been a unit of economic production. The wife made clothing, food, and many artifacts used by the family. As capitalism developed, these products were removed from the domain of the housewife’s labor to that of social (large-scale, industrial)  production. Hence, said the economists, the housewife ceased producing values.

When the production of use values was removed from the home to the marketplace, a new commodity—granted a peculiar one—appeared: Labor power. Yet Karl Marx once dubbed housework “individual petty domestic service producing no commodity.” It was Marx himself, however, who went to considerable length to prove that labor power was a commodity; that is, it is taken by its owner to the marketplace and sold to the highest bidder; it is a real value. It is, moreover, the only commodity owned by workers.

Here, then, is the commodity which workers have to sell. It has real value or it could not be sold. We have already defined that value. Real values are not produced by God, but by people. What people produce the commodity labor power, kiddies? RIGHT! None other than that non-producing housewife. That allegedly unproductive consumption in the home, made possible by the “petty individual domestic work” of the housewife merely ensures the emergence of the crucial commodity labor power [1], I think the time has come for the women who produce this commodity to study and dissect it and fit it into the existing economic structure, before we can decide on the goal which will free the women producing it.

Let’s examine now in what manner the commodity labor power is produced. In a manner quite different from that of all other commodities in the capitalist system: (a) by archaic and wasteful methods; (b) any so-called “labor saving devices” for the home are such as not to disturb the apparently nuclear method of production; and (c) it is produced not in large factories but in individual cells called homes, which makes it appear to be privately produced.

I consider it highly significant that the nuclear method of producing labor power is so dear to the hearts of the ruling class. However, a moment’s thought makes clear that the apparent nuclearity of this production is actually only a disguise for the SOCIAL nature of the work. No single person, going forth daily to work from a nuclear economic cell, is worth a tinker’s damn to the capitalist class. What issues from all these homes each day is a class; namely, the working class. Therefore, the production of labor power is, like all other production in our society, a social function. What its nuclear confinement accomplishes is to prevent the class of slaves who produce the commodity from uniting to destroy their own slavery. Achieving the demand for wages for housework would virtually freeze this nuclearity of labor power production. This is one more reason that the slogan is reactionary and undesirable for women’s cause.

I think this analysis suggests that we need to find some other way of getting labor power produced. The nuclear family as such might continue indefinitely as a field for ensuring personal relationships. But as the economic place of production, as the scene, where the KEY commodity labor power is produced, it must be smashed. Housework must, exactly as HOUSEWORKER’S HANDBOOK says, be made part of social production; it must become an industry like any industry producing any other commodity. It must no longer be the exclusive realm of one sex.

Considering the stake that the ruling class have in having thus far to fight only half the population and considering the stake that men, as the class which owns women and owns labor power women produce, have in the existing family setup, it seems clear to me that finding out how to implement making housework into a public industry is the key to women’s future.

But, to me, this task stands in direct contradiction to the confining, backward demand, “Wages for Housework.”

[1] I am quite aware that “productive consumption” has a specialized meaning in the Marxist terminology. I think here, we, the victims, have to defy the Authorities and wrest that sterile terminology from them. Furthermore, I leave out here the matter of working women who hire out for wages. At that point, they become–for the portion of their time that. they work–part of the working class. I defend this position because I think it is clear that even if a majority of women worked or made up half or more of the working class, they are still not considered to be doing their MAIN job at the machine; that they do when they go home. If the kids get sick, or someone has to wait for the gas man, we all know which worker goes home to do it.


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2 comments for “Housework, Reproduction and Women’s Liberation

  1. Dogtowner
    March 31, 2015 at 10:43 am

    First, I totally agree that everyone needs to remove her/his own pubic hair from the tub, though I prefer to phrase it as everyone needs to clean his/her own toilet. But, realistically, that is not going to happen. How many times have I heard stories of exchange students from other countries who don’t even FLUSH the toilet after themselves because at home a maid does this for them.

    That said, I can see the rationality of arguments against paying women for housework. However, what I believe in, is a basic income for ALL people as was being discussed — even by the mainstream — in the 1970s. I realize that this, too, realistically is not going to happen. The U.S. chooses instead to waste trillions of dollars in militarism, thereby enriching the already rich, and the public appears to support this choice wholeheartedly.

    What is realistically possible is to expand Social Security payments to include women (it’s usually women) who care for dependent children or adults. Social Security is not going broke and it is time to get rid of the upper limit on Social Security contributions (after $117,000/year you pay no more in Social Security tax). There are people talking about Social Security expansion while the detritus we currently have in Congress are talking about getting rid of Social Security Disability (which provides my only income).

    My last thought on this is that in an ideal society we value caring for others, which includes growing and preparing food, housework and clothing care, rather than valuing jobs that create nothing and care for no one at best, and at worst wreak endless havoc and destruction. Finding housework demeaning and boring seems like a very privileged position to me, as we all need to live in a relatively decent environment, eat good food, and have clothes to wear (I live in Maine).

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