Housework is never this exciting in real life. Photo: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images
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Why is housework a forgotten feminist issue?

The unequal distribution of unpaid domestic labour isn’t a frivolous side-issue. It’s dull, yes, but it’s related to depression, poverty and domestic abuse.

Feminism is a lot like housework. It’s mostly done by women, it’s under-appreciated by most of those who benefit from it and if your main concern while doing it is looking good, you’re probably doing it wrong. And yes, you can hype it up like Barry Scott with Cillit Bang, but the truth is no one wants to do it. After all, it’s never-ending; you might tell yourself all that’s needed is one major session but rest assured there’ll be more crap to deal with tomorrow. What’s more, if you’re not prepared to get your hands dirty, you might as well not bother.

For a long time, I didn’t want housework to play any role in my feminism. I thought we’d already dealt with that in the 1970s. Hadn’t we agreed that domestic labour should be shared? And besides, wasn’t this one of those non-issues that only privileged middle-class women really cared about? I didn’t want to be associated with those feminists, the ones who were only in it because they considered themselves too special to do the washing up. I was interested in the real issues: power, sex, violence, abuse. So you can’t persuade your husband to wash his own socks? Need to employ a disadvantaged woman to clear up your mess? Cry me a river.

I thought I was being progressive. Looking back, I see that I only wanted to keep my own hands clean. I wanted to look good, doing Important Person Feminism. The feminism of my mother’s generation – shit and string beans, kitchen sink feminism – struck me as dull, unimaginative and culturally repressed. That such feminism still needed doing was something I chose to ignore, an ever-mounting pile of dirty laundry to be shoved under the bed in the hope that someone – anyone – would come along later to sort it out.

I’d bought into the “generational model” of feminism, wherein, to use the words of Lori Marso, “each new generation of feminists improves upon the last”. Issues are picked up, dealt with and then discarded so that we may move on to bigger and better things. Yet unpaid domestic labour – cleaning, cooking, caring – is still with us, and the majority of it is still done by women. Like it or not, this remains a feminist issue. That a previous generation of middle-class feminists found a makeshift solution to this – and that this solution only benefited women like them – doesn’t provide modern-day feminists with a get-out clause. The unequal distribution of unpaid domestic labour isn’t a frivolous side-issue. It’s dull, yes, but it’s related to depression, poverty and domestic abuse. It reduces the social status of women and it limits their choices. It reinforces the idea that an imbalance between the sexes is natural, with one living to serve the other. It’s feminism 101. We ought to be furious and yet we’re not.

In Saturday’s Guardian Selma James, founder of the Wages for Housework campaign, criticised middle-class feminists for selling out single mothers due to their reluctance to classify caring as work:

The refusal of feminists to acknowledge that work enabled Tony Blair to call mothers "workless" and made way for welfare reform's definition of a good mother: she goes out to a job, even below the minimum wage, with whatever childcare she can afford.

Meanwhile, in Italy the lawyer Giulia Bongiorno is proposing a salary for women working in the home, motivated by the plight of victims of domestic violence who are unable to leave their partners due to a lack of independent income. Years ago, I’d have admired these women yet shuddered at their activism. Aren’t they endorsing the idea that women’s work is for women alone? Aren’t there other issues with domestic labour – the isolation, the repetition, the uniformity – which mean the problem isn’t just financial? Shouldn’t we still be pushing to share? Perhaps, but feminism needs to be practical. It needs to be for all women, regardless of background or cultural beliefs. It needs to help them now.

I struggle to see how wages for housework would work in practice. It still feels like chipping around the capitalist edifice rather than demanding something more equal, humane and respectful for everyone. Nonetheless, we need to talk about it. We need to appreciate what women are doing behind closed doors and we need to recognise the price they pay.

When young people such as Cait Reilly challenged Workfare, wealthy politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith were quick to call them “job snobs”.  I fear we do something similar when we dismiss “women’s work” as a feminist concern. It’s not that entitled women have decided they are too good to work for nothing; it’s that no one’s work is of no economic value and those who treat it as such – whether they are politicians, employers or those you live with – are guilty of exploitation. The impact of this attitude is both destructive and far-reaching. And yes, some feminists have challenged it before, but we need to challenge it again, and we might still need to challenge it in future. It’s hard work and it’s repetitive but let’s be honest: it’s an essential part of keeping our own house in order.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage