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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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