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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.

 Dancer Ann Argent practices her routine while doing the housework. Photo: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images
Housework is never this exciting in real life. Photo: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

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.