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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump