Women cleaning in the Empire State Building, 1946. Photo: Staff/AFP/Getty Images
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Wifework and “proper” work: why we have to stop romanticising women’s labour

Neither the left nor the right can get their heads round the fact that there’s nothing romantic about liberating “the workers” when said workers are women up to their elbows in shit.

Earlier this week Alison Wolf wrote a piece claiming that feminists “are too obsessed with their own elite, metropolitan lives”. It wasn’t clear which specific feminists she meant (I’m betting on Sheryl Sandberg, Bridget Jones and the cast of 1990s sitcom Ally McBeal). Either way, it overlooked an enormous amount of grassroots activism focused on the very things that feminists are allegedly ignoring. What’s more, it did one thing that I cannot stand: it launched into the whole “you can’t be a true feminist unless you’re living like a 1950s housewife” routine. This is something that gets me every time. It’s a feminism that states first, that you shouldn’t have to do so-called women’s work and second, that you’re not allowed to pay anyone else to do it. Basically, you’re meant to be like Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, only more competent. Well, sorry, I’m not. I sent my kids to nursery, to be looked after by women who are paid less than I am. You might as well kick me out of the Magic Feminism club right now.

There’s a special kind of judgment reserved for women accused of buying their way out of inequality through the outsourcing of what would otherwise be unpaid labour. It’s a quick win for anyone wishing to appear class conscious while sticking the knife into women who fail to conform to gender norms. You get all the sexism of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, none of the Susan Faludi critique. As Wolf puts it:

Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of nursery assistants, care assistants, dishwashers and housekeepers – armies of women doing traditional female tasks. Nurseries and care homes are big sectors, and we outsource most of what we once did in kitchens at home: fewer and fewer meals are prepared at home. Workers in these sectors are low-paid. They are part of the 24/7 service economy which underpins professional lives. They are also overwhelmingly female. “Sisterhood” is dead.

Got that, feminists? Sisterhood is dead and it’s all because you’ve been outsourcing tasks that you could be doing yourself (you know, in the same way other people do, only it’s worse when it’s you because reasons). You could have been baking that apple crumble and you chose to kill sisterhood instead.

It’s an argument that’s been made time and again. For instance, in a Guardian feature from 2010, a cleaner “ponder[s] the ironies of the job”:

In a bid to escape domesticity, women are refusing to iron their husband's shirts. Congratulations: your act of feminism means the job is shunted on to a different woman, assigning her to a different rank.

It isn’t particularly clear why the cleaner assumes a woman “refusing” to iron her husband’s shirt is “an act of feminism” meant to liberate all and not just a decision based on the fact that it’s not her shirt to begin with. Women not doing wife work must be a feminist act, right? It couldn’t just be women operating as human beings in a world which they already know isn’t fair. It couldn’t just be women who may well have serious feminist principles doing some things that aren’t very feminist because quite frankly, they’re tired and it’s a shirt, not the sodding revolution. As Caitlin Moran points out (with reference to the above passage) “the hiring of domestic help isn’t a case of women oppressing other women, because WOMEN DIDN’T INVENT DUST”:

Mess is a problem of humanity. Domestica is the concern of all. A man hiring a male cleaner would be seen as simple employment. Quite how a heterosexual couple hiring a female cleaner ends up a betrayal of feminism isn’t terribly clear.

A similar argument has been made by Barbara Gunnell, comparing the middle-class woman’s “betrayal” with the middle-class man’s perfectly acceptable exploitation of others:

… in service-based economies such as the US and Britain, we are all part of an unending chain of serving and being served […] Why, then, is this an issue for women alone to address? Why is the use by a middle-class woman of a paid-for service a grosser form of exploitation than the benefit her husband receives from the same domestic help, or from a laundry or car wash? 

Why indeed? Because sexism, that’s why. There can be no equality without a radical change to the way in which different types of work, particularly domestic and caring work, are valued.  But that is incredibly complicated and neither the left nor the right can get their heads around it. It would mean changing the way men live and that can’t do. It’s just easier to shout at middle-class women who aren’t pulling their unpaid wife work weight.  

Feminism has tried desperately hard to find a way around this. We have argued for workplace crèches. We have argued for free childcare for all. We have argued for wages for housework. We have asked, in vain, for men to do their bit. So why hasn’t it worked? Because, in the midst of all this campaigning and fighting, we’ve carried on having babies and sick relatives and endless amounts of mess to clean up with no one offering to step in. And we’ve found ourselves living in a world that gets greedier and greedier, knowing that if we have no financial independence at all, the alternatives are either poverty or dependence on others, usually men, whom we may not be able to trust. So we do things which are not “feminist acts”. They are selfish acts of survival because we are not just ideas in the heads of purists writing think pieces; we are human beings.

The left has a tendency to romanticise mothers rather than engage with the structural inequalities that exist within the home. I have not read Russell Brand’s Revolution so maybe there is a chapter on liberating the female masses from arse wiping, cooking, cleaning, being on call for young and old 24/7 etc. But I rather suspect there isn’t.  There’s nothing romantic about liberating “the workers” when said workers are women up to their elbows in shit. On the other hand, there is something romantic about the idea of the noble matriarch wiping a tear from her eye as her brave young man goes on to fight the forces of capitalism while she gets his tea ready for him. Rest assured said brave young worker won’t forget to thank his dear old mum for all the things she taught him about strength and fortitude – he just won’t actually do anything to prevent other women having to show such strength and fortitude again and again.

As a feminist, I am not OK with domestic and caring work being low-paid jobs. Neither am I okay with them being unpaid jobs as long as “the wife” is doing it. But guess what? I think these two things are linked, insofar as currently anything loses value the moment it’s defined as “women’s work”. Articles such as Wolf’s do nothing to change this. They neither celebrate the diversity of women’s abilities nor question the basic idea that if Mummy’s doing it, caring work should be done for free (and how, precisely, do we raise the wages of professional carers if we think so little of what they do?). The fundamental division – between that which we consider “proper” work (men’s work) and “everyday life” (the things women end up doing) – is never considered. The split is not between “sisters” and the shoulder-padded harpies who have betrayed them. It’s between work that is considered to be a natural part of the economy and work that is either utterly excluded or grossly undervalued. The only time wife work is appreciated is when a woman who “should” be doing it isn’t doing it. Then it’s the most valuable thing in the world. The moment we actually pick up a scrubbing brush, it goes back to being nothing at all.

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

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear