Resurrecting the idea that women should be paid for housework

Campus Reform reveals that one college is bringing back a tenet of radical feminism (is that still a thing?) from the 1970s. It’s a concept hatched in a time when norms regarding family structure, work and childrearing were markedly different than they are today. The basic idea is that if a woman stays at home to care for the children while her husband works as the primary breadwinner, the wife should be paid a cash salary for all of the labor she contributes to the household. Back in the day, this was referred to as “invisible labor.”

Eugene Lang College is offering a course this Fall predicated on the belief that women should be paid for housework, emotional labor, and other forms of “invisible labor.”

Taught by author Macushla Robinson, the “Love and Currency” course is based off the 1975 Silvia Federici essay “Wages Against Housework,” a landmark manifesto that urges women to demand cash compensation from husbands for all household work.

“Wages for housework is only the beginning,” Federici wrote during an era when nearly 40 percent of women didn’t work outside the home, adding that husbands “have to pay us…not one wage, but many wages, because we have been forced into many jobs at once.”

I’ll confess that this may be one of those areas where there actually is a gender gap in grasping the subject matter and as I male I missed a large part of the point. (More on that below.) My initial reaction to this story went along these lines. I found mysefl thinking, “of course it’s labor, and therefore worthy of compensation. But who would pay this?” Turns out it’s the husband, of course. But that model of the nuclear family has changed considerably since the 70s. The majority of families have both parents working these days. Further, more families have same-sex parents. If the family has two moms, does one woman need to pay the other woman a salary? How about if it’s two men?

We also have a quickly swelling percentage of families with the reverse situation for the gender of the breadwinners. The number of men staying home and taking care of the kids and the house while the mother works is estimated to be at least seven million. Should the working mother be paying the stay-at-home dad a cash salary?

While those all still seem to be valid points to consider, I didn’t really grasp the underlying reality of this question until I read Katherine Timpf’s take on it at National Review. Here’s the money graf: (emphasis added)

There is, of course, no doubt that doing chores is exhausting. I had a party over the weekend, and I would be lying if I said that I had finished cleaning it up yet. It’s hard work to keep a living space in good shape. Still, I don’t expect to actually be paid for this work — and that’s not just because I live with a cat who has no ability to pay me for cleaning his litter box, rather than a husband. It’s because there are some things in life that you just do. Everyone performs labor that they don’t get paid for. Walking to the store is labor. Going grocery shopping is labor. Some days, taking a shower and brushing your teeth can feel like labor. That doesn’t mean that you get paid for it. It’s something you do because it isn’t pleasant to live in a pigsty, or for all of your teeth to fall out. Cleaning your living space is something you do to be kind to yourself and those you live with. Although it’s true that women, on average, still do more housework than men, and although it’s true that that’s not fair, the solution is not for women to demand wages. It’s for women to demand that men do more — unless, of course, the man that you live with happens to be a cat.

In the end, that’s the missing piece of the puzzle for me. We all do labor we don’t get paid for because we all have responsibilities to ourselves and our families. Nobody else is asking us to do it. We do it because we’re “adulting” (as the kids like to say these days). If you’re in a a relationship where you’re staying at home and doing all of the housework and childrearing and your employed partner is cutting you off from access to a reasonable amount of cash from the family pool of funds, you’re probably in a bad relationship. At a minimum, you need to get out there and earn some money of your own and insist that your partner take on some of the housework. But as Timpf points out, while it’s labor, it’s not “a job.” And jobs are what provide income.