No Wages, No Housework

I took some undergrad and graduate economics courses at Columbia around 1980. Semester after semester, I had to sit there and pretend to share my professors’ faith in a fairy-tale world. The free market, they said, would tend to provide accurate valuations of things. If people won’t give you more than a dollar for something, then a dollar is all it’s worth. If they will give you a million dollars, then it’s worth a million dollars.

No doubt such valuation is defensible in many cases. It was the exceptions that concerned me. The professors did admit the possibility of a market craze or bubble, when the market would be wrong: the price of something could be bid up to a level that would later seem absurd. Nor were these as rare as one might gather from the professors’ examples — the Dutch Tulip Bulb bubble of 1637, for instance, and the South Sea bubble of 1720. It seemed to me that the stock market itself was a never-ending story of investors and speculators rethinking and refeeling their existential condition, one day optimistic and the next day retreating, in a constant rebalancing of greed and fear, always seeking but often vastly miscalculating real value.

It is not true, for example, that Apple Computer stock was worth only $28.75 per share on December 12, 1980. According to, Apple’s share price has risen 21,000% since then (as of December 1, 2014). With a time machine, many people would be glad to go back to that date in 1980 and buy Apple shares at twice the market’s valuation. That price of $28.75 was just what the market thought the stock might be worth, on that date, judging from experience with other companies that seemed similar. Turns out that Apple was not like other companies. The market on December 12, 1980 was phenomenally wrong about Apple, and so were those who trusted the market to provide accurate valuations.

The market has long failed to provide accurate valuations on things more important than Apple stock. An example: environmental accounting. For centuries, people have been largely free to damage the natural environment as they wish. They built dams that destroyed ecosystems; they built factories that blackened the skies of London, and more recently of Beijing. These behaviors have had deep individual and societal consequences. But the people committing such acts have typically not been taxed or otherwise held responsible. In other words, market valuation — of, say, a company pouring toxic waste into a stream — has not generally taken into account the additional expense that the owners of that company would incur if they were required not to behave like pigs — to have the common decency, that is, to leave that stream as they found it, for the next person’s use and enjoyment (e.g., Muller et al., 2011).

In those Columbia classes, I often thought of the example of housework. The traditional American family model at that time had a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The man’s economic contribution appeared in the difference that his employment made to his employer, and a part of that difference was reflected in his income. These things were measurable in dollars and cents. But what about the woman? She did numerous things that made the man’s life comfortable and rewarding. In many cases, she introduced an element of stability that kept him on the job for years, instead of drifting off to try something new. She handled the bulk of raising children who were often the most important thing in the man’s life. And for this, her contribution was valued at — zero!

That silliness gave us a false economy in which it was necessary for women to enter the workforce, if they wished to have their efforts officially valued (e.g., Bergmann, 1981). Entry into the workforce made sense, as far as it went — but in the big picture, it was a move in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of insisting upon policy changes that would formally recognize important forms of value overlooked by the era’s narrow concept of accounting, these women validated the dollar as the only reasonable measure of worthwhile activity. That left fewer women choosing to develop careers as homemakers, further supporting a belief in the homemaker’s insignificance.

Economic value is an abstraction. It is an eccentric refusal to consider any value that cannot be calculated in dollars. As just noted, it is not concerned with common decency except where that might contribute to the bottom line. It is likewise uninterested in a mother’s inclination to prioritize her kids, except where it can take advantage of such priority to make a profit. A monetary economy can be perfectly comfortable with seeing a child’s worth as merely the price that the child would fetch on the auction block.

One mistake of the women’s movement, in the 1960s and 1970s, was to assume that men were to blame for the devaluation of domestic work. This mistake is perhaps easier to recognize if one considers the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. In that study, researchers arbitrarily divided student volunteers into two groups. One group played the role of prisoner; the other group played the role of prison guard. Once in their roles, volunteers ceased to behave as ordinary students. Those assigned to the guard role became authoritarian and, in some cases, abusive, while those playing the prisoner role became passive and accepting of their status as inferior creatures.

In the mid-20th-century American household, men and women alike played the roles into which they were born. Society’s priority was to meet the needs of employers, not of households. Male employees were at a disadvantage compared to their bosses: they had to work the hours, perform the tasks, and accept the moral compromises deemed necessary for purposes of delivering profits to company owners. Wives and households were yet another step removed from that social focus on employers’ preferences: treated as men’s baggage, variously tolerable and useful but not especially relevant to most companies and, thus, not very important to society as a whole. Prioritization of employers thus achieved not only the gross devaluation of domestic work but also a massive redirection of natural human attention away from home, where the heart is, to the workplace, where the vast majority of workers were not — and still are not — particularly eager to spend their time (e.g., Gallup, 2014).

The employer’s problem of an unmotivated workforce has hardly ever been recognized as a consequence of putting people where, by their own inner compass, they should not really be. In the words of Federici, writing in 1975,

It is not an accident that most men start thinking of getting married as soon as they get their first job. This is not only because now they can afford it, but because having somebody at home who takes care of you is the only condition not to go crazy after a day spent on an assembly line or at a desk. Every woman knows that this is what she should be doing to be a true woman and have a ‘successful’ marriage. . . . It is no accident that we find the most unsophisticated machismo in the working class family: the more blows the man gets at work the more his wife must be trained to absorb them, the more he is allowed to recover his ego at her expense. You beat your wife and vent your rage against her when you are frustrated or overtired by your work or when you are defeated in a struggle (to go into a factory is itself a defeat).

Men were to blame for the devaluation of domestic work in the sense that they played along with their assigned roles as breadwinners keeping one foot out the door: they were expected to go do what their employer wanted, avoiding their wives and kids for many of their waking hours, and then come home to perform as boss and disciplinarian, and still somehow not become alienated from the home project. Some wore those responsibilities well. Others, as in the Stanford Prison Experiment, did not. Likewise, some women performed well in the role of subordinate homebody, and some didn’t. But the primary problem was not with these individuals’ attempts to survive in that dysfunctional arrangement; it was, rather, with the arrangement itself. Home, the workplace, and domestic services would have been very different in a culture in which lawmakers were primarily concerned, not with helping businesses achieve rising profitability, but rather with steering business and government to create and maintain deeply satisfactory homes and communities.

The social focus on the needs of the employer, rather than of the home, seems to have been compatible with an odd but important version of individualism. If dominative and not infrequently abusive men were writing the rules, and were determined to maintain male freedom to operate as solo agents, to attract new females, and perhaps to leave the wife and kids behind, then it would make sense to prioritize the employer-employee relationship resulting in marketable skills and portable funds. Ironically, that approach produced vast conformity in standardized workplaces, work hours, and work roles. Not very individualistic! If individualism for all had been a driving ideal, the most successful homes and communities would have been those consisting of real individuals, pursuing their own abilities and motivations in ways that made sense to them — not cookie-cutter careerists all trying to squeeze into the same narrow expectations and opportunities.

Prioritizing the paycheck has had severe consequences. Income, as a measure of individual worth, inspires efforts to make purchases displaying that worth. Not only did we land in a pseudo-individualistic culture in which so many of us, myself included, would see James Bond as a star rather than as a somewhat sad loner; we also found ourselves cluttering up the world with crap, often at the expense of our neighbors and even ourselves, and investing enormous amounts in factories to produce it, highways and trucks to transport it, extra rooms and storage facilities to accommodate it, and landfills to dispose of it. By contrast, the key output of a focus on home might have been the production of happy people, living in places where they belonged and were accepted.

Federici, quoted above, was a founding member of the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972. Forty years later, a cofounder of that movement, Selma James (2012), described the process by which she came to her own views:

Well, when the new women’s movement burst out in the early 1970s in England, I thought, oh, well, they will be way ahead of where I was . . . . And they were, in many respects, but they still had not grappled with the housework. They still had not grappled with that lack of financial independence and how crucial that was. . . . They said women will go out to work, as if it was some liberation to go out to work. . . . You know, they had never done or didn’t know about the kind of work that most women did who went out to work, who were working-class women. . . .

I had just been reading [Karl Marx’s] Capital in a study group . . . . And he had said that we sell our labor power to capitalism. And I said, “Labor power? But women make labor power, and why haven’t they told me this?” Because I thought all the Marxists knew this and had neglected to mention it to me. That was my first thought. And then I realized that they had never understood that women produce the whole labor force and that that work is not acknowledged and not even considered as work. . . .

And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. . . . [W]e began to understand that most of the world had no wages, that we—that the subsistence farming in Africa—you know, 80 percent of the food that is eaten in Africa is grown by women, unwaged—you know, no money, nothing, just very, very hard work—and that all of this work, the volunteer work, you know, the reproduction of the human race, really, that women do, not merely, you know, in giving birth, which is quite important, not merely in giving children the food that they want and that they need, which is breast milk, but just caring for everyone and fighting for everyone. . . . It’s women who are doing this work. And it’s an extension of the caring work that we have always done.

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear: we do this work, and we are civilized by this work, we women, and have a much greater understanding of human beings, because that’s what we’re dealing with all the time. But we don’t want to be the only ones to do it. Men need to do this work, because men need to be civilized by this work as we have been. Men don’t—we don’t want them to be doing this work for capitalism and not doing this work for ourselves, for each other, you know, for the society generally. Men have to start making society, along with women, not to help—I’m not talking about men helping. Sometimes we have to fight so that they give us a little help, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about that being the aim and purpose of our lives, to be with others, to care for others, and to, as I say, to make society with us.

So the title of this post has a dual meaning. On one hand, there is the recognition that, if women do housework, they should be paid. How, by whom — these are good questions (e.g., Moran, 2014; Shulevitz, 2016), but the point remains: if we are to have a capitalist economy in which the market is helped to provide accurate valuations of each individual’s contributions, then some kind of adjustment is necessary, so that homemakers’ contributions are compensated appropriately. But on the other hand, perhaps it would be better to set aside the market preoccupation, so as to focus on realities. Women’s work — what James believes should be men’s work as well — is driven in good measure by women’s traditional or stereotypical priorities, and those are alien to the traditional economy. In another interview, Selma James (2012) said this:

The relationships on which the whole society rests are in wreck condition, are in disastrous condition because women are going out to work. It’s not just a few minutes a day. It’s taking care of the relationships that are the foundation of our lives. That’s what women do. And when we can’t do that, when most of us can’t do that, we are either furious, resentful, or we begin to be uncaring ourselves. . . . We can’t cope with the knowledge of the mess that people we love are in, as a result of the fact that we have no time to take care of them. I think there are really a lot of women in that situation. . . . [Even professional women] are still affected . . . . [I]t’s a shock to find out that they’re still suffering as women when they thought, once you got the job, once you got the prestige, once you got the position, once you got equality, all that [would be] left behind.

Federici (1974) expressed the point more forcefully:

[W]ages for housework will be much more educational than trying to prove that we can work as well as [men], that we can do the same jobs. We leave this worthwhile effort to the ‘career woman’, the woman who escapes from her oppression not through the power of unity and struggle, but through the power of the master, the power to oppress – usually other women. And we don’t have to prove that we can “break the blue collar barrier”. A lot of us broke that barrier a long time ago and have discovered that the overalls did not give us more power than the apron; if possible even less, because now we had to wear both and had less time and energy to struggle against them. . . .

[A]s long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division, and for us the logic of slavery. We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us . . . . [We] delude ourselves that we can escape housework. But how many of us, in spite of working outside the house, have escaped it?

To sum up, this post advances two points. First, it would be an improvement if people doing housework were paid for it. Traditional sociopolitical arrangements have produced a distorted economy in which there is a claim that people are paid for their work, contradicted by the reality that women, sweatshop workers, and others are exploited whenever possible. Second, however, the magnitude of that distortion — the size and importance of the things not accounted for in the existing economy — demonstrate that wages for housework would be an improvement on the small scale, but on the larger scale would actually constitute another step in the wrong direction.

We are raised to see housework as derivative. We treat it as a by-product of the primary task of getting out there and making a living. This is crazy. The home and the community are where we have our children, many of our interactions with our friends and relatives, and most of the experiences that most people find most rewarding in life — or would find rewarding, if homes had not been so extensively devalued.

There is a place for the job, and for the positive things that come from it. But for most people, over the long term, careers have grown fractured and transient. As more jobs are automated and workers become increasingly redundant, the work-life balance tips the other way: home and community regain some of their ancient importance, and one becomes more aware of delusions fundamental to the working world as we have known it. At some point it becomes feasible, perhaps unavoidable, that householding is respected as the starting point for a life well-lived — most of which has nothing to do with wages.

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One Response to No Wages, No Housework

  1. curiosetta says:

    [I have moved the text of this very long comment to a separate post.]

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