Housework is work. Why don’t we value it?

For millenia, labor division was sex-based and crystal clear. Men mostly worked to create things or for wages: farming, blacksmithing, soldiering, trades. Women, once they were married, raised children and worked in the home, cooking and cleaning. It was the sensible division, since women prior to reliable prophylactics were very often limited by pregnancy or infant care in what they could do. Men, without the responsibility of direct care for babies, were more free to range away from the home.

There were women who produced things, clothing or household goods, medical products, and foods, or who took over their husbands’ work when he died or was disabled. But most women did work that was crucial for keeping the family fed and clothed and healthy. Why, though, is this work so undervalued? Why does the women’s rights movement seek primarily to free women from “drudgery,” instead of empowering them to take pride in this unpaid but oh-so-important role?

The answer is simple: labor economics.

Historical Background

Without technology, humans are limited in the amount of work they can do. A man can only plow so much field in the course of a day, and a woman can only plant so many vegetables. Even when the family’s children were pressed into service, there was a limit to how much they could do. The first solution for alleviating this limitation was slavery. A man could nearly double his plowable field area if he employed a slave to do more labor for him. A woman could get more housework done if she had a slave, too.

But the difference was in scalability. A man with a thousand slaves could run an immense estate efficiently, producing resources well in excess of what he could use. With this excess, he created wealth, which gave him power; through largess or trade, his excess wealth allowed him to lead groups or cities or countries. The wealthiest men often became kings.

A woman with a thousand slaves to help with her work, on the other hand, would have been hindered. While housework is hard work, it is not scalable. There is a limit to how much can be done, and when you have “help” beyond that limit, the help gets in the way and becomes a hindrance that consumes resources. Women, therefore, could measure their slaves in tens or less, and often found that daughters or daughters-in-law provided more than enough extra labor to run the home effectively. Only in household tasks that resulted in a product – dairy work, for instance – was extra labor efficiently scalable.

This set a historical pattern: men who controlled more men had power and continued working. Women who controlled more women had a limited amount of power, and were often able to become idle or to support their husbands’ powerbuilding in social or material ways. We see this today among the wealthy, where husbands work for high levels of resources while wives entertain or network, their seeming idleness often adding real value to their spouses’ work – but, as so often happens with women’s work, invisibly.

Today

Because of this pattern, women’s work has been historically devalued. Domestic workers are paid minimally for physically demanding tasks, and those we entrust with the care of our children often earn minimum wage. Part of this is due to the economic necessity of valuing labor in terms of money – resources generated. Jobs that generate more resources are generally more valued. Women’s work rarely generates resources, and therefore it’s devalued. Part, however, is just social habit.

The result, in terms of feminism, has been the wholesale rejection of traditional female values and work in favor of men’s values and work. For a couple of decades, women who chose to stay home and care for their families felt shamed by the women’s rights movement, as if they were failures as women. Even today, there are women’s rights activists who sneer at women who choose this path. Instead, women are encouraged to take on male roles, working for resources and building power in traditionally masculine ways.

This has a multitude of effects, not all of which can be seen yet. First, by devaluing women’s work, we are discouraging men from taking on those roles as women move into masculine roles. Women, as a result, have a few choices: do both their own traditional work AND work in a resource-generating career; hire help; do less domestic work and instead outsource some tasks, like cooking, to modern resources like restaurants or frozen prepared dinners; stay single; or take on the even-more-thankless-today position of traditional housewife.

Like dominos, these choices lead to more results. Women who work essentially double roles are less able to do either. Child-rearing suffers, and women are at a disadvantage compared to men in their professional positions. This is one of the main reasons, I think, that women often make less than men – because they are less able to take advantage of opportunities or work later, they are less likely to advance or earn collegiate respect. Add that to time taken off for childbearing or child care, and women are at distinct professional disadvantages not of anyone’s making.

Women who outsource cooking often eat less healthy; since the family generally eat what Mom brings in, the whole family tends to be less healthy. Women who outsource child-rearing are less involved in their children and more likely to have weaker maternal bonds – and I don’t care what studies say, this is an obvious truth. Women who outsource home cleaning have to spend resources they’ve earned to pay wages, and because of generally lower statuses at work, the resources they must spend are often a relatively high percentage of their incomes.  Women who stay single do not give us that next generation we depend on to carry our civilization forward and care for our elderly.

In short, by devaluing women’s work and encouraging women to be more like men, we’ve short-circuited our entire civilization. Many of the things that are breaking down today are due to the mismanagement of the women’s movement by people who did not think ahead.

I’m not saying women who work outside the home are bad; I was one of those women for years, and today much of my work in-home takes just as much time away from my domestic responsibilities as work outside the home would. What I am saying is that we need to reassess what we’re doing here. Women’s traditional work is much more valuable to all of us than we have been led to believe. We need to find ways to value it more as a society and as individuals.

Comments 5

  1. Engage Respectfully wrote:

    I think you’ve actually made a valid point here in spite of yourself. The second wave feminist call for women to abandon domestic work and parenting for waged labor IS problematic in terms of how we value women’s work (although in their defense, there’s ample research to show that equality between men and women absolutely depends on the ability of women to be economically autonomous if needed). But my first point would be that this is really a critique of white feminism, not feminism in general: women of color and transnational feminists have already levied this complain against mainstream Western feminism decades ago. And my second point would be, what’s the solution? If we think of the two extremes, on one hand we have a world where housewives are paid a decent wage for the work they do for their families (and as part of this, care/domestic work located in the public sphere that are demographically dominated by women like daycare, housecleaning, and elderly care would also see increased wages), but surely you find something icky about having a husband pay his wife for making dinner for the kids? On the other hand, we could have a world where even though “women’s traditional work” isn’t compensated monetarily, we would still respect/value it as much as jobs that make tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which, in our capitalist, materialistic, consumerist society, is not likely. Although fun food for thought, especially if you’re a conservative: the closest you GET to having “women’s traditional work” valued socially at a level equal to men’s waged labor is in *gasp* Western European countries like Germany where the social welfare system values and compensates women who choose to stay at home with their children.

    Posted 24 Jul 2013 at 3:26 pm
  2. Jamie K. Wilson wrote:

    LOL, I’ll spot you the “in spite of yourself” there. And I have to respond to a couple of things as well:

    First, calling mainstream feminism “white feminism” denies the experience of a huge number of working-class white women. Sure, you’ll notice that many domestic workers are women of color. But an awful lot of them are WHITE women from the lower middle class and upper lower class – the class that, financially, represents my own background. We do not share the “white feminism” ideals, not by a longshot, but we are largely ignored or lumped in with the rest of white women. Culturally, we don’t belong there.

    Second, the solution has nothing to do with money, and there may in fact be no solution at all beyond simple awareness and gratitude. If you look at male attitudes toward alimony and divorce settlements, thouth, the SAHW is often resented – she put no money into the marriage, why should she get anything out of it? Sadly, mainstream feminism has tacitly – and sometimes overtly – followed right along with that line of thinking. Our society needs to understand that “women’s” work is worthy of respect, that it adds the same value to the world as men’s labor but it cannot be quantified in the same way.

    Part of the problem I see – and I’m still formulating this, still learning – is that mainstream feminism has adopted male attitudes toward a large number of things, instead of pushing for social valuing of femininity. It is that very femininity in women that is so valuable! Women are the nurturers, the softeners, the peacemakers. We think differently from men, and our interpersonal relationships are different. By encouraging women to be more aggressive, more sexual, more outside-the-home oriented, modern feminism is removing that very femininity from women, cheapening the rich intergender relationship we should have. But I have a LOT more thinking about this before it’s ready for prime time!

    I had noticed that contradiction in the Western European countries! But their solution is not a sustainable solution in a world that is prone to economic downturns, at least not in any political system we have devised as of yet. It is definitely worthy of consideration, but while it does address this problem, it’s not something that would work in America.

    Thanks for coming by to chat! I think feminism as a whole would benefit from embracing us conservative women; we have a different way of thinking about gender equality, and if we could temporarily set aside our differences and focus on common goals, we could all benefit one another greatly.

    Posted 24 Jul 2013 at 4:44 pm
  3. Engage Respectfully wrote:

    Jamie,

    Thanks for the titular respectful engaging. To your first point concerning the intersection of class and ethnicity, that’s certainly a point well taken, and my original statement should be “white, middle class feminism.” Given the ethnic homogeneity of the feminists who started this, I think keeping “white” there is important, but I definitely agree that the class distinction should be made.
    To your second point, this indeed is a bit of a sticky wicket, and I think we agree that the devaluation of “women’s work” is a social problem that has a domino effect on other areas of social life. And the reason why it’s so pernicious is illustrated in your comments.

    On one hand, we’ve got a broad ideology that says heterosexual, married parents with 2.3 kids are totally awesome and if you’re not heterosexual or married, you’re totally not invited to the “normal family club.” In this world, where every family has one mommy and that mommy doesn’t work or wishes she didn’t have to, EVERYONE understands the value of SAHW. This is the 1950s, this is Leave it to Beaver, this is Mad Men, this is the cult of domesticity. We’ve got to realize that this sunny world of “man and woman marry out of love then man goes to work and woman cleans the house” was A) classed and raced, as we’ve discussed, B) around for a few decades at most and C) extremely problematic and limiting for millions of women thus the 60s and the birth of second wave feminism. But nonetheless, if you think – like most conservatives do – that this was a social good and we need to return to it, then good for ya.

    BUT the problem is “can that set of values co-exist with other values?” Because the other broad ideology is that of individualism. Individualism has produced many things you might not like (pro-choice, GLBT rights, sexual promiscuity) and many things you might like (Ayn Rand/libertarianism, gun rights). When you take an ideology of individualism and mix it with the effects of capitalism and materialism that I’ve previously mentioned, you produce a society that doesn’t value unpaid labor, that doesn’t value labor without a product (SAHW, but even service worker wages), that can’t begin to wrap its head around the concept of something being valued but not quantifiable. In sum, the solution to the first “problem” – that women didn’t have a choice (choice: another big aspect of individualist ideology): they were either married SAHW or they were seen as lesser-than (and again, this is a generalization: not trying to minimize the experiences of working-class families) — was the entry of women into the paid labor force if they so chose. But once you have women making things and earning money, trying to value SAHW in comparison becomes extremely complicated because our society values money above everything else.

    FYI, when I think of left/right or conservative liberal things, I usually have a picture in my mind of several increasingly larger circles that represent levels of society. Liberals generally privilege the smallest (individual) and largest (global) circles. Civil/LGBT rights, pro-choice: individual things. Global Warming, global culture being a good thing, general respect and understanding for non-US nations: global things. Conservative generally privilege the middle circles: family, community, church, city, nation. Thus conservative ideology is more informed by things like religion or family as good, have moralities more informed by religious or family beliefs, and are more likely to be nationalistic. This simple calculus makes the difference between the left and right on issues such as abortion or marriage or homosexuality easily identified: conservatives put a higher worth on the expression of communal or religious beliefs, liberals put a higher worth on the rights of the individual. Just thought I’d throw that out because when I first heard that, it was a total “A-Ha!” moment AND because it helps to show you how I’m trying to think about these things in a “no belief is better, it’s just a matter of what you think is good or true.” manner.

    To your third point: Arlie Hochschild’s The Commercialization of Intimate Life. READ THIS BOOK. This is a feminist sociologist dealing with the very issues you’re raising, and that text directly coins the term “the masculinization of sex” to describe how – in the sexual realm and others – society has taken in feminism, but instead of valuing things we associate with femininity or ushering in a gender neutral society, women are becoming masculinized in their attitudes towards work, family, and sexuality. I really can not recommend you read that book enough, especially if this is a topic that’s interesting to you. I think you’ll find many of the feminists that you’re positioning yourself against with your “CONSERVATIVE feminism” moniker are acutely aware of the negative consequences/problems that have been indirect results of the drive for female equality and wrestle with them open and honestly in their writings.

    So what exactly is this “different way of thinking about gender equality?” I mean, you’re certainly enunciated points about it in this post, and we can agree that SAHW should be valued and respected. But thinking in terms of the liberal/conservative thing I mentioned, liberals these days by and large have no problem with SAHW or popular conservative feminists like Palin or Bachmann (I’m guessing you would say they are feminist?) if they come to their SAHW status through individualism and free choice (obviously there would be a critique of their politics, but not their selves). But the conservative feminists, in my opinion, don’t go the other way. They – remember, family, community, religion circles – have a certain view of how women should be, and if you don’t fit in that – you’re gay, you’re a single mom, you’re pro-choice – then they don’t afford those women the same value/respect because they don’t privilege the individual above communal or religious norms.

    Anyway, thank you again for embracing the chance to respectfully talk with someone whose views you disagree with. As you know, that’s like the double rainbow of Internet discourse, so I’m totally stoked.

    Posted 30 Jul 2013 at 2:27 pm
  4. Adrienne wrote:

    Although this article is over couple months old I just discovered it and had to way in. I’m somewhere in the middle of the traditionalist and feminist camp and have always been a bit curious of the other feminist group known as conservatives. I have too an extent found the same conclusions in you post regarding traditional women’s work. In fact I have figured that despite what some feminists claim in the bygone era housewives in itself wasn’t oppressive what was oppressive was that it wasn’t equally valued as the traditional man’s work as breadwinner, it was treated lesser than for something for the women while the men went out and did the more important stuff of earning the money. Because of this it was used as an excuse to justify inequality in marriage, as the men felt making the money paying the bills entailed them to be in charge and treat wives as second-class in their own homes. Last it was oppressive in how women were restricted to this role, meaning she wasn’t allowed to purse anything else outside the home if she wanted to, thus the attitude was women should be barefoot and pregnant. This is why many women were dissatisfied and some longed to do more but taught to believe they weren’t suitable other than to keep house. Feminism opened doors to women and giving them equal access in the workplace, salary, education, health care, politics etc and basically told women that they are just as capable as men in any goals and ambition they choose and gave them more freedom them than before. Of course they were downsides as the more radical militant feminism sent out messages that being a housewife, having a door opened for them, being a lady was oppressive and about male power. A woman was no different than a man except for biology, gender is a social construct. Even to this day some feminists hold these views. As for my beliefs I see there needs to be a balance. Expecting and embracing gender differences without very rigid and restrictive gender stereotypes that can be limiting. As for women’s work, I believe we shouldn’t try to invest too much in gender-specific regarding labor. I still do believe in some gender roles only too an extent but I’m also quite more flexible regarding duties in the homes. Society as evolved as regarding what is men or women’s work as more women are aware they can have careers and contribute financially and men are aware they can contribute in the housework and child care. Rather than wipe out traditional gender roles in the home or bring back them back to and end modern roles the better solution is to allow choices for families to what type of family unit they choose. If the man is the main breadwinner it is sensible the woman will take care of the housework and children, if both couples work it makes sense that both with either share the tasks or divide them based on who is more gifted in which tasks. The problem lies that many women are expected to work share in the financial duties yet still be expected to do all the duties of traditional housewife with little help from their husbands. This is what is known as women doing the second shift. I myself was raised by two working parents who both contributed to child care and domestic tasks without any real problems I can think of, or the fact many women in my family had jobs outside the home. However, I have come to the conclusion that in the home once children enter the picture, it’s more ideal for one parent to put their career on hold to be the prime caretaker and I believe it’s more commonly suited for women to do this. This doesn’t mean I think men can’t do this job ever but it’s just more likely suited mothers. As for housework, I agree it should be more valued by both genders and neither should feel above performing these tasks if given the chance. Even today there are still some chauvinistic men who will housework as something beneath them, believing they should be busied with more better things to do therefore justifying laying it all on women’s lap even if she works outside the home or just exhausted and would like her husband to just help around the house just a little. But with your argument about valuing housework equally as outside careers, this could help both men and women appreciate it more and both to partake in it.

    Posted 10 Oct 2013 at 10:56 pm
  5. Brian wrote:

    The experience of women in the hierarchical world of jobs outside the home has arguably infected them with the values of the dominant workplace model more than the hierarchy has been altered by the greater presence of women. I submit that the devaluation of domestic work has less to do with gender than it has to do with the dominant culture of production wherein money is the sole measure. With these loose thoughts I ask what light a man who becomes the primary person in looking after home and children may be seen in by those who are immersed in the world of performing tasks for money?

    Posted 02 Apr 2014 at 11:13 am

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