Wages for Housework: After 123 years, women are still treated as free domestic labour

Women's movement protesting for fair pay

Women have been calling for housework to be paid work for 120 years. So let’s look at the history of women’s unpaid work, particularly how the Wages for Housework movement from the 1970s is still relevant today – increasingly so as this economic crisis deepens. Read on to explore the  history of this movement, where we are now, and how we can accelerate the move towards equality.

The Wages for Housework Movement

While housework has not historically been paid, it has a rich history of campaigners demanding that it should be. These calls date back to 1898 when Charlotte Perkins Gilman published ‘Women and Economics’. Over 70 years later, the idea entered mainstream political discourse, starting with Selma James in 1972 in Manchester, UK. It was followed by the Italian movement led by Mariarosa Dalla Costa from 1974, and then spread to the US where Silvia Federici’s Wages for Housework movement started in 1975. 

Throughout the 1970s, these campaigns demanded that the value of housework be recognised through payment of a wage. It was not always a serious demand, as Federici explained in her book ‘Wages Against Housework’. It was rather a subversive tactic to prove their point, that the fabric of capitalism is built on the fundamental reliance on women’s unpaid housework. To recognise the value of this work by paying what it’s worth is ultimately not economically viable. And that’s the point. 

To demand a wage for housework exposes this dependence for what it is. Systemic inequality. The system requires that the work be done, but it can’t afford to pay what it’s worth. But Federici’s movement understood that to engage with this problem requires speaking its language. Until we all understand the monetary value of “domestic” work on equal terms with “professional” work, nothing will change. 

Housework is no longer just women’s work – or is it?

The world has changed in the last 120 years, at least as far as options to outsource housework are concerned. The growth of the gig-economy has made domestic help more accessible than ever before. It is increasingly affordable to book a cleaner to come once a week, a dog walker to help out with caring for pets, or to order a meal delivery when you’re too tired to cook. Just about any task you can think of is now something you can pay someone else to do. Childcare remains a different challenge due to child safety considerations. But there are even platforms to find nannies, babysitters and other carers that address those specific child protection requirements. 

“To demand a wage for housework exposes this dependence for what it is. Systemic inequality. The system requires that the work be done, but it can’t afford to pay what it’s worth.”

Unfortunately, these options do not come without their own socio-economic and racial inequalities. Carers are overwhelmingly women, often non-white and poorly paid or unpaid. Delivery and ride-hailing drivers provide huge convenience but too often not only receive low pay but may also lack standard employment rights. And racial minorities are massively overrepresented.

The coronavirus crisis has shut down many of these services along with schools and nurseries. Instead, parents (primarily mothers) are left to pick up the slack – creating unmanageable workloads that are forcing many out of paid work. The discourse of women “choosing” to leave paid work has already begun. As though this is a choice that’s freely made and not a situation that women are forced into without any realistic alternative. 

We have already embraced the idea of paying for more household services than ever before. Wages are already being paid for some housework – every time you book a meal delivery, cleaner, laundry service, uber ride or grocery delivery. This shows that we are starting to recognise that housework isn’t women’s responsibility – but we can still take it further.

Where this leaves us now

Some progress has been made in the past 123 years. The majority of women in 2020 do earn an income. In fact 72% of women in Britain participate in the workforce, compared to 80% of men. Many men do some of the unpaid work at home – increasingly sharing childcare responsibilities and cooking in particular. But we’re still far from equality. We no longer need to make the point of the dependence our society has on this unpaid labour in quite the same way as Federici and her peers in the seventies. Which is not to say that we don’t still need to make it. What we do need now is to create a mechanism for making this work more visible, better understood – by households, governments and employers – and more fairly distributed within households. 

This needs to start at a household level. We need to examine the work that needs to be done, who will do it, and recognise the value of that work on its own terms. This means thinking about the economic replacement cost of that work. What it would cost to outsource it so it doesn’t need to be done by the household? But also understanding how it enables other successes. For example, the career success one partner can build when they have someone else taking care of the household for them.

More broadly, to unlock equality at a government and employer level we need to improve representation within the ranks making the decisions. Imagine, for a moment, if we had a gender balanced cabinet in the UK right now. How might provision for childcare, support for nurseries, preparations for schools to reopen safely, handling of care homes to prevent spread of the virus – and countless other areas of government decision-making – have been impacted by having a more representative cabinet?

Understanding the value of your unpaid work

So what can you do at a household level? Understanding how your work is shared currently is the starting point. The fastest was to do that is by using the ThirdShift Household Balance Calculator. It’s free and takes just 3 minutes to show you the total number of hours, percentage share and economic value of your work. We use economic replacement cost (n GBP or USD) to calculate these values to give you a more realistic understanding of the value of your work. Why not start now

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