A Mea Culpa; On the Devaluation of Domestic Labor

I’ve been thinking a fair bit over the past few days about the devaluation of women’s domestic labor. Why? Because, quite simply, I unintentionally contributed to it in a recent post, as several commenters pointed out. I really do appreciate how frequently those who comment on my blog point out errors or weaknesses in my arguments and simply give me food for thought.

On Wednesday as I wrote about why my son Bobby needs feminism too I pointed out the unfortunate reality that while feminism has had a good bit of success allowing women to break out of traditional female gender roles it has yet to be quite as successful helping men break out of traditional male gender roles. But then, in a post later that same day, I accidentally contributed to this problem. In that post I wrote about my father in law scoffing at my husband doing laundry, and about how I responded by pointing out that “I make more money than he does.” I meant to shock my father in law into reevaluating his belief that women should be the ones expected to do the laundry and other housework, but unfortunately the way I went about it served to reinforce the hierarchy that places wage earning solidly above domestic labor.

Here is the exchange that took place in the comment thread:


This post has rattled around in my head for a bit and I’d like to repeat a few points made above and add another: your mother in law is the truly insulted person here and I’m worried that you contributed to it.

Each couple’s income and each couple’s chores are a matter for that couple. Feminism is about men and women being able to chose those roles freely, including traditional models. Your in-laws probably made the best decision for her to be a SAHM and him to be the breadwinner considering their relative income potential and skills going in to the marriage. By dropping the “I earn more” bomb, you may have devalued their arrangement and her work within it.

I also agree that I hope your FIL gets some life skills under his belt before he becomes that guy in the department store. I would understand him commenting that he’d never done laundry, but I can’t understand why anyone would boast about it. That’s like saying “I don’t drive,” “I can’t boil water,” or “I’ve never written a check.” My math is really rusty, I’m not afraid to say it, but it’s sure not something to boast about. But people can actually get through life without driving, boiling water, writing checks, or knowing advanced math, where we all dirty our clothes every day. To boast about that is to boast that you have pawned off cleaning after yourself to someone else, which devalues his wife.

And when you went to defend yourself, I fear you did the same.

The next time he boasts about being utterly incapable of functioning as an adult on his own, I’d suggest admiration for his wife and curiosity for how he’s managed to exist this long without picking up such a basic skill.

And I replied:

Libby Anne:

Each couple’s income and each couple’s chores are a matter for that couple. Feminism is about men and women being able to chose those roles freely, including traditional models. Your in-laws probably made the best decision for her to be a SAHM and him to be the breadwinner considering their relative income potential and skills going in to the marriage.

Absolutely. My father in law has a very high powered job that takes a great deal of time, and he couldn’t do that without my mother in law being there to do everything else – the housework, cooking, laundry, kids, etc. I have no problem with their arrangement, and it doesn’t bother me that my father in law has never done laundry. I could easily see the same scenario with a woman in a very time consuming and high paying job having a “house husband” who does all the housework and the brunt of the childcare to keep their family running.

By dropping the “I earn more” bomb, you may have devalued their arrangement and her work within it.

I disagree. I didn’t say that I have a problem with their division of labor. I merely pointed out that, unlike the way they do things, my husband and I share the money earning, so it only makes sense that we would share the housework. My in laws know that I work. And yet, my father in law thinks I should also be doing all of the housework? That assumption is what I was targeting. If I was staying at home and my husband was working full time, I would have no problem with the assumption that I should be doing all of the laundry, just as if my husband was staying at home and I was working, I think it would be natural to assume that he would do all of the laundry.

That all said, I don’t know for sure how my mother in law perceived of the exchange, and you’re absolutely right that another way to address the situation would have been to make fun of my father in law for not knowing how to take care of himself.

And she responded:


I’d totally back you up 100% if you simply left it at “we both work, we both do chores.” It’s the paycheck comparison that got to me. It’s totally understandable in the heat of the moment, but I think it plays into the same notion that your FIL had — that earners don’t do housework. You know them, you know the context, but “who does X more” is a topic that misfires easily, even when your inlaws aren’t there. On another note, my parents were very traditional when I was growing up, but after the kids were raised and dad retired, he learned how to do laundry and cook. Your FIL may surprise you in a few years.

And finally, another commenter weighed in:


I think your reply to your father-in-law’s comment was succinct and effective in getting several points across at once (trying to be nuanced is often a conversation killer). Additionally, you know him in context.

However, I had a similar reaction to Anne. You didn’t say “That’s too bad, because it’s a really important job. It can take a lot of practice to get good at.” Both your father-in-law’s comment and yours focused on traditionally male “positives”: he devalued doing laundry and you glorified earning money. While there shouldn’t be anything intrinsically male or female about doing laundry or earning money, isn’t that there *is* some connection the issue feminism is (hopefully at it’s heart) trying to combat? Sometimes feminism seems to buy into the sexist idea that “male” is inherently better.

That being said, I don’t think you should have said anything different. Just that it’s frustrating.

And so, ever since reading these comments, I’ve been doing thinking.

You know how I said in my post about what feminism can do for my son Bobby that while it is now seen as acceptable for girls to do boy things it is not so acceptable for boys to do girl things? There’s a reason for that. Boy things are seen as superior and girl things are seen as inferior. This shouldn’t be surprising, really, given the history and nature of patriarchy. No matter how much complementarians like to argue that it’s simply about men and women playing different roles, those roles have never been valued equally. So when a woman aspires to a career, she is moving up; but when a man does housework, he is moving down.

When I pointed out to my father in law that I earn more than my husband and that, because we share in the wage earning, it only makes sense that we should share the housework, the cultural backdrop to the conversation was the connotation that by having a career and earning money I have moved up, all the while forcing my husband down by expecting him to share the housework and childcare. And I carelessly didn’t think about how strongly cultural backdrops shape both what we say and how others perceive what we say.

Now of course, women have always worked outside of the home. Even in the 1950s during the heyday of the nuclear family provider father/homemaker mother ideal, most women worked. But women have traditionally worked as maids, nannies, teachers, nurses, and secretaries, and with the exception today of nursing, these jobs have always paid very badly. They have paid badly because women’s labor is undervalued. And even today, at least in part because men are socialized to place more emphasis on earning money and women are socialized to place more emphasis on caregiving, it continues to be women who flock to these underpaid professions.

Women’s labor has traditionally been underpaid or, in the case of homemaking, unpaid, but the idea that men have traditionally “worked” while women have not is false. In fact, women’s domestic labor has not always been devalued the way it is today. Historian Jeanne Boyston addressed the origins of the devaluation of women’s labor in her book, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic.

Over the course of a two hundred year period, women’s domestic labor gradually lost its footing as a recognized aspect of economic life in America. The image of the colonial “goodwife,” valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of a “dependent” and a “non-producer.” This book is a history of housework in the United States prior to the Civil War. More particularly, it is a history of women’s unpaid domestic labor in the context of the emergence of an industrialized society in the northern United States. Boydston argues that just as a capitalist economic order had first to teach that wages were the measure of a man’s worth, it had at the same time, implicitly or explicitly, to teach that those who did not draw wages were dependent and not essential to the “real economy.” Developing a striking account of the gender and labor systems that characterized industrializing America, Boydston explains how this effected the devaluation of women’s unpaid labor.

In other words, as middle class men began to work for wages outside of the home rather than working independently running farms or shops, they became dependent on others for their income. This was perceived as a threat to their masculinity. In order for the wage work so intrinsic to capitalism to take hold, societal conceptions had to shift such that people saw wage earning as “work” and household labor that did not earn wages, well, not. As men became valued by their wage, women’s domestic labor became both invisible and valueless.

Interestingly, this tying of value to wages was what prompted second wave feminists to demand “wages for housework.” They argued that only when domestic labor had a monetary sum attached to it would women’s labor have any value. Of course, the trouble is that even when domestic labor has had a monetary value attached – work as a maid or nanny, for instance – that value has nevertheless been very low. Regardless, they did have a point. As long as society values things by attaching a monetary sum to it, how can we end the devaluation of domestic labor without finding a way to give it a monetary value?

Of course, another way of addressing this problem, rather than arguing that wages must be attached to women’s domestic labor, might be to challenge the idea that wages = value. Now yes, we as a society pay lip service to the importance of motherhood and care giving. But if we truly valued it, we would pay the same lip service when men do the same things. Anyway, challenging the stranglehold monetary figures have on value might have the added benefit of challenging the idea that wage earning is superior to a life of, say, voluntary public service. While this idea might seem revolutionary, I should point out that the extent to which we tie value to wage earning itself is, as Boydston points out, relatively new.

All this is to say that challenging the idea that women should be expected to do either all or the majority of the housework and childcare must involve more than just pointing out, as I did, that if two people share the wage earning it only makes sense that they should share the housework and childcare. And more than that, my pointing out that I earn more than my husband, while intended primarily to shock my father in law, did play into the idea that value is measured in wages and that wage earners ought not to have to dirty their hands with things like housework. Challenging the expectation that women should do either all or the majority of the housework must involve also challenging the devaluation of housework and childcare that is so thoroughly rooted in the fact that these things have traditionally been assigned to women.

As I have said before, if we want to reach a truly egalitarian society we need to get rid of the idea that women who aspire to careers are moving up while men who take a turn at domestic labor are moving down. But sadly, even proud feminists like me sometimes slip up and unintentionally find themselves saying things that support the very hierarchies they are trying so hard to deconstruct. Mea culpa. I’m a work in progress.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • E

    And this is how it’s done.
    You say something, people call you out for it, you think about what you said, and when you find that you were wrong, you apologize. Simple as that.
    Thank you Libby Anne.

    • Charlesbartley

      Indeed. Well said.

  • Katty

    I find what you say about the value we attach to “women’s” labor very interesting. This goes beyond housework, which has traditionally been perceived as the woman’s domain. The devaluation of work done by women also applies to jobs outside the home. You mentioned the low wages paid for caregiving jobs. The interesting (and very depressing) thing is that you can see this devaluation in action even now.

    I can’t speak for the US, since I am not from there and don’t know enough about it, but where I live in Europe more and more women are becoming doctors. And as more women are taking up this traditionally male profession, both the image and the average earnings of doctors are deteriorating. The “Gods in white” are not becoming “Godesses in white”. Rather it is becoming less prestigious and less financially rewarding to be a doctor.

    The same thing happened a number of decades ago, when female teachers were becoming the norm. When teaching used to be an almost exclusively male profession, teachers were highly respected, even feared. The teacher ranked about as high as the pastor in a typical village. Nowadays, teaching is done predominantly by women, and look at how overworked, underpaid and generally undervalued they are! Most parents would shake their heads if their kid wanted to become a teacher and ask them if they can’t do anything more worthwhile.

    • Ibis3

      A similar trend can be seen in academia. At one time, it was more prestigious to study Humanities than the Sciences (probably ultimately rooted in spiritual/material dualism). But once universities really opened up to women and there came to be more women in the Humanities, that entire field became devalued.

    • Pauline

      As an English major, I learned that poets had once, in olden days, been highly respected, that epic poetry was considered the highest art form. As a poet, it made me jealous, knowing how little people respect you for writing poetry nowadays. As a woman, I noted that in the olden days when poetry was respected, it was written exclusively by men.

  • Christine

    Paraphrasing from my gender studies course (i.e. I can’t remember the citation). Back in the early days of computers, programming was considered a fairly high-status job in business. Men did it. In academia (and possibly general science) it was a technician’s job. Women did it. I don’t know which way the cause and effect went, but it was there.

    I also recall seeing a blog entry someone posted where she disputed the standard “what’s a mom worth” calculation. Please note that the gender assumptions were in the original post. Basically her logic went “You don’t need to make 100k to afford to go back to work, therefore that number must be wrong”. She calculated out what a stay-at-home mom would earn for her work, which is neither of the relevant calculations. (Calculation a is what it would cost the family to live that way if they had to hire out all that labour, some of which would be done by working parents tool; calculation b is all the costs associated with having a job, which are entirely different than what you’d get paid for at-home work). I agree that the media’s darling “what’s a stay-at-home mom worth” number is stupid, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s socially acceptable to value everyone’s work in terms of dollars and cents, at a market wage.

    • OurSally

      Actually we calculated it, by the “try it and see” method. The cleaning lady costs 5 Euro per hour, so 50 Euro a week. The childminder cost 6 Euro per hour per child. Easy peasy, as a software person it makes economic sense for me to work.

      The problem I see is the housewives I know, who try and keep busy by cleaning the whole house every single day, by shopping every day, by ironing bedclothes and socks, just so they can say they have been working. But is it work if it doesn’t need doing? These are the people the rest of us judge it by.

      Surely wages for housework is the same as a state-supported housemaid for every man, and we definitely don’t want that – they already get enough tax-breaks as it is.

      Incidentally, when we got wed the German system expected that if a pair defined their marriage as worker-housewife she got a guaranteed portion of his earnings. This was the law in those days and quite justified at that time. But those days are over.

      • Christine

        The number you’re listing is the “what would be earned for this work” though, not the total cost to have you work. I’m assuming, however, that you looked at the total. If I was in software I don’t know that we’d bother looking at the numbers – you have to have a lot of kids before a software job doesn’t result in a net gain in money. Granted, if I was in software, I’d be pushing my husband to stay home, because it’s not like we’d have a need for any additional income at that point.

        Your point about wages for housework was made to me by an officemate when we were discussing the income-splitting initiative that the government was trying to get re-elected on. He pointed out to me that a family with one person making $80,000 is already much better off than one with two people each making $40,000, and may even have more disposable income, even though their taxes are higher.

        I think that it’s good sense to ensure that if one partner is staying home to take care of the house and family that they should have income, it helps reduce abuse where the partner who has a job dictates everything and threatens the other partner with poverty. It’s also useful in cases where one person is between jobs, or earns a lot less than the other.

  • machintelligence

    We are all works in progress (or should be.)
    There is another axis of variability to be considered: what I call the work with the hands or work with the head factor. This is the same as the white collar vs blue collar or lower vs middle class. More value is placed on jobs which do not involve getting your hands dirty. The current trend in education is to push everyone into the college track, whether they have the aptitude or not, and to de-emphasize or eliminate all of the practical or “shop” classes. A college education is not required to be a competent auto mechanic or electrician, but students are steered away from these occupations. We can’t all sit at desks and do computer spread sheets, but that seems to be the direction we are heading (at least in the USA).

    The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
    John W. Gardner

    • Pauline

      Hear, hear!

    • Carys Birch

      I love that quote!

      (Although, if we think philosophy is highly valued, maybe more of us should be on the job market with a philosophy degree. I just landed my third call center job in a row. /sigh)

  • Anat

    A college education is not required to be a competent auto mechanic or electrician,

    Yet I see local community colleges offering those tracks. Is an Associate degree now a requirement, or is this trend intended for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t choose the training in high school?

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      In the past I believe those tracks would have been vocational school courses (I know my father studied TV repair in his day), so I think an Associate is roughly the same.

      • Anat

        See, at my daughter’s high school a student can take about 3 credits in auto technology, while the community college nearby offers an Associates degree for this. So I’m wondering if the high school graduate can go and get a job based on the high school courses or would they need to study 2 more years.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

        You need to go to school for auto repair. These days, autos are way more complicated with all the sensors and other electronics. An associates degree or other certificate is pretty standard as many technical colleges offer auto repair and plumbing and such.

    • Rosa

      it depends on the high school program – the high school I graduated from offers auto mechanic, CNA, wind power tech, and carpentry courses in conjunction with the local community college that are designed to feed directly into that college, local employers, or union apprenticeship programs. Kids who complete the full high school program have the same certification and work hours as those who get an AA, but it’s also possible to take just some of the coursework as regular high school electives.

  • Don Gwinn

    It’s sort of an idealist notion that “a blog is an interactive conversation between writer and readers,” but you don’t see it work that way most of the time on “real” issues. Kudos.

  • Sam

    This is kind of a tangent but I feel like I have to say it. I value housework, but it really grates on me when people say “Being a stay-at-home mom is the hardest job in the world.” First of all, it’s a gendered statement. No one says, “Being a stay-at-home PARENT is the hardest job in the world.” The exclusion of stay-at-home dads is sexist on two accounts; either it implies that men who stay home are lazy and don’t really do any work (a plat-at-home dad), or it implies that this work is somehow harder for women, and that they deserve kudos for it while men don’t. Furthermore, it implies that working parents don’t do the things that stay-at-home-parents do…..what do they think? Children of working parents are dirty and starving? I would be more inclined to agree if people said being a parent, working or not, is the hardest job in the world. Parenting is 24/7 regardless of if you also have paid employment.

    All this being said, housework and such is not a job in my opinion. Yes, it is hard work, but it is, as Anne pointed out, part of functioning as an adult!! Feeding yourself and cleaning up after yourself is something that all adults (and even children of a certain age) should be able to do, not something that only certain individuals should train and prepare for. The thing that bothers me when a family decided to split up wage earning and housework “traditionally” is that I believe that all members of the house should contribute to running the household, ie the unpaid labor that it takes to run a home. My ex-boyfriend’s dad was one of the laziest men I ever met; yes, he would work a 9-5, but he would come home and plop down in front of the tv, never even spending time with his son, and certainly never dirtying his hands with domestic duties. Wage earning is not enough to contribute to the family; if you do nothing else for your family, you may as well be just sending a child support check. Furthermore, what would he do if his wife died or got sick or something? He had never done laundry, made his own dinner, cleaned up after himself…..he would be helpless! This man is not a fully functioning adult.

    By contrast, my current boyfriend’s family has this “traditional” labor structure, but his dad does domestic work when he is home. He doesn’t expect his wife to wait on him hand and foot. You would never find him on the couch while his wife is doing the dishes; he does them with her, side-by-side. He even does the cooking part of the time when he is homesick and wants southern cooking!

    Also, the belief that “women haven’t worked outside the home” is ridiculous since for a long time in the United States, men didn’t work outside the home either. Especially in farming households, everyone contributed to running the household. Why else do you think babies were born in fields (like my great-uncle by the way)?? Because women (like my great-grandma) were out working on the farm!

    Conclusion: Housework, while valuable, is not a “job” that certain individuals train a prepare for, and something that people with other jobs shouldn’t concern themselves with. It is something that all children should be taught to do with pride from a young age in order to grow into capable, well-adjusted adults.

    • http://www.kisarita.blogspot.com ki sarita

      I object to the statement for different reasons… In my view, being a parent is NOT a job. Being a parent is a relationship.
      Parenthood is not the same as housekeeping or childcare. Wealthy parents who hire nannies and housekeepers are still parents.
      Parenthood is full time no matter what your job is.

      • Sam

        I completely agree with you there! ParentHOOD is a state of being…..you can’t put in your two weeks notice and decide not to do it anymore!

    • HelenaTheGrey

      Being a parent is 24/7 no matter what, yes, but being a working parent is NOT the same as being a stay at home parent. By saying the two are the same undervalues the work that has to go in to actually spending that time raising a child. It is work chasing a toddler around all day, which is why they charge insane amounts to keep them in a day care. No one assumes that working parents don’t do any parenting. But spending 14 hours with an awake toddler is in no way the same as spending 4 or 5 hours in the same conditions. And unless your boss screams at you for no reason, throws temper tantrums, or has the vocabulary of a 2 year old, then your work situation is probably not the same. And all the while, society “values” your immense contribution to society by being in the working class, whereas the stay at home parent is seen as doing zero work because working parents do as much as stay at home parents in the parenting arena AND they go to a job all day.

      • Kodie

        It is work chasing a toddler around all day, which is why they charge insane amounts to keep them in a day care.

        I worked in a daycare 20 years ago for over a year with infants, and it costs “insane amounts” because they have to pay a mortgage or rent on the property, utilities, insurance, sometimes a cleaning staff and a cooking staff, a lot of furniture and toys, and the wages of a minimum required number of people, some with early childhood certification, for the amount of children that are enrolled, depending on what ages they are. For the infants, no certification was (then) required in New York State, and at least 1 careworker per 3 infants. I made $5.50/hr as a college graduate with no certification and worked with 3 other women to take care of 9 infants 5 days a week. As they expanded the number of infants to a second room, I was tasked with transitioning the older ones to the toddler room – for several hours a day, taking 15-18month old babies, like all of 2 of them to personally escort and assist them in a room where I think the ration was 4-5 toddlers per caregiver, plus me and 2-3 pre-toddlers so they could play with sand, get to meet the other kids, or climb on the little gym outside. At least the place I worked, the people (except one woman I worked with) cared about taking care of children, since I hear a lot of rumors that “dumping them off”, you don’t really know if they’re being looked after well. Our director was an early childhood expert and took care to observe us and train us – especially those that didn’t come from school to work in this field, even if most of the women I worked with were “qualified” by being a mother already.

        Anyway, you’re paying a lot to get the divided, but child-intensive, attention of a low-wage worker, plus the facility itself and all its legal expenses, not only so you have the freedom to work, but so your kids get a whole structured play day with up to 20 or so other kids the same age, every day. It is not the same as running after one toddler or running after a toddler while you have an infant – I think that’s a different, lonelier kind of work. Imagine if you had your kids and other people’s kids together in a separate building, and someone else chased after your toddler for you sometimes while you were feeding lunch to some other kid, plus all the toys that are too big to put in your own house, or too expensive to have all of them. Imagine the work of childcare with a lot of help from a lot of other people to watch after a handful of kids each, and you got $45 dollars at the end of the day, well now it’s probably a lot more, and I didn’t have a terrible time at that job so I’d do it but they require an ECC for all positions now where I live.

      • Kodie

        And unless your boss screams at you for no reason, throws temper tantrums, or has the vocabulary of a 2 year old, then your work situation is probably not the same.

        I actually did have a boss like this, an adult man, and it was the lowest paid job I ever had. I mean, not even minimum wage. It was some non-profit, and I worked 6 days a week, was badgered into extending most of my working days by “volunteering” and by the end of it, was asked to do someone’s job who quit plus my job for no increase in pay. I think that was technically called a “stipend” and I was a volunteer, but that wasn’t made clear to me at the outset. I’m just bringing this up separately – it was not the daycare job, since that was above min. wage at the time. At the job I’m talking about, I got to take home $150/week to work almost 60 hours and he was way more demanding, childish, and prone to firing fits if things didn’t go his way than grateful. If that is even a little what it’s like being a parent, do not want. He had some kind of delusion that workers could be dedicated into raising over a million dollars for a new facility, when I did the math, I didn’t even clear $10,000 for myself, and that’s when he really started to get mad at me for not trying harder or caring as much as he did.

        I don’t know if you were joking that some people don’t actually have bosses like that.

    • Christine

      I had a (somewhat unfortunate) disagreement with a friend over this. While I feel that staying at home (in some cases even without kids) is a valid choice, I hate it when people refer to it as a career. Yes, there can be a lot of benefits. Yes, it can (in many cases) result in you breaking even or saving money. Yes, you should be valued as much as someone who is in the workforce. No, it’s not a career. I’ve always felt that insisting that it’s a career a) devalues all the sacrifices required when people choose (for whatever reason) to have both parents hold down outside jobs, and b) always felt to me like it removes the ability to choose – you MUST have a career. Would you like one inside or outside the house?

      • Tracey

        The other aspect is that in most families, the babies grow older and go to school for 6 hours a day. Add time on the bus, and the kids are gone 7 hours out of every day. Where I live there are a whole cluster of women who do not work outside the home, whose kids are gone 7 hours a day, and yet to hear their stories of horrific martyrdom, you’d think they were spent their free time pushing boulders uphill in the blazing sun.

        Really, what’s the difference in parenting of a situation where two working parents flex their hours so one wakes the child up, gets the child ready, and puts the child on a bus and the other picks up the child off the bus and gets started on homework until the other parent gets home… and someone who puts the children on the bus and then spends the next 7 hours childless? The child sees no difference, yet the stay-at-home parent is lauded as a holy sainted martyr, and the woman who goes off to work is called filthy names and told she doesn’t deserve to have children.

      • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

        I once accidentally started a flamewar on a SCA mailing list, when I made a post expressing frustration at people who look at my textile work (costumes, embroidery etc) and say “oh, I’d love to do that sort of stuff but I’ve got no time.” Coming from the head of the Illuminator’s Guild that statement isn’t a problem because I know what he means is “I’d rather spend my time doing illuminations and calligraphy.” Coming from people who don’t do anything within the SCA and who don’t have busy lives outside the SCA, it’s really annoying and quite offensive. I got a lot of screaming posts from SAHMs and SAHDs who insisted they have to spend a lot of time looking after their families. They insisted they didn’t have any time because their families took up all their spare time. But I also got a lot of support from people who have families, jobs, health problems etc and still manage to develop SCA skills or take on demanding roles.

        I’ve been involved in a few social organisations like the SCA, and I’ve often found it’s the busy people who tend to take on the executive roles – the ones with fewer demands in their lives never seem to have time to actually do anything.

      • Christine

        I’m going to have to say that, even if you’re able to get two jobs with that much flex hours, there’s a lot of difference. My school bus never picked me up until around 8:00 am, so to have my mom go and put in a full day’s work after that would have meant that either we wouldn’t be able to count on dinner as a family – I had bedtime around 8:30 in my memory, so it can’t have been that short a period of time that there wouldn’t have been time – or that other changes to hours would have had to be made. I also tended to get home around 4:00 or so. Even offices that have flex hours generally don’t let people get home early enough to meet the bus, unless you’re lucky enough to have short hours and a short commute. (The other difference is that the parents who have managed to get this kind of flex time are spending their time at home on keeping the place running, not on cooking & crafts, but while those are standard in the sacrifices that families make to let both parents have jobs, they aren’t that big a deal in the long run).

      • Anat

        Christine, elementary schools often have after-school care. So if school lets out at about 3 or 3:30 the kids can stay a few more hours, have a snack, do homework, and play until their parents pick them up.

      • Christine

        Sorry, I was thinking of my bus – straight home after school. After-school care was something done pretty much by the kids whose parents both worked outside jobs. I’m not saying that it needs to be the same, (or that it’s impossible), just that there is a difference. I personally hold daycare, after-school care, etc as being one of the benefits of having both parents work, not one of the detriments. (I don’t know why I’d say this, given that it would have meant more time with my classmates in elementary school, but apparently I hate kids ;) )

  • Rilian

    I don’t think that comment devalues housework. I think there’s an assumption that women will make less money at their jobs, so therefore they have to make up the difference in “contribution” by doing housework. And you’re just pointing out that you make more money, so you don’t have anything to “make up” in that regard. That actually values housework, I think. What it devalues is the people in the relationship. It makes them just whatever money and/or physical labor they put into the household.

    • http://www.kisarita.blogspot.com ki sarita

      excellent formulation of the issue rilian.

    • Kodie

      Maybe it’s that we value money more than time, or obviously think money buys us more time. When you’re a partner in a household, money should not be the issue – if one person is still working while the other rests their feet up, then that’s not equality. I guess when couples look at their bank account and don’t feel like partners, they say well I put all that money in there and you did all the housework, which took significantly longer per day than my job, I don’t get it. A person in a household thinks they can buy their status the same way they can outside of the relationship, but they don’t want to spend any of that money (or time) on helping the other party since they get it for free, and the other person can’t complain. They are contributing little that society values – even childcare*. Their job is to keep one house clean and orderly for all the other people who live there, and that the other person thinks they can buy relaxation in that order from the other person’s labor is whack.

      *I’m not saying this has no value – I’m saying society doesn’t tend to look ahead to the value of it now for the future.

    • Christine

      There’s also an assumption that women put in less time at their jobs. Someone went and did a study to look at this. It was based off the popular media reports that even if both the husband and the wife worked full time, the wife did more housework. However the researcher looked at the numbers of hours worked at each job, and came to the conclusion that it was balanced by the extra hours that men (on average) put in at work. It makes sense to me – with a lot of the couples we know the wife works an admin assistant or retail position somewhere.

      What I have questioned ever since seeing this is WHY the woman was working fewer hours. Was it because that’s the job she happened to have, or was the job she had chosen so that it wouldn’t interfere with housework? I say this as someone who has, on occasion, looked at the clock and ran home because it was my turn to make dinner, and work had gotten very engrossing. (As a graduate student you set your own hours pretty much entirely.)

      • Rosa

        or possibly the work she “chose” because her partner would not interrupt his work schedule to do parenting, which is much more time-sensitive than housework.

        My partner is very involved, compared to a more “traditional” father – he is often the only man in a roomful of father’s who ever changed a diaper, when we are in social gatherings, for instance – but he was just absolutely not going to take the number of days off from his job (EVEN THOUGH HE HAD THE VACATION TIME SAVED UP) to deal with all the doctor and therapy appointments our son had last year, much less all the times the school sent him home for bad behavior or he was sick with something mundane like whooping cough or the puking illness that goes around the elementary school after every school break. 75% of it fell on me just because I was less stubborn about it – dad would send kiddo to school with a fever, because “he has to learn to suck it up like a grownup”.

        Part of this is individual – my partner’s parents are both workaholics who don’t believe in staying home just because you’re sick – but part of it has to be gendered because I know so many het parent couples that fall into that same pattern. She *has* to be the one to interrupt work for a sick child or elderly parent, because he just won’t. Unlike dirty laundry or even a fairly urgent home repair, needy humans can’t always just wait til you’re done with your important work project.

      • Anat

        To Rosa: Wow! Whooping cough is no ordinary illness. And sending a kid with a fever to school really should never be done, I’m not even sure if it is legal anymore – that’s just the way to start (or feed) an epidemic.

        In our family it is usually my husband who does the emergency care – he has more vacation time saved up and the nature of his work is such that it can be more easily interrupted and continued, even from home. Of course now that the daughter is in high school she doesn’t need supervision if she is home with a cold or something of that kind, so the need for emergency care is limited.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

        Pertussis is not ordinary and can be quite deadly.

      • Rosa

        Whooping cough has sadly become fairly ordinary around here, we’ve had it come through our school every year my child’s been in school. For those who are immunized it’s not such a big deal – they get mild cases, if they get it at all – but it does take a long time to get over and require missing several days of school/work.

  • Karen

    Here is a contrasting opinion on the value of domestic work by a housewife who is proud of never holding a job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

      Oh my…
      Here is another entry linked to the one you shared: http://thelegacyofhome.blogspot.com/2011/10/bossy-wives.html

      He’s going to refuse to do something because she dared to bring it up first? What an ass!

      • Sarah

        Holy cats … where to start with that blog? First of all, Grace Kelly was practically a prisoner in Monoco and Prince Rainier always sounded like a controlling jerk. Second, plenty of men DO nag their wives – but then, I guess that’s that’s called “leadership” when a man tells you to do something.

      • Karen

        I read that; seriously, what kind of a jerk refuses to make a necessary repair because his wife mentioned it at all? Apparently good wives stew in silence and build up resentment instead of mentioning what bothers them. That’s so much healthier.

  • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

    A side note, but I really needed to hear this quote: “The image of the colonial “goodwife,” valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of a “dependent” and a “non-producer.””
    Its one of the things I have had to keep reminding myself of the last 12 months while unable to find paid employment – I AM making a contribution to the household. Sometimes I forget this.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      Often, said colonial “goodwife” was also running a cottage industry–sewing, raising poultry, making cheese, soap or candles, keeping bees, weaving ribbons, fattening pigs, etc. This contributed to both the household running and the household finances.

    • Emmers

      To be fair, colonial goodwives had to spend AN ENTIRE DAY DOING LAUNDRY. Labor-saving devices make *some* of these arguments moot, as long as you don’t take the labor thus saved and squander it on stupid things (ironing underwear or whatever).

      Which is not to devalue what *is* done — only to note that it’s not remotely equivalent to what was happening in the Little House days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

    The hardest part of our marriage and life together has been splitting up chores. We’re still working things out a year and a half later of life together. There was a time while I was working and going to school while he was only going to school. I really resented that he didn’t instantly do more housework but then I realized that his taking 18 credits compared to my 12 tended to even things out.

  • Kodie

    The problem I’ve seen – I’m not married nor have kids, but I have been, for most of my working adulthood, in secretarial positions mainly – everyone thinks they can do all the little things that need to get done if they had the time. At one job, the boss, an engineer, would call me into his office to put staples in his stapler. At the same office, people would walk past the bookshelf to put a binder they had taken on my desk for me to put back. I have seen some rather poor effects of people in upper positions doing things themselves too. At one of my more recent jobs, I had a Ph.D. successful doctor of psychology proudly say again and again that if he hadn’t gotten his Ph.D., he’d have to dig ditches and it’s a good thing since he doesn’t know how to dig ditches. Doesn’t know how?

    Everyone can understand that it’s better to be the master than the servant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Women in subservient adjunct household roles know this and men with jobs outside the home know they don’t want to switch. Regardless, there are things that need to be done, and it’s often been seen in the past that the one who isn’t kept away all day has the time to do it. Isn’t that convenient that they should be home too. It’s hard to see the value in that work when someone else is constantly measuring how much you do compared to how much they do, or how you are only valued in this home vs. valued out there in the world by other people.

    It’s one of the things I hate about work. As indispensable as I start off feeling, efficient and organized and capable, there doesn’t seem to be an end to people telling me how easy it is, how fast I should get everything done, and how, if they only had time, they’d be doing all that stuff themselves. I didn’t like the relationships I’ve had either. I think this is a fundamental part of it. I don’t like being evaluated for what I’m expected to have accomplished by the time he walks through the door, of having my work inspected (it has happened), and given pointers how to improve. They are lucky I lifted a finger at all with that sort of attitude. I am not a cleaner, nor a cook, and I don’t really love having a job outside the home either because I’m not qualified for anything I’d consider worth my effort. The gist of it is, that work is valuable and it’s the people there who stink. You’re paid low wages and then they make you feel like you’re lucky you get even that much, since they could do it themselves for free if they wanted to. But they don’t want to be demoted, nobody does.

    Essentially why traditional “women’s” work is devalued is because everyone knows that stuff has to get done but they don’t want to be the one stuck with doing it. When a woman also works outside the home, the childcare (if there are children) gets hired out. Eventually, they are in school for 12 years, except summers and holidays and when they’re sick, and by then, they can have their own job. It’s when a man thinks he has worked all day and now comes home to relax and wind down, he still expects dinner. Well, when I worked, I ate take-out a lot. I know the feeling of coming home and not wanting to do chores! That is a nice, entitled feeling, that someone else can make my dinner and I can watch TV instead. If there is work to be done running a household and one person clocks out at 5 or 6 and the other still needs to keep going, that’s not fair. But the person who just took their shoes off and found the clicker doesn’t want to add more work! Equality doesn’t seem to manage to sell the more privileged member of the couple on adding more work to their day. Someone has to do it, but none of it’s fun or relaxing. Even if a wife stayed home while the husband was at work, why is she still burdened with being on the clock when he comes home? Because the work never ends. People need to be fed, children need to be bathed or helped with homework or picked up at dance classes. It isn’t anything like a job that ends at 5:00. The work is devalued because it’s servitude, and because there’s an impression that if you’re home, nobody’s watching over your shoulder. This is a problem with work in general, but what gets accomplished if it takes one person all day, if it takes another person 2-1/2 hours of their day, or if it costs money to hire someone to do it? What actually happens if the work doesn’t get done? That’s the value of having it done by someone.

    • Kodie

      I should also add the irony of a man who doesn’t notice or initiate housework tends to have a keen eye when it’s not done to his specifications. A lot of household chores are taken away from men who mess them up and admit they are not as good as the wife at doing them, until there comes a time when they see the speck of lint on the carpet, the food is overdone, the shirt had too much starch, etc.

      • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

        I get that all the time. What helps when I find my DH micromanaging is that I tell him “Help out, or go away. “

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

        “A lot of household chores are taken away from men who mess them up”

        This is a real problem in many relationships. Other people aren’t going to do things your way and as long as it gets done, the person should be left to do it as they see fit. I’ve had too many friends complain about their SO’s not doing work to their standards without realizing that it’s their SO’s house too.

      • TheSeravy

        Within this traditional set up, it has always been the sense of entitlement that bothered me the most.
        Like my father, I think some people don’t realize how good they have it within that set up and that they are treating their spouses very poorly.

        I’m glad you brought up secretarial positions because they are the office DW-40; without them, it is painful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve see bosses completely fall apart whenever the admin assistant is away. Unfortunately, they are at the bottom of the totem pole and are seen as the easiest to replace because it’s “women’s work”.

    • machintelligence

      blockquote>if he hadn’t gotten his Ph.D., he’d have to dig ditches and it’s a good thing since he doesn’t know how to dig ditches. Doesn’t know how?
      He needn’t have worried. The learning curve for ditch digging isn’t very steep — in fact it slopes down.

      there doesn’t seem to be an end to people telling me how easy it is, how fast I should get everything done, and how, if they only had time, they’d be doing all that stuff themselves.

      Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.
      Alternatively: Nice job, what took you so long?

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    Very interesting history! I think people frequently forget/don’t realize that women were economic producers and that their labor was essential to their family’s success. I think that forgetting is, in itself, a devaluation.

  • smrnda

    I think some of the devaluation of domestic labor might actually be that it’s become less time and labor intensive to do. Before lots of modern conveniences, a task like doing laundry would have been pretty difficult. These days, you throw the stuff in the machine, flip the switch and it goes, then you take it out and put it in the dryer. We’ve even got clothes that pop out all nice and smooth without needing ironing these days.

    That’s what I thought of when your father in law boasted of never doing laundry – it wouldn’t be that taxing of a job for him to do, and it made him sound like a pretty lazy guy who isn’t going to expend a tiny bit of effort to wash some clothes because it’s ‘women’s work.’ Saying “I’ve never done laundry,” to me, means “I’m too lazy to push a button.”

    This is the thing that gets me; almost all men I know who are near my age had a pretty long period of time between when they left home and when they got into a long term relationships, so all of them had a number of years when they would have had to do housework for themselves. True, some just let those standards slide, but most just accepted housework as something that you do.

  • Scotlyn

    Strangely, I came at this connection between “women’s work” & it’s low value from another angle – which was looking at the issue of the working conditions in prostitution & domestic work (most of which IS carried out by women, but which does also include some male workers).

    It struck me one day, with some force, that there is a domestic sphere, that women are supposed to be the rulers of (and vis-a-vis Debi Perl be HAPPY & fulfilled in), and that complementarians really expect women to joyfully be expressing their inner feminine natures when engaged in the duties pertaining to that sphere – housework, caring & sex. Because such duties are to emerge directly (somehow) from a woman’s feminine nature asserting itself, and because the domestic sphere exists largely in private, this leads to a situation where the duty is supposed to be its own reward, therefore requiring no payment at all, in fact, being shamed by payment. When such work attempts to emerge out of the private, domestic sphere into the marketplace – in prostitution, domestic work, & often caring work (although perhaps less so in unionised shops like teaching & nursing), the “invisible” & domestic nature of the work, & its normal performers, makes it difficult for workers who need to be paid to have that work properly valued & recognised.

    Perhaps we need to challenge our very notions of domesticity, & the private sphere.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    I agree with Smrnda. There is something to be said about the difference between laundry, dishes, and cooking today vs. decades ago. If DH and I were to pick one of us to work outside the home and one to do the house chores, the stay-at-home would spend far less time working, because there really is less to do. Of course, at this time we have no children, so I have no idea that dynamic would play out if we did.

    • Anat

      Unless the at-home person also does projects – whether home repair, sewing, large scale vegetable gardening – there really isn’t that much in a household with no children (and even one with children who are at school for 6.5 hours a day). Projects such as I mentioned reduce spending so can be viewed as income-generating, albeit indirectly.

  • Nurse Bee

    I don’t even really think earning power has as much to do with it. I earn more than my husband, but I work less (24 hrs/week compared to his 40hrs/week) and I arrive home before he does, so I do the majority of the housework, cooking, and childcare. For us it’s not a matter of traditional gender roles, but of what makes more sense and who has more time. ie. I’m not going to leave my children in daycare until he gets off at 6pm if I get off at 4pm.

  • Judy L.

    [T]he cultural backdrop to the conversation was the connotation that by having a career and earning money I have moved up, all the while forcing my husband down by expecting him to share the housework and childcare.

    And that is precisely the wall that feminism runs into: When women are devalued and unpaid labour (which is mostly done by women) is devalued, getting men to ‘give up their power’ by doing ‘women’s work’ is really, really hard, and exponentially so in cultures and families who follow fundamentalist religions. And it’s all reinforced by a societal and economic structure that clearly defines what kinds of work it deems most valuable and desirable, putting child and elder care and housekeeping at the very bottom, and hedge fund management and vulture capitalism right at the top, creating a topsy-turvy world where those who really do the least and game the system are rewarded the most, and those who do the most and generally the most dirty and unpleasant work are paid the least or not at all.

    It has changed a whole lot and in many places in the world the men of my generation and younger (I’m older than you, Libby Anne) regard housework and childcare as both their responsibility and something to take pride in doing well even if it’s something they hate, and I think that unless a person is completely self-absorbed, experiencing the unpleasant work that other people do instills an appreciation for other people’s efforts. I understand why people who can afford to hire someone else to do the chores they dislike or don’t want to spend their off-hours doing, but I’m finding increasingly that disregarding and denigrating the value of housework and other manual labour is less an issue of gender and more an issue of class (it’s really always been an issue of class in the case of low-wage paid labour). But ultimately it’s the same principle: If you regard certain types of work as beneath you, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that those who do those types of work are also beneath you, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing them, and that those types of work are the proper purview of those you regard as inferior.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    I’ve been really conflicted about this, and I’m so glad to be able to read other people’s opinions through the detached safety of a screen. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I am the only female grandkid (out of 8) who is getting a post-grad degree, and the only one who is NOT planning to be a stay-at-home mom. When I’ve brought up this topic I’ve been strongly told that it’s soooo much work keeping the house going that there is just no time for the woman to hold a job even after the kids are in school. Mind you, this is in a culture that has hired household help. Sure, my mom did a lot of running around during the day, but a lot of it really seemed unnecessary and busy work – do you really need to to three different grocery stores, at least three times a week? I’m sure that the quality of life would be the same if she had an outside job, but it would be much more efficient.

    I’m also dealing with quite a bit of sexism because of this. It’s now 5:11 am and I’m taking my first break after working on a paper all night. My mom is at my place for the holidays (for much longer than I offered!), and as a grad student, I still have a bunch of work to do. I haven’t been able to do any of it during the day, though, because I’m expected to play hostess. I see the males in my family getting all this leeway because they have “work”, but the same doesn’t apply to me. I’ve slept 3 hours a night for the past week, but she still doesn’t get it. Gggr.

    • http://www.kisarita.blogspot.com ki sarita

      it is not easy to be a trailblazer in your family.
      you do not have to do anything in your own home that you don’t want to but putting your foot down is easier said than done- especially when you are the cultural outsider.
      Much luck to you.
      I found the books of Harriet Goldhor Lerner to be very helpful in navigating change and resistance both internally and within family relationships.

      • Rovin’ Rockhound

        Thanks, Ki. I’m running on caffeine and not thinking particularly clearly at this point. It’s good to be reminded that I am supposed to have some control!
        It’s a bit of a sucky situation and I think I have to suck it up at least for now. My dad died ten years ago, and now my mom is about to become an empty nester – completely empty – when my brother leaves for college. I think she’s scared that she’s going to become worthless, without the mission of her last 28 years (No children! This is one more reason I support mothers working outside the home), living alone in a politically unstable place with her kids abroad. You are really not supposed to leave your parents’ house until you are married, so the fact that we’ll both be independent while still single is difficult for her to accept (yeah, marriage is another thorny issue right now). I need to make sure I draw some boundaries in the next few months before she suddenly has a lot of time on her hands and decides to visit long-term, like my aunt does with her daughters. If she does, I will never graduate.
        My shrink got me to admit at one point that I wished I were born a boy. It’s not about being transsexual – it’s that having a penis comes with completely different expectations.
        I will check out those books – thank you.

  • sarahbee

    Libby Anne, thanks for this. Between reading your original post and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article the other week [for those of you who missed the kerfuffle, the salient quote is: “I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.”], I was feeling pretty hated-upon. ;-)
    It’s a tough issue, one that I think many here have commented on here without experiencing. Even worse, it is fluid for the person doing the unpaid work: when it involves helping my child to master a skill or navigate a painful topic, it’s pretty easy to see the inherently rewarding part of my work. When it is spending a whole day cleaning up messes or menu planning or other tediums, I have a harder time justifying it to myself. In those times, I actually have to consciously divorce my work from the capitalist evaluation of my work. That is, I have internalized the valuelessness of my work, and I have to fight that idea in myself. It helps to remember that if I were living in a Zen monastery, doing the most tedious job would only be reserved to me if I were very advanced in my practice.
    I have three thoughts to add to this discussion:
    1. When we talk about hiring people to do the jobs we feel are economically beneath us, such as cleaning and child care, what are we saying about the relationship we have with the people we hire to do those jobs for us? What am I saying to my child if I elect to hire a woman (usually, in my city, a woman of color) to do the work I find intellectually or emotionally unfulfilling, presumably for less money that I make at a job that does meet my requirements? What messages am I sending?
    2. If one income is enough for my family, is it ethical for me to get a job outside the home? I can almost guarantee you that I will be competing for this job against someone whose family needs the money MUCH more than we do. Is it right to do so just to make a political point? When doing so would mean big changes for people inside and outside our home who currently benefit from my unpaid labor? I’m not saying I owe them my unpaid labor, just that I’m not comfortable saying I should cut back on volunteer hours because my work does not meet current feminist standards.
    3. One of the reasons being a stay-at-home parent is so hard is because it is also emotional labor, a factor that doesn’t often get considered in these conversations. If you really want to have an informed opinion, ask a stay-at-home parent what it’s like to do deep emotional labor for up to 24 hours a day with no compensation and, obviously, no potential. Ask her/him what it’s like to do it on days when she or he is feeling physically or, heaven forbid, mentally unwell. Then maybe discuss what it’s like to do this work in the context of a society that feels it’s not work, or not real work, or not meaningful work, and ask her/him how this undermines her/his approach to her/his work. Find out how hard it is to find fulfillment in a job that is difficult and unrecognized, and how much harder it is when people are telling you it’s not really a job. Find out how isolating it is, and how hard it becomes to deal with any frustrations that this work may cause, particularly when most people you might talk to don’t even consider it work, or who don’t think it’s acceptable to not love every moment spent with or on caring for your family. I think before you have answers, you should work harder at asking questions.