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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