Shadow Work

Shadow Work October 28, 2016

Ivan Illich (Gender) points to the differences between the activities of a modern housewife and those of her grandmother. They are practically and economically quite distinct.

“When a modern housewife goes to the market, picks up the eggs, drives them home in her car, takes the elevator to the seventh floor, turns on the stove, takes butter from the refrigerator, and fries the eggs, she adds value to the commodity with each one of these steps. This is not what her grandmother did. The latter looked for eggs in the chicken coop, cut a piece from the lard she had rendered, lit some wood her kids had gathered on the commons, and added the salt she had bought. Although this example might sound romantic, it should make the economic difference clear. Both women prepared fried eggs, but only one uses a marketed commodity and highly capitalized production goods: car, elevator, electric appliances.”

One of the differences is that between “gender” and “sex”: “The grandmother carries out woman’s gender-specific tasks in creating subsistence; the new housewife must put up with the household burden of shadow work.”

According to Illich, “Shadow work could not have come into existence before the household was turned into an apartment set up for the economic function of upgrading value-deficient commodities. Shadow work could not become unmistakably women’s work before men’s work had moved out of the house to factory or office. Henceforth, the household had to be run on what the paycheck bought – one paycheck for the engineer and almost inevitably several to feed the hod carrier’s family, whose wife took in piecework, while his daughter hired out as a domestic.”

Illich thinks feminists are right to complain that women are discriminated against in shadow work. They do more of it, and they are paid nothing. What they miss, Illich argues, is that this sort of economic activity is not the product of residual patriarchy, or of traditional gendered work. It’s the opposite, the result of the collapse of gender into social sex.


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