A year of the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a new debate about how we divide housework and child rearing. Stories have frequently emerged of children passing by fathers to demand more from overworked and overwhelmed mothers and women at their breaking point. Now, some are calling for recognition of work in the home — from cooking to cleaning to child-care — as work and part of the nation’s infrastructure.
It is not surprising to see this framing. Since at least the late 19th century, feminists have worked to recognize and compensate the social and economic importance of housework. During the 1970s, the Wages for Housework campaign, a small international movement, argued that the labor done in the home was not just economically important but central to the functioning of capitalism.
Activists demanded a wage for women working in the house, because without them, the entire economy could not operate. They hoped exposing this truth would be a step toward the fundamental restructuring of society. Today the words and ideas of the Wages for Housework movement can help us understand how domestic labor is needed for the economy to function.
The Wages for Housework campaign began in 1972 in Padua, Italy, during a meeting of the International Feminist Collective (IFC), a feminist group that included women from six countries. The group saw “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community” by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, written in 1971, as its political foundation. The text argued that housework was not only central to women’s oppression but was labor in the same sense as work outside the home. According to Dalla Costa and James, housework was “social production” without which men wouldn’t be able to go to offices and job sites on a daily basis. They needed to be fed, clothed and generally cared for to adequately perform their jobs. For James and Dalla Costa, the way that housework underpinned the entire economy was invisible because it was unpaid and couched in the language of love.
Silvia Federici, an Italian American feminist in New York, agreed. “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work” she argued in her piece “Wages Against Housework.” Federici pulled no punches, asserting that every aspect of home life, from food preparation and child care to sex and intimacy, were unrecognized work that needed to be compensated.
These activists believed in “demystifying and subverting the role to which women have been confined” so that “we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it.” Refusal of housework did not mean neglect, but instead a rethinking of how we care for one another in ways not based on a gendered division of labor and capitalist social relations. For example, Federici argued for setting up communal day-care centers, then demanding the state pay for them, as opposed to “deliver[ing] our children to the State and then ask[ing] the State to control them.”
The initial chapter of the Wages for Housework campaign only lasted about five years, from 1972 to 1977. During that time, the theorists behind the campaign, like Federici, James, Dalla Costa and others, not only developed what they considered to be a new revolutionary perspective, they tried to put their theories into action.
To do this, Wages for Housework members in the United States, particularly the New York committee, looked to programs like Aid for Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Welfare Rights Movement for both inspiration and precedent.
The campaign argued that AFDC was a form of wages for the work done in the home. Wages for Housework saw in the Welfare Rights Movement, by then almost fully disintegrated, an example of women demanding compensation for the labor of caring for others. Linking its efforts to growing awareness of domestic violence, activists also emphasized that wages would allow the financial security for women to leave abusive relationships.
The New York committee centered its activities on places largely attended by women. They hung up fliers at laundromats, AFDC offices, and even opened a storefront on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn in 1975, where women could find information and support.
Activists printed newspapers, held conferences, organized rallies and even attempted to experiment with a Wages for Housework perspective in workplaces, which at one New York hospital included the formation of committees to fight for things like 24-hour child care and an end to gendered tasks in job descriptions.
Despite these efforts, the campaign remained on the margins of the feminist movement. While there were various other radical factions within the women’s movement, mainstream feminism remained tied to a strategy of gaining women’s entrance into the paid workforce (even though most working-class women were already doing just that). In 1977, Wages for Housework succumbed to the atomization and political infighting so endemic to the social movements of the era. The campaign ended for some, while for others, it has continued on to the present, including those who — since 2000 — have been organizing the Global Women’s Strike. While ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign to win a wage, the movement did provide a compelling framework for understanding the economics of housework.
After a year of sheltering in place and social distancing, with its various consequences, the demand for this type of universal wage seems all the more relevant. Certainly the alarming growth of domestic violence during the pandemic has made the availability of financial security for survivors urgent. And the tumultuous precarity of service sector employment, particularly for restaurant workers, has underscored the need for a universal income. The Wages for Housework campaign argued for the expansion of AFDC payments to all women, a formula that could be extended with regular stimulus payments today as wages for the increased work most people, and especially women, are doing in the home.
The Wages for Housework campaign reminds us that the labor done in the home, such as cooking and caring, is work. During a time when lives have been upended by the pandemic, it may just be the right moment to rethink how this work might be organized differently and to refuse a return to “normal.”
This article initially stated incorrectly that the Wages for Housework campaign folded in 1977. In fact, though some activists ceased to be part of Wages for Housework, the campaign itself did not end. Others have continued it, with a global focus and impact.