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Cooking, cleaning, care: Politicising domestic labour (again)

For many women living with men and children, everyday life is an impossible balancing act. Like an overworked juggler, modern women are expected to keep all balls in the air, performing well at their jobs while also keeping a clean house, being a good mother and wife and looking after themselves. Often, the responsibility of care for other family or community members is also added to this list of things women need to do. Most caregivers in the Netherlands, for example, are women (Movisie 2016). It is a well-known fact that most women who live in partnerships with men are (made) responsible for most household chores. Even though the Netherlands has pretensions of being a progressive country, Dutch households are no exception (NOS 2020). 

In this article I will argue that feminists need to put the division of domestic labour back on the list of feminist priorities. First, though, I want to define domestic labour and introduce some useful Marxist feminist terms to describe the difference between domestic and paid labour. Domestic labour is any form of work within the household that other household members also benefit from, like cleaning, cooking and childcare. Some Marxist feminists describe domestic labour as ‘reproductive’ labour because of its repetitive nature (Exploring Economics Team 2016). Tasks like laundry, dishes and cleaning are Sisyphean: as soon you finish doing them, it will only be a matter of time before you have to do them again. The term ‘reproductive labour’ is contrasted with ‘productive’ labour, which produces goods and services that have a monetary value. Productive labour is rewarded with wages while reproductive labour goes uncompensated.

A meme in the style of Ancient Greco-Roman vases depicting Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill. The boulder is labelled 'The fucking dishes again'

A short history of household responsibilities and gender

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the Western world, liberalist thought split the world into a public sphere within the reach of the state (either a monarchy or parliament), and a private domain free from state intervention (Horwitz 1982, 1423). Reproductive labour was seen as the private and ‘feminine’ domain while productive labour was part of the public, ‘masculine’ domain. Women were responsible for offering their children and husbands a safe, warm and clean haven in their homes (Duncan 1973, 579). This division was held up in Western countries until the second wave of feminism in the 1960s-80s when an unprecedented number of middle- and upper-class women joined the public sphere by getting jobs. Second wave feminists hoped to gain more financial freedom by performing paid labour instead of staying at home, using Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique (Friedan 1963) to rally against the unequal divide between paid and unpaid labour. However, nothing changed in terms of the social and financial valuation of domestic work: reproductive work was still unpaid, invisible and seen as the responsibility of women (NOS 2020). 

This shift in the workforce coincided with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s: this capitalist economic ideology stresses personal responsibility for one’s own well-being and, in line with this, takes down government institutions and measures providing social security. This toxic combination meant that even more than before, housework was seen as the responsibility of individual households (Power and Mee 2020, 486). Neoliberal states did not provide any help and social resources for households, including families where both partners had a paid job. Even worse, as a result of this larger workforce, a two-income household became the new norm for making ends meet. Whereas previously men were paid enough to financially support a family (allowing women to fully focus on unpaid domestic work), now two full incomes are needed to sustain a family. In other words, on top of taking care of the majority of household tasks, women were now expected to also perform waged labour, essentially working two shifts every day (Rottenberg 2018, 8–9). Cruelly, women getting jobs did not give their families extra spending power but instead only meant that women’s work doubled. Silvia Federici, participant in the International Wages for Housework Campaign (IWFHC), summed it up nicely in 1974: 

“we don’t have to prove that we can ‘break the blue collar barrier.’ A lot of us have broken that barrier a long time ago and have discovered that the overalls did not give us any more power than the apron–quite often even less, because now we had to wear both and had even less time and energy to struggle against them” (Federici 2018)

Even though a redistribution and re-evaluation of housework has been a feminist agenda point since the 1960s, nothing much has changed. For decades now, women have asked their male partners to take up their fair share of household chores, to barely any effect: progress has been very slow and, at times, barely noticeable. In fact, the slight decrease between 2006 and 2016 in time Dutch mothers spent doing household chores can only be explained by technological innovation since Dutch fathers did not start spending more time on domestic work (Roeters 2019). For a while, it seemed like the first wave of the Covid pandemic might equalise gender roles in the domestic sphere. Since children had to stay home and most essential workers were women, fathers were home more often with their children. However, Dutch fathers barely took up more caretaking responsibilities and this shift was only temporary: it had no lasting effects (NOS 2022). As a result of this extra pressure, the mental health of mothers was impacted more by the pandemic than their male partners’ mental well-being (Intermediair, Motivaction, and Vacaturebank 2020). If you are a working mother of multiple children, the rate of changes as of right now barely brings any relief.

Why is the division of domestic labour an important feminist topic?

Since we are back to a pre-pandemic division of reproductive labour, it is time that we politicise the domestic sphere – again. Housework should be a feminist issue for two reasons. Firstly, domestic labour is very taxing: it takes up a lot of time, physical effort and mental real estate. This last factor, the considerable ‘cognitive load’ that domestic labour takes up for women, is an often-overlooked result of the unequal division of household chores between men and women. Not only are women taking on most physical tasks, but they are also the gatekeepers of the household, keeping track of people’s birthdays, children’s playdates and doctor’s appointments, garbage days, meal planning, pantry inventory etc. This type of mental work is even more invisible than physical domestic labour and, consequently, goes unacknowledged. A husband might feel like he is contributing equally to the family’s to-do list if he is ticking off half of the tasks, but it is still often his wife who takes on the extra mental burden of making the list, delegating the responsibilities and checking her husband’s work. An unequal division of housework between women and their male partners is so taxing that it often leads to resentment towards unhelpful husbands, unhappiness and, in a lot of cases, divorce (McCauley 2016; Nguyen 2022). Being responsible for a majority or even all of a family’s housework is overworking women, making them unhappy and straining their relationships.

Other than the mental toll that domestic labour takes on women’s happiness and relationships, it also limits their financial freedom. Because domestic labour is privatised in neoliberal capitalism, it is not seen as real labour that needs to be compensated with wages. This is unfair because women’s housework is essential for supporting and reproducing: without women to clean and tidy the house, buy groceries, cook and do the laundry, husbands and children (who are learning to become part of the future workforce in the school system) could not successfully perform at their jobs and school. Domestic labour should therefore be seen as exactly that: labour. Women are often forced to choose performing (essential, but) free labour in the domestic sphere over paid work. For instance, domestic labour often takes up so much time that women are unable to work full-time, this is an important factor contributing to the wage gap: employees prefer to give promotions or more stable jobs to employees who can work full-time (Witteman et al. 2021, 5). In more extreme cases, women – especially migrant women in the EU – are not able to work at all because they spend all of their time on carework (European Institute of Gender Equality 2021). In other words, women doing housework are creating value for neoliberal capitalism that is crucial – neoliberalism outsources the responsibility of care for our families, eldery and sick to women – but goes unrewarded financially. Women’s free labour is the invisible, but crucial grease making the machines of our economy run smoothly and the glue that is keeping our communities together.

Why are men not pulling their weight?

The unequal division of domestic work is caused by multiple factors, a few of which I will discuss here. Firstly, many men will (consciously or subconsciously) feign helplessness to get out of doing their fair share of domestic tasks. A man who weaponises incompetence – either by being unable to complete a household chore or by doing it poorly – forces his partner to spend extra time and mental energy to correct her husband’s work and explain how to do it properly (Nguyen 2022). Consequently, women often decide that it might just be easier to do it themselves: it would be nice if your husband could clean the toilet by himself, but in the short-term it is easier to just do it yourself than to give your apologetic but unhelpful husband step-by-step instructions. This leads to a vicious cycle: a husband does not know how to do a certain task, his wife does the task for him, the husband never does the thing because his wife “always does it” and “she does it better anyway.” 

Secondly, there are institutional, cultural and systemic barriers for fathers that prevent men from being able to divide tasks more equally with their partners, especially for new families. Traditional gender roles naturalise the idea that women are natural maternal caretakers and men are breadwinners. These roles are passed down from fathers to sons (European Institute of Gender Equality 2021) and become so dominant that they get translated into law and systemic social expectations. There are only a few countries in the world where fathers get the same amount of paternal leave as mothers – in fact, 60 countries do not even offer parental leave (Vacation Tracker, n.d.). Moreover, many employees still expect fathers to put their career before their families and are unwilling to accommodate male employees who want to spend more time at home. Financial inequality between men and women also forces young families to divide housework unequally. The wage gap between men and women means that many young families have to decide that the mother, not the father, starts working less (NOS 2020). Even if partners are willing to redefine gender roles, then, there are many structural barriers preventing this.

Thirdly, in many households, women take on the structural tasks that need to be done frequently (like doing the dishes and laundry) while men are responsible for tasks that are more incidental (taking the car to the mechanic or taking out the garbage) (Gonsalves 2020). This means that women spend more time on household chores because their chores return so frequently. It also means that women have to keep track of their responsibilities constantly – contributing significantly to the mental load – while men only incidentally have to think about their household tasks.

What now?

I do not have one specific solution that will magically help us redistribute household chores among men and women. As we have seen, the question of housework is a complex issue that has multiple causes. If we want to divide domestic labour more equally, we need men to hold themselves accountable for their lack of participation and skills in the household. We can do this by discussing it openly and maturely with our partners, following advice from relationship experts and sex educators. However, men’s lacking skills, feigned incompetence and refusal to take on the mental load when it comes to cooking, cleaning and care is a more structural problem. To fully eradicate the inequality in domestic labour division, we need to start valuing reproductive labour as essential work that is holding up our economy and communities. Moreover, we also need to break down institutional barriers and cultural gender roles that hold men back from participating more in the household. In other words, it is high time we politicise the domestic sphere again.

Bibliography

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