On Women's Work Under Capitalism

The thing that’s prompted me to write this post is an interesting Jacobin article:

Second-Wave Feminism’s Unfinished Business

Women are forced to take on both wage and social reproductive labor, then made to negotiate this contradiction individually. Second-wave feminism tried to change that.

I was going to add it as a “bookmark” on my site, but my attempt to write a brief comment quickly turned into me writing a whole post’s worth of thoughts, so I thought it’d be better to do that instead 🤣 Basically, the effort helped me coalesce a lot of other thoughts I have, every time I see a report about “women’s workforce participation” or what-have-you. I do want to acknowledge straight-up the limitation that this post is very focused on “two adults with kids” family situations, and even moreso on hetero couples with kids.

One thing I am wary of, personally, is this idea that we need to liberate women from the drudgery of housework in order to force them into the drudgery of employment. You can’t really disagree with the idea that housework and income should be divided more evenly between men and women – but for this to work you need to have a far greater normalisation of and social support for working less than a full-time week; otherwise you’re just increasing the overall amount of drudgery for everyone, and the only ones who benefit are the bosses. (And this modern bourgeois feminist idea that you should have both people working full-time in order to afford a nanny to raise your kids and a housekeeper to clean your house, etc. is a classist, elitist idea that cannot scale beyond the highest-earning 10% or so.) Personally, I don’t even see why we should try to shame women (or men) into the workforce if they and their partner have calculated that it makes the best sense, financially and wellbeing-wise, to have one of them stay at home.

What I’m talking about here, I think, is the “defeats” that are mentioned in the Jacobin article. Women have been “freed” from the gender straitjacket that stuck them with doing unpaid labour in the home (or work for low wages on sufferance if they did work, since the assumption was that men were the breadwinners) – but we are still forced to navigate, as atomised households, this balance between paid work vs care work vs housework. On this note, the ABC recently published an article talking about the breakdown in labour between men and women:

How much ‘invisible work’ are you doing each week?

What it found was that when you tally these different types of work, on average, married people with children do the same amount each week – 75 hours' worth – whether they are male or female. The difference is that men, on average, are paid for 46 of those hours; women, on average, are paid for 22 hours, with the difference being made up by women shouldering much more of the care and housework burden.

So if you bully married women into taking on more-than-full-time jobs like their husbands', and redistribute the care and housework load, what happens? Well, now all married parents of young kids have to do 87 hours of work a week. How is this actually a step forward? Maybe in the raw financial sense, but what about the human sense? Assuming you sleep another 56 hours a week, how is it right to have only 25 hours a week to relax, to socialise, to take part in hobbies, to pursue creative endeavours? What about all the things that make us human, and not just labour machines?

We’ve probably all seen that social media post about how the original conception of the 40-hour week – and the full-time minimum wage – was that there would be an unpaid worker at home doing all the “social reproduction” labour such that the one working 40 hours would not have to do much extra labour at home, and that single worker’s full-time wage would be enough to support the whole family (in today’s world it seems taken for granted that all families are now dual-income – with a commensurate rise in the basic cost of living). Now obviously this model was never as universal as we might imagine, as people of colour and some of those facing other kinds of disadvantage were often excluded from the kinds of opportunities (subsidised mortgages, stable decent-paying jobs, etc.) that would’ve made this work, and these days we (mostly) also acknowledge the potential danger of making one partner financially dependent on the other.

However, the fundamental principle that a couple should only have to do 40 hours of paid work between them, and get enough income from that to keep their family relatively comfortable (not talking about living in a mansion and paying hefty private school fees and taking an intercontinental holiday every year or anything, just doing OK, with a buffer of savings in case of unexpected mishaps), seems reasonable and worth arguing for even today – especially because this used to be what so many people expected for their lives just two generations ago. Every time I read an article about the “catastrophe” of women not working full-time jobs at the same rates as men I think about this much greater catastrophe: that the dominant expectation is now that each family will have two full-time incomes and still face a lower standard of living than we used to have, 60 years ago. Why are we not talking about where all of this lost income has gone? I mean, we know full well where it’s gone: into corporate profits, and thus into the pockets of the capitalist class. But why are we not demanding to have it back, instead of just meekly accepting it should be everyone’s lot in life to work, paid and unpaid put together, 12 hours a day 7 days a week?

Obviously, it would take an enormous struggle to put things back at a point where 40 hours' paid labour a week can sustain a family (and this time, you’d hope, for everybody – not just white people). There’d also need to be a way to keep stay-at-home parents from being wholly dependent on their partners (universal basic income, anybody?) as well as a way to ensure single parents are not totally screwed over (again, maybe universal basic income). Then the more you rely on universal basic income the more it becomes important to regulate housing costs so they can’t just immediately rise by 2x whatever the universal basic income is. It starts to look like such a gargatuan task that maybe real socialism would be easier, not to mention better than trying to slap quick fixes over capitalism 😉 But as the tiniest of baby steps the world has ever seen, maybe instead of bemoaning “low female workforce participation” and demanding that women work harder and longer, we should instead question why we do not value the unpaid work that the average married mother does for over 50 hours a week (and I’m sure single parents have it much worse), why we assume that no one has literally anything better to do in their lives than generate profit for a boss, and how we could instead reform society to be more egalitarian and less money-obsessed. These are the kinds of articles that I’d much prefer to see.