In the context of the forthcoming State Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), led by veteran actor Kamal Haasan, has made an eye-catching election promise that is evidently targeted at a large constituency of voters — women who are full-time homemakers. The party has promised to recognise housework as a salaried profession by paying homemakers ‘hitherto unrecognized and unmonetized’ for their work at home.
A recent political entrant in the electoral fray, the MNM’s promise to directly pay women a monthly amount may be viewed as a strategy to grab attention in an over-crowded, highly competitive electoral landscape. Nonetheless, the promise bears close examination as it flags off an important issue and one that has had an interesting, if chequered significance in the history of women’s movements.
Origins of the demand
The demand for ‘wages for housework’ arose in the context of struggle and consciousness-raising associated with the Second Wave of the women’s movement in North America and Europe. Alongside other demands for social and political equality, women’s rights campaigners made visible and also politicised women’s everyday experience of housework and child care in the ‘private’ realm of the household. In doing this, they challenged the assumption that a ‘natural’ affinity for housework was rooted in the essential nature of women who were performing a ‘labour of love’. For leading women’s rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s, it was important to bust the myth that women’s work at home was a personal service with no links to capitalist production. In a concrete sense, this meant linking the exploitation of the worker in the factory to women’s work at home.
As Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James wrote in their seminal piece in 1972 (https://bit.ly/2X6cU3B), the woman working at home produced ‘the living human being — the labourer himself.’ From the nine-month period of gestation in the womb, women’s daily chores of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing clothes, preparing lunch boxes and so on produced the labour power that was daily consumed in the shop-floor or the assembly line and had to be reproduced afresh every day. By providing free services in the home,women made possible the survival of working-class households at subsistence-level wages, with obvious benefits for industry and capital.
Despite the links between the ‘housewife’ and the factory worker, the unwaged status of the former accounted for crucial differences between them. As feminist scholar and writer Silvia Federici wrote (in 1975), in “Wages against housework”, it was possible for wage-earners to bargain around the terms of their paid work and the quantity of the wage. ‘But exploited as you might be, you are not that work’, she pointed out (https://bit.ly/38UShNm). Housework, on the other hand, had come to define the very nature of a woman. This disallowed women from seeing it as ‘real work’ or as a social contract. And,therefore, the women who sought to negotiate housework with their partners were seen as ‘nagging b******’ and not as workers in struggle’. For the advocates of ‘wages for housework’, the wage that the state ought to pay women would make them autonomous of the men on whom they were dependent. More fundamentally, the very demand for a wage was a repudiation of housework as an expression of women’s nature. It was a revolt against the assigned social role of women. Therein lay the radical nature of the demand for wages, not in the money itself.
An unresolved issue
There was disagreement among the women ideologues of the Second Wave on what payment of a wage would actually mean for women. The sociologist, Ann Oakley, who studied the history of housework in her path-breaking books published in the 1970s, was among those who believed that ‘wages for housework’ would only imprison women further within the household, increase their social isolation and dissuade men from sharing housework.
Others too argued that the goal of the women’s movement must be, to not ask for wages, but to free women from the daily drudgery of routine domestic chores and enable them to participate fully in all spheres of social life, including paid employment outside the household. The debate around monetary remuneration for housework remained unresolved within the women’s movement, even as the tools to measure the value that women’s unpaid work adds to national economies have grown more sophisticated.
However, the underlying issue, which is the disproportionate share of women’s responsibility for the work that sustains human life and reproduces labour power, remains as pressing as ever. A report published by the International Labour Organization in 2018 (https://bit.ly/2Xbiim1) shows that, globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this figure rises to 80%.
Defining this constituency
To return to the MNM’s election promise, would the payment of a wage by the state to homemakers redress the situation? This raises the tricky question of how this constituency is to be defined. Is it to be only women who are full-time homemakers? Many women earning a wage outside the home also perform the bulk of household work. On what ground are they to be excluded? What about women workers who earn an income from home by stitching clothes, selling cooked meals or are engaged in petty trade? They often self-identify as ‘housewives’ given the meagre and variable wages they earn and periods of seasonal unemployment.
These are issues that cannot be easily resolved. It would be better to strengthen the demand for a universal basic income for income-poor households and make sure that the cash transfer to the family reaches women directly, whether or not they combine household work with paid work.
Struggle for legislation
However, the demand that the state recognise housework is significant and its radical core must not be missed, as the historical experience of the women’s movement shows us. In this context, it is worth mentioning that an important campaign on the question of household labour has been taking place in India. This is the ongoing struggle for national legislation for domestic workers. These are predominantly women who perform ‘women’s work’ but in other people’s homes. They are, therefore, uniquely positioned to make this work visible and demand that its conditions be regulated, minimum wages guaranteed, and the workers’ status and rights protected.
The question of how to measure and account for the value of housework has been seriously addressed by women domestic workers and their trade unions in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Their demands include an hourly minimum wage, a weekly day-off, an annual bonus and the protection of their bodily autonomy in the workspace.
This is an agenda that all parties, and not just the MNM, could incorporate in their election manifestos, should they take seriously the mandate of ‘recognizing and monetizing’ housework. If domestic workers emerge as a strong force that succeeds in asserting the dignity of housework and making it a visible and valued form of labour, this can only be a good thing for all women performing housework in the long run.
Kalpana Karunakaran teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. The views expressed are personal