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This New Year was a quiet one. We looked around at the home that had given us shelter for most of 2020 and felt infinitely grateful for its comforts. But it also struck us how the past year had made manifest the never-ending work that is the tending of home. And like a new year bonanza, along came Mr. Tharoor and Mr. Haasan supporting salaries for homemakers. Many of us rejoiced, but also wondered if the standard pay gap between men and women would literally hit home and lead to other battles on the home front.

The roots of this call may offer some clarity. In 1972, Selma James began the ‘International Wages for Housework Campaign (IWFHC)’ as recognition and payment for all caring work, in the home and outside. It included both unwaged workers in the home and unwaged subsistence farmers and workers on the land and in the community.

Also noteworthy is the work of Silvia Federici, key member of the Lotta Feminista in Italy who, in 1975, published the seminal Wages against Housework, arguing that the concept of paying homemakers was towards making visible the unpaid work of maintaining the home and reproducing the worker’s body that was not accounted for within traditional capitalist models of profit making.

And lest you think that this only applies to capitalist and profit-driven masculinity, consider how the poet must have also taken for granted a cook, the writer his housekeeper, the artist a wife or two. No wonder Jane Sullivan writes that every writer must have a Vera, á la Vera Nabokov, while Virginia Woolf goes further claiming the need for an independent income and a room of her own.

More work

Which brings us to the next key question. Is there a gendering to the act of home care? The French comic artist Emma, for example, published a greatly popular illustration of what she called The Mental Load, highlighting the traditional frustration of women doing so much more work at home, even as the men retort “Well, you should have just asked me!” Except, the work of asking is itself managerial work, for which people traditionally get paid a ton of money in the outside world. It is only half-jokingly that I often say that my mother and her friends should have been the CEOs of this world.

Wake-up calls

In the current milieu of fake news and manipulated statistics, we may no longer turn to evidence, but it exists, and it overwhelmingly offers what ought to be wake-up calls to Mastercard-like priceless notions of mother’s love and wife’s care. A National Statistical Office (NSO) report, for example, calculates that the average Indian woman spends 243 minutes — a little over four hours — on domestic chores, which is almost 10 times the 25 minutes of home work performed by the average Indian man. For women who can afford it, this work is farmed off to the other protagonists of this battle — informal and underpaid domestic labour — with no security or safety provisions at worst, and the benefits of patronage and whim at best.

In a world where men are conditioned to pay attention to the outside and to the traditional work of bringing home income, and women are conditioned to pay attention to the inside and the work of maintaining a clean and comfortable home, the burdens of gender accrue on both. Should housework also find itself equally valued, perhaps it may offer reprieve for all. The men who find the work of the outside debilitating and erosive, and the women who find working at home repetitive and soul-numbing. For we all know and recognise that the pursuit of a clean home is not trivial. How you treat your home is how you will treat the world. To treat the home and the everyday as small, to be sublimated in the service of a world that is big and in need of active intervention, is to disavow the labour of living.

Kangana Ranaut believes that women should not be paid for being queens of their own kingdom. Ask some of us, we may well be willing to abdicate. For kingdoms are built on the rule of the few, the oppression of the many, and feudal norms of sovereignty and power. The first fairytales after all, ignored as they were by the Grimms brothers, were feminist ones. Written by 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses or storytellers, they sought to give agency to their female protagonists in a highly repressive society. Wages for housework may well be the fairytale we need towards egalitarianism, dissolution of gender norms, and the equal capacity to move between the inside and the outside.

Mathangi Krishnamurthy teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 5:45:02 AM |

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