“More smiles? More money.” This was the rallying cry of women around the world in the 1970s. They were adamant that women everywhere should be paid for not only their relentless housework but also the constant and equally gruelling emotional labour they were forced to perform every day. Women, they protested, were unfairly made to “cook, smile, [and] fuck” every day of their lives, without even the faintest acknowledgement of the monumental effort this required.
A campaign for the remuneration of housework seized the zeitgeist, fuelled by Silvia Federici’s seminal work. Since the movement’s heyday over 40 years ago, there has been an increased recognition that the experience of the (white) housewife who can afford to stay at home is not a universal experience. Society has changed a great deal, but the weight of reproductive work’s burden forced upon women has not changed. While we need to remain critical of attempts to generalise the experience of women, it is worth asking ourselves: what exactly was the purpose of this campaign? Could efforts to reinvigorate it be successful?
Housework – with its incessant vacuuming, washing, and cooking – is frequently referred to as ‘social reproduction’. This is the idea that domestic labour, although often entirely unpaid, is desperately needed by the economy, to foster and sustain capitalism. These chores need to be completed to keep both the current and next generation of workers alive and well.
Housework, as such, is one of the most essential jobs in a capitalist society, if not the most essential. Without it, society would grind to a halt. The economic system that structures our lives is propped up by these responsibilities which women overwhelmingly tend to shoulder. As the song ‘Wages Due’ from 1975 goes: “what do you think would happen if we women went on strike? / there’d be no breakfast in the morning, there’d be no screw at night / there’d be no nurses treatin’ you, there’d be no waitresses servin’ you, there’d be no typists typin’ you-o-o-o”. In 2010, Forbes valued housework at £1.24 trillion in the UK, more than the value of retail and manufacturing output combined. The importance of this work is self-evident and yet this care work remains mostly unpaid, or severely underpaid when it is. Those who are responsible for keeping the cogs of society well-oiled deserve recognition and acknowledgement for their tireless work.
Despite its indispensable character, domestic labour has been completely devalued, to the point where it is hardly even considered a ‘job’. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the definition of ‘menial’ is, in one and the same breath, work “requiring little skill”, as well as that “relating to the household, domestic”. This framing of housework has propagated the common view that it is in women’s nature to complete it; cleaning and cooking supposedly coming easier to them than to men. Viewing it as some kind of feminine predisposition makes domestic labour seem like something that women want to do, something that they should do out of love and the kindness of their hearts. If a woman refuses to cook or clean, they obviously do not care about their families and have failed as mothers and wives. When men do chores, on the other hand, they are seen as ‘helping’ a woman in her natural role or doing their wives a favour.
Housework, however, is most definitely not something which comes more naturally to women, and it is in no way easy labour. In no world would people argue that household chores are genuinely fun or desirable: they are tiring, repetitive, and filthy work. Betty Friedan’s solution to this, and one of the core tenets of second-wave feminism, was to suggest that women leave the home (and its housework) to enter the paid workforce. By doing so, they would become economic agents in their own right. What mattered was that women were on a level playing field with men, that they both had a seat at the capitalist table, a sentiment echoed in today’s #girlboss feminism.
But the thoughts propelled forwards by liberal feminists were deeply flawed. Friedan expressed only the despondency felt by those who had the privilege to be bored with their leisure time at home – educated, middle-class, heterosexual, married white women. She assumed her experiences were universal – they were not. bell hooks, one of the most renowned and withering critics of the second wave’s arguments, berated the movement for essentially erasing the existence of women who didn’t fit into this narrow category. Earning the right to work outside the home was not a major concern for Black women, many of whom already had to do so in order to survive. White women’s acceptance in paid sectors would only be made possible by the employment of low-wage domestic workers, overwhelmingly women of colour. The question of housework would never disappear and pretending otherwise would never be the answer. By considering only the emancipation of white women, the second wave effectively shut out all other women.
Enter the campaign ‘Wages for Housework’ (WfH), led by Federici amongst others. Not only were they characterised by determined efforts to be inclusive, but they sorely disagreed with Friedan’s liberal feminism. Housework, they argued, could not simply be forgotten and so her encouragement to leave the home was entirely misplaced. Housework instead needed to be truly respected as work. Their mission was to demand wages for housework, asserting that this was the first step towards ultimately being able to refuse doing it. Rather than something women are inherently inclined towards, it would finally be acknowledged as labour. This prompted a name change for the movement’s key work: Federici’s book ‘Wages Against Housework’, having originally been named after the campaign itself. “From now on we want money for each moment of it, so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it.”
The campaign’s anti-capitalist perspective is key here. The women didn’t want their work to merely be incorporated into the capitalist structure, effectively reinforcing their oppression. As Angela Davis argued, what woman would want to be paid for the work that “drove her crazy”? Rather than conceptualising wages reductively as a “lump of money”, the campaign saw them as a means to an end. It was not even necessary for the wages to materialise; of greater significance was accepting that they should be provided in the first place. This would force an admission of the fact that unpaid housework, all too often borne by women, is work, subverting and revolutionising relations. The ultimate goal would be the collectivisation of housework (social care) that could be run by communities for communities, rather than being pushed upon women.
Drawing on criticisms of the mainstream feminist movement, the WfH campaign recognised that a failure to account for the vast differences in experience would never liberate women. From this arose an intersectional account of feminism – one which endeavoured to include all women. This was done by holding much broader definitions of ‘housework’ and ‘the home’. Focusing solely on domestic labour and the role of the white housewife would exclude legions of women, notably women of colour, women who weren’t straight, women with disabilities, working-class women, and sex workers. Housework was understood not only as a type of work, but as anything encompassed by heteronormative expectations. It ranged from traditional domestic labour to emotional housework, disciplining women everywhere in society, especially those locked out from the conventional ‘home’.
For efficacy’s sake, it was imperative that WfH found a way to organise themselves such that these irreducible differences were acknowledged while still striving for the common goal of recognition for their housework (no matter how broadly defined this was). This led to the development of allied yet autonomous groups, with agendas tailored to their individual grievances. Predominant examples include Wages Due Lesbians (WDL) and Black Women for Wages for Housework (BWfWfH). WDL met the needs of women whose housework was entirely independent from caring for men. BWfWfH, in turn, considered women of colour’s specific history of exploitation and its manifestation in today’s divisions of labour. From the inherent prejudices of care-work to the emotional housework required in managing everyday racism, they shone a light on issues so frequently abandoned by the mainstream. For example, where second-wave feminism advocated only for the right not to have children (through birth control), BWfWfH instead saw the more nuanced reality of reproductive inequity and forced sterilisation for Black women. Alliances which perhaps seemed unlikely or surprising were created between those that heteronormativity rejected. The women of the WfH campaign were dedicated to struggling together, beyond every existing division that stood in their way.
When the definition of ‘housework’ is restricted to its traditional sense, the movement encounters similar criticism to Friedan’s second-wave feminism. Indeed, the campaign did initially appear over-focused on the white housewife. Historical analyses, however, tend to focus solely on these literal demands for the remuneration of domestic labour, wrongly placing white women at the centre of the discussion. This forgets the sheer significance of autonomous groups such as WDL and BWfWfH. These groups were not on the periphery of the movement, merely some corrective accessory – they were integral and essential components of the campaign. It was an ever-evolving perspective, rather than a singular static mission. In ignoring their existence, this would not correctly be a discussion of the WfH campaign; it would be a discussion of a small clique of elitist women. These groups constituted as important an element of the movement as the founders. The Wages for Housework campaign was undoubtedly intersectional, and it would be wrong to pretend it was not.
Federici’s most recent book exhibits shockingly trans-exclusionary opinions, with the author critiquing the trans community for supposedly betraying feminism. While we should condemn Federici’s beliefs here, this does not undermine the intersectionality of the WfH campaign. Though she played a substantial role in its genesis, it was not her creation. It was as much her movement as it was that of the autonomous groups rallying for the rights of marginalised women. It may have petered out slightly as a movement today, but its ethos and intense focus on inclusiveness would certainly support trans women and would surely denounce Federici’s views.
So why did this movement fail to reach the same relative hegemony the second wave managed? This can be pinned on the immediate tangible successes of the second wave. It was far easier to focus on further advancing women’s capitalist journey, a struggle more naturally aided by the system than their anti-capitalist critiques. The issue of housework, intimidating even when it wasn’t so broadly defined, was pushed aside. WfH’s focus on intersectionality before it had been coined as a term further diminished their potential influence. How could they raise awareness of hardships experienced by women considered invisible by society? In comparison to their liberal peers, the women of WfH were too radical and were quickly lost in the more moderate shadow of mainstream feminism.
The members of WfH made demands that were well ahead of their time and unashamedly revolutionary. Where the liberal left neglected swarms of women in their activism, the campaign chose to amplify their voices. From WfH’s focus on typically excluded issues to its determined efforts to push intersectional debates, its arguments have made crucial theoretical and strategic contributions to other branches of feminism. While it certainly had its flaws (risking both prioritising the traditional housewife and overlooking trans women), its intentions and principles can still be illuminating today. At a time when protest is resurgent, the intersectional approach taken by this campaign is more significant than ever.
The campaign taught us many valuable lessons we would be wise to remember. The first step towards ensuring a truly permanent cultural shift, preventing its message from being consigned to oblivion, however, needs to be in our open discussion of these issues again. It is only by opting out of a profiteering capitalist society that women can free themselves from oppression. Partial liberation of wealthy white women is not liberation at all whilst society continues to benefit from the exploitation of marginalised women, either through cheap labour, housework, or the emotional labour they suffer every day. The contributions of the WfH campaign were immense, and we cannot afford to let this movement be forgotten any longer.
Artwork by Rachel Jung