Women’s Unpaid Labour and Class Divisions


BitchMedia’s Dani McClain released a great piece last week on women’s unpaid domestic labour and class divisions.

What’s excellent about this article is that she cites Selma James, and makes reference to James’ Marxist orientation. McClain first references two pieces of information that address the issue of how women opt out of paid labour due to domestic responsibilities — an article in The New York Times (The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, by Judith Warner), and a study from Brookings Institution (Strategies for Assisting Low-Income Families, by  Isabel V. Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow). McClain writes that “Of [The New York Times’] story’s nearly 6,500 words, poor and low-income women’s lives get 21.” This indicate to me that article might not be very observant or considerate of low-income women’s experiences or needs.

The Brookings’ study seems a bit more attractive. McClain writes:

…poor mothers are at the center of Brookings’ 40-page report, titled “Strategies for Assisting Low-Income Families.” It found that low-income households – those in that bottom third – are disproportionately headed by people who are women, of color and under the age of 40. The researchers also explored possible ways to improve these families’ lives and zeroed in on the effects of creating more jobs, increasing minimum wage to $9 and getting high school diplomas into more people’s hands.

However, McClain also makes certain to mention that the study’s favourite solution for low-income women is good ol’ heteronormative marriage (“strengthening families” as it is referred to in the Brookings study): “Pair a single mom with an age-, race- and education-appropriate man and that family’s income shoots up by about a third… from $8,700 to $11,500. Not exactly hitting the jackpot.”

But McClain ends her article by bringing in the “radical notion” *coughsarcasm* that “women’s work” (i.e. the unpaid labour of domestic tasks and child-rearing that many women are defaulted as responsible for) should simply be paid labour!

One relevant solution not explored in the report but revived recently elsewhere, in publications ranging from Jacobin to The New York Times, is that people be paid for housework. Selma James is the thinker credited for advancing the idea, which she talked about during an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman last year. In it, James recalls the conversation with her Marxist study group that led her to her eureka moment:

“I realized that they had never understood that women produce the whole labor force and that that work is not acknowledged and not even considered as work… And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. That is, you got some payment, you got your food and board, if you were a housewife, but you didn’t have the autonomy of money, which ensured that everybody knew you were working and which gave you the independence of having money of your own.”

Pay for domestic labor (through a government program, as James suggested) could be a solution for both poor women and those profiled in the Times piece. The low-income heads of household would get the resources they need without having to pair up with men the Brookings researchers believe they’re suited to. And the wealthy women may find an antidote to their ennui, or at least to their husbands’ sense that the work they do in the home has no to low value.

(via BitchMagazine.org)


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