Capitalism runs on women's housework

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In order to understand the context in which Wages for Housework -- a global feminist movement organized around the idea that domestic (or reproductive labour) was as "crucial for the survival of the capitalist system as more typically male 'productive’ labour'" -- was born, one must consider or recall what it was like to be a woman in the 1970s.

In the first chapter of her ambitious book Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement, 1972–77, feminist writer and retired university professor Louise Toupin provides a glimpse into daily life for women in the early 1970s -- a time in which housework (also called domestic work or care work) was not considered to be real work, rather it was a "labour of love," or a biological duty imposed almost always upon women.

"In Quebec, for example, women could not serve on juries, and civil marriage and divorce had just been legalized, as had homosexuality 'between consenting adults,'" writes Toupin. She adds that access to abortions was only in the process of being liberalized, advertising of contraceptive methods was illegal, and "pay equity was an illusion." At the turn of the 1970s, "very few books dealt with the question of women as a political issue," and scholarly feminist studies were at their earliest stages.

Born in this climate, Wages for Housework saw the absence of earned wages as oppression, and waged men as the oppressors, giving women little, or no, bargaining power to negotiate their own conditions of work. "In reality, a wage is much more than money. It must be understood, in political terms, as a power relationship that structures society," writes Toupin. 

Chronicling the Wages for Housework movement from its beginnings emerging from the International Feminist Collective in Italy in the early 1970s, Wages for Housework is divided into two parts -- "The International Feminist Collective: Historical Overview and Political Perspective" and "Mobilizations around Women’s Invisible Work." It is the first international history of the Wages for Housework movement, which is much overlooked in the history of second-wave Western feminism.

A deeply interesting read, the book draws not only on the movement in Canada, but mobilizations around the world, including in England, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. The book culminates with two previously unpublished conversations with Silvia Federici, co-founder of the New York Wages for Housework Committee, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, co-author of renowned feminist text The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.

There's no question that Toupin's work is itself a labour of love, impressive in its thorough use of archival research, including primary documents that break up its academic text. Journals, editorial cartoons, posters, photographs, and even sheet music and song lyrics that acted as tools for mobilization are included, making Wages for Housework a critical scrapbook for both feminist and labour scholars interested in the movement.

A central theme of women’s autonomy and choice weaves through the entirety of Wages for Housework, emphasizing that demanding a wage meant that women would have the autonomy to dictate other choices in their lives. "Demanding a wage meant, first, demystifying the belief that housework is not real work. It meant women discovering themselves as workers. From this position, they could, for example, fight to define the scope of this work: determine the length of the workday and the services to be offered, and lighten and shorten the workday. Unacceptable working conditions would no longer seem so normal," writes Toupin.

For women, dictating and determining their own conditions for work extended beyond unwaged domestic tasks. Women's economic dependence on their husbands, Toupin argues, gave them little bargaining power on issues surrounding procreation, childbirth, contraception, abortion, and overall women's health. Sexuality, rather keeping husbands "gratified," was for many women part of housework. Toupin also draws parallels to domestic violence that some women faced at home.

What makes Wages for Housework most impressive is Toupin’s acknowledgment that history books, especially those on the pursuits of second-wave feminism, too often focus on white, straight, middle-class women. "White women had privileged access to the wages of white men," she says. Much of Toupin's book looks at myriad mobilizations that were happening simultaneously, especially among women with multiple inequalities, including Black Women for Wages for Housework and Wages Due Lesbians, which organized due to "lesbian mothers threatened with losing custody of their children because of poverty or discrimination." The movement also extended to include links between unwaged workers and waged workers, including female factory workers, waitresses, and nurses. "The vast majority of women who had waged jobs returned to being houseworkers once they got home … It turned out that waged and unwaged women were, in reality, the same people," writes Toupin.

Though Toupin rarely draws parallels to gendered labour and cultural norms today, much about her study of the Wages for Housework movement feels remarkably timely today, when women remain significantly more likely than men to provide care while balancing waged and undervalued domestic labour. (In fact, an estimated 72 per cent of women caregivers aged 45 to 65 in Canada are also employed.)

Drawing on feminism, Marxism, and capitalism, Wages for Housework is rooted in academia, but Toupin’s crisp and confident writing make the book accessible to all readers with an interest in gender studies and labour history in Canada and beyond. A huge undertaking and achievement, Wages for Housework is much-needed documentation of a movement that is largely unknown.

Mostly, Wages for Housework is a worthy read in its ability to pay homage to the women who mobilized, seeing themselves not only as mothers and wives, but as true workers contributing valuable, though economically undervalued, labour, often in isolation. Their contributions, themselves undervalued in history, helped to create a future in which women could demand more.

Image: Flickr/valentinerhc

Jessica Rose is a writer, editor, and reviewer who has written for publications across Canada. Her book reviews have appeared in magazines including Quill and Quire, Room, Ricepaper, This, and the Humber Literary Review. She also covers Hamilton's literary scene in Hamilton Magazine. Jessica is a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books and a founding editor of The Inlet. She recently took over the role of books editor at This magazine. When she's not writing, she is the social media coordinator at YWCA Hamilton.

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