One of the most disorienting moments of my life occurred when I watched a TV news clip that showed the then-US president responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with the declaration that we can’t afford to have our women staying home to look after the kids.
As a feminist columnist from 1976-88 and author of Somebody Has to Do It: Whose Work Is Housework? (McClelland & Stewart, 1982), I recognized Donald Trump’s words as a complete reversal of conservative policy, which for centuries had insisted that home was the only place women belonged. Men ruled the public sphere — we almost never saw a woman as doctor, lawyer, or business executive — and women supposedly ruled the home.
Fortunately, such sexist attitudes were fading, albeit slowly. In 1980, more than 40 years ago, I was in the Railroad Committee Room on Parliament Hill, to report on the recommendations and concerns that women’s groups presented to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution — and how politicians responded.
Senator Harry Hayes earned weeks of publicity when he asked, after one feminist presentation, “I’m just wondering why we don’t have a section in here about babies and children. All you girls will be out working and we’re not going to have anybody to look after them.” His remarks drew astonished gasps from almost everyone in the room — and later, millions of TV and radio viewers who watched and heard his comments.
At that time, reporters started every interview with a woman by asking, “Is that Miss, or Mrs?” Similarly, men meeting women in social settings would ask, “Do you work, or are you a housewife?” Most women were financially dependent on men.
Only a few years earlier, in 1973, Statistics Canada reported that six out of 10 married women identified themselves as “housewives” on census forms. A little more than four in 10 women held paid jobs, compared to 95 percent of men the same age (24-53 years old). Upon marriage, the overwhelming majority of women recited wedding vows that included a promise to “obey” their husbands, and changed their last name to their husbands’ name.
There’s an old saying that, “A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” In Somebody Has To Do It, the first of my six books so far, I added up the average time spent on various chores by a mother of a toddler and an infant, and arrived at a moderate estimate of 85-90 hours a week.
Evelyn Kaye of Parents Magazine put a time value on every daily household chore and added an estimated 90 hours a week in “just being there” on-call hours that kept full-time homemakers in the house even after the children started school. She came up with a total of 206 hours a week, which is 38 hours more than a week actually has.
Even after women were pushed into outside employment to help pay the family expenses, most still carried all the domestic responsibilities — for 28 hours a week — on top of 35 hours of paid work, plus travel time. Men contributed, on average, four hours a week in household chores.
My 1978 survey of 3200 middle-class Canadian housewives found that husbands were remarkably resistant to the idea of sharing housework. Indeed, one Toronto study found that housework was the #1 cause of family quarrels. “I can’t help it,” one successful (male) editor told me, displaying typical male privilege. “I want to come home to a clean house and dinner on the table. It’s my training, and I can’t get over it.”
(Fun fact: My “Woman’s Place” column appeared nationally (1976-1988) in Homemaker’s Magazine, where each issue reached 1.2 million households and 3 million readers. Masthead, the industry magazine, lists Homemaker’s as the 11th most influential magazine of all time.)
So much has changed in two short generations since 1980, and yet so much remains the same. Unpaid housework remains the hidden economic foundation for all paid employment. In 1975, International Women’s Year, the UN declared that, globally, women’s unpaid work was worth $11 trillion, or about 1/3 of every nation’s GDP. In 2019, one-third of Canada’s $1.736 trillion GDP would be just under $600 billion.
Since the 1980s, global economic gender inequality has grown drastically. Oxfam reports that, “In 2019 world’s billionaires — only 2,153 people — had more wealth than 4.6 billion people.
“This great divide is based on a flawed and sexist economic system that values the wealth of the privileged few, mostly men, more than the billions of hours of the most essential work — the unpaid and underpaid care work done primarily by women and girls around the world.”
However, the ’80s also ushered in the era of office computers, factory automation, globalization, and steep tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, as government followed economist Milton Friedman’s hocus-pocus formula in hopes of stimulating economic growth. The main result was that few households could meet their expenses with only one paycheque.
Also, women no longer had to deal with pregnancy and a new baby every single year. With the 1968 legalization of birth control and the campaigns for Zero Population Growth, most couples planned to have only two or maybe three children. Even with three children, mothers found they spent at most a dozen years training infants and toddlers. This left them with an average of 35 years to fill with other activities. Schools, hospitals and agencies that relied heavily on volunteers, were alarmed when mothers waved them good-bye at the same time they waved their children off to school.
The 1980s also were the beginning of deceitful corporate wars against unions, which were starting to include on-site childcare in negotiating new union-company contracts.
“Most American workers want a union in their workplace,” according to an Economic Policy Institute report from July 2020, “but very few have it, because the right to organize — supposedly guaranteed by federal law — has been effectively cancelled out by a combination of legal and illegal employer intimidation tactics.”
The pandemic has proven once again that the most important jobs in the workforce, the most essential bread-and-butter jobs, are mainly done by women for low wages. Hence the former president’s remarks. What’s astonishing is that the pandemic seems to have broken through many of the barriers to providing excellent childcare.
In Canada, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland persuaded the PM and Cabinet to focus on creating a national childcare system as the engine to drive economic recovery from the covid crisis — rather than a pharmacare program, where much of the money would have gone out of the country. And while she has federal government authority, negotiation with the provinces may be intense.
Childcare only seems to be, pardon the expression, a motherhood issue. Conservatives tend to resist public childcare as vigorously as they oppose abortion, and for the same reason: public, accountable childcare undermines the patriarchy. Conservatives also resist calls to ensure that all childcare workers have training in early childhood education and development, which would raise their wages, and could make some religious groups feel threatened.
On the other hand, the Liberal federal government already has multilateral agreements with all the provinces and territories to provide “Early Learning and Childcare Centres” to assist families with special needs — such as parents who work evenings or night shifts or for whom English (or French in Quebec) is a second language, or whose children need extra help or medical care.
In 2017, Rachel Notley’s NDP government signed the Early Learning agreement and created 25 Childhood Early Learning Centres (CLEs) around the province. Jason Kenney cancelled that agreement just before Chrystia Freeland’s announcement, on the grounds that it undermines private caregivers’ rights to earn a living. The existing agreement describes early learning in childcare as “one of the best investments that governments can make to strengthen the social and economic fabric of our country.”
Still, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in 1898, “It is not motherhood that keeps the housewife on her feet from dawn until darks; it is house service, not child service.”
All the work required to keep a home tidy and welcoming — cleaning, cooking, laundry, sweeping, shopping — all the actual housework remains to be negotiated within the family. Modern young women are learning to negotiate these details before they marry.
Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local column in Calgary for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.
Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels