When Women Demanded Pay for Housework
In her 1970 essay “The Politics of Housework,” Pat Mainardi, a member of the radical feminist group Redstockings, lays out a step-by-step guide to persuade men to do their fair share of “dirty chores” around the house. Mainardi explains that her husband “would stop at nothing to avoid the horrors of housework.” Instead, she writes, he offered her excuses: “I don’t mind sharing the housework, but I don’t do it very well,” and “You’ll have to show me how to do it.” So Mainardi provides a list, a way to train her husband, which also serves as a primer for women to put men to work. “Keep checking up. Periodically consider who’s actually doing the jobs … Alternate the bad jobs. It’s the daily grind that gets you down.”
Despite the practical advice, a sense of futility pervades the piece. (“He won’t do the little things he always did because you’re now a ‘Liberated Woman,’ right?”) At the end of the 2,000-word essay, Mainardi signs off with the following: “I was just finishing this when my husband came in and asked what I was doing. Writing a paper on housework. ‘Housework?’ he said. ‘Housework? Oh my god, how trivial can you get?’”
By the mid-20th century, housework had undergone a dramatic revolution. Many of the tasks that had once consumed a homemaker’s day were transformed by technological innovation. Items once crafted by hand could now be bought off the rack; meals that once required extensive preparation were replaced by processed and prepared foods. Dishwashers, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners rendered clean-up a cinch.
Yet while a woman could become an accomplished homemaker and mother, she’d never receive the same level of praise, adulation, and respect as a husband who worked outside the home. For some second-wave feminists in the 1970s, this gap in respect was an obvious place to begin their fight for equality.
According to more mainstream feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, the answer was to put women on the same footing as men, liberate them from the shackles of their kitchens, and send them into the workforce, where they’d be able to compete with men on a level playing field. But for a small group of Marxist feminists, this strategy completely missed the point. The problem, they argued, was never with housework itself. The problem was that housework had never been truly respected as work.
In 1971, Silvia Federici was a 29-year-old Ph.D candidate living in Brooklyn. As a young girl growing up in Italy in the 1940s and ’50s, she’d heard her father’s tirades against the abuses Italians had endured under the country’s fascist regime, and watched as the local communists and fascists battled one another in the streets. For Federici, the choice between the two sides was obvious: the communist workers, who sported red carnations on May Day and rallied under the anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao,” were the ones who had her sympathies.
After moving to the US in 1967 to study philosophy at SUNY Buffalo State, Federici was exposed to American activism. She joined anti-war student movements, learned about the brutal legacy of American slavery and the necessity of anti-racist action, and expanded her understanding of the oppression of women through feminist study groups.
At the time, feminist organizing seemed content to ignore class; groups like the National Organization for Women were more focused on getting women a seat at the capitalist table than remaking the entire system. But Federici wanted something more: to find a form of feminism that intersected with class politics.
She found it in a 1971 essay by the Italian feminist theorist Mariarosa Dalla Costa titled “Women and the Subversion of the Community.” In the essay, Dalla Costa argues for a wholesale reframing of how we conceive of domestic labor. Instead of regarding the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing that can dominate many women’s daily lives as givens, Dalla Costa argues that we should recognize such labors as a much-needed part of the larger capitalist economy. If women’s labor is an essential yet uncompensated component of the economy, it only stands to reason that women’s liberation might be secured through demanding remuneration for services rendered.
Invigorated by the essay, Federici sent Dalla Costa a letter, and the two struck up a correspondence. In the summer of 1972, during a trip back home to Italy, Federici stopped in Padua, where Dalla Costa was then living. That meeting led to the founding of the International Feminist Collective, a group of women dedicated to starting a campaign they called “Wages for Housework,” by establishing local committees in large cities in their home countries, which included Italy, England, Germany, the United States, and Canada.
The International Feminist Collective was one of many feminist movements that sought a radical solution to the plight of modern women. In the early 1970s, American women were systematically disenfranchised in all areas of life. They were thwarted in their educational pursuits and relegated to low-wage jobs even after they’d attained impressive degrees. Unmarried women were viewed with suspicion, while marriage granted women sub-adult status, rendering them dependent on their husbands to allow them access to bank accounts and credit cards. When women, married or otherwise, became pregnant, they were thrown out of the workforce. If they didn’t want to be pregnant, they were denied access to abortions.
As feminist groups of the 1960s and ’70s strove to hone their positions on the issues, organizing (and reorganizing) was commonplace, helping to establish not just what these activists believed in, but which fights in particular were of the highest priority—and what the best tactics might be to achieve them.
In addition to more mainstream movements and publications, such as Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women and Ms. Magazine, there were smaller (and significantly more radical) organizations led by writers and activists such as Robin Morgan, Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, and Anne Koedt—organizations that splintered and reformed, as members struggled with various philosophical and political disagreements. With so many causes and considerations for feminist activists to adjudicate, housework fell by the wayside in the majority of feminist platforms.
The International Feminist Collective felt that this was a mistake—one they did not intend to replicate. Their Wages for Housework movement, they hoped, would promote a political philosophy that promised true liberation for women.
Some feminists felt that domestic labor was, in itself, a mechanism of women’s oppression, with no other purpose but to keep women busy with meaningless, unstimulating labor so they wouldn’t rise up and demand an equal place alongside men. In that view, housework could not be reformed—it could only be escaped. An iconic poster created in 1971 by the feminist artist Virtue Hathaway neatly summed up this position: a woman with long hair stands holding a broken broom, with the words “Women’s liberation” wispily written around her dress. Above her, in black, Old English lettering, are the words “Fuck Housework.”
For other feminists, such as Pat Mainardi of “The Politics of Housework,” domestic labor was seen as a necessary evil. It was drudgery, to be sure, but drudgery that still needed to be done by both men and women, splitting the burden equally. Alix Kates Shulman, another member of Redstockings who had helped organize a protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant, took this adjudication one step further. In her 1970 essay “A Marriage Agreement,” originally published in the women’s liberation magazine Up from Under, Shulman outlined an extensive breakdown of how she and her husband split the domestic labor, detailing how everything from shopping to cleaning to booking babysitters and calling doctors could be equitably split between spouses. The essay was republished national magazines including Life, Redbook, and the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine, which debuted as a supplement in New York magazine.
“A Marriage Agreement” struck a chord with American readers. “When I published that marriage agreement in Redbook, there were thousands of letter responses … A number of people said, ‘How did you ever get him to agree?’” Shulman, now 86 years old, tells me over the phone. Unfortunately, the answer wasn’t one that was of use to the average American woman. “I had to be willing to break up the marriage,” Shulman explains. “It was a dealbreaker: ‘You do this, or forget it, I’m leaving.’” She recognizes that this a stance few women are in a position to take.
When the subject of housework made its way into the mainstream feminist discourse, it was often as part of a larger discourse about childcare. At the First Conference to Unite Women, held in New York City in November 1969, initiated by NOW and attended by more than 500 women, discussion of housework only surfaced during a workshop on early childhood care and education. Among the list of demands adopted by the workshop attendees—many of which focused more on reproductive rights than domestic labor—were requests for public nurseries and childcare facilities, available and affordable summer camps, shortened work hours for parents “so that the fathers may regain their lost role and growth experience with children,” and wages to compensate women for the bearing and raising of children.
Why was the reformation of housework sidelined at the conference? Some of it may have had to do with who was in the room. Groups such as the National Organization for Women were formed by professional, working women who were focused on improving conditions in the workplace: ending the wage gap, moving women into positions of power, and removing barriers that prevented women and girls from getting a quality education—issues that made their way into NOW’s original 1966 Statement of Purpose. As frustrating as the division of housework may have been, it just wasn’t central to the mission of NOW’s leadership. “They were professional women, and they were trying to get a fair shake,” Shulman explains.
In addition, the women most weighed down by the burdens of housework were the ones least able to commit their days to feminist activism. Many of those who set the agenda for feminist activism were young, white, uncoupled women who didn’t live with the day-to-day reality of working as domestic servants to husbands and children. Tellingly, it was Shulman’s status as a married woman with kids that led her to pen “A Marriage Agreement” in the first place. “I wanted to go to meetings without feeling guilty that I wasn’t taking care of my children,” she says. “I wanted [my husband to] take care of the kids when I went to a demonstration that might get me arrested.”
For the dozens of women who joined the committees of the Wages for Housework movement, the topic seemed as impossible to avoid as housework itself. Federici and the other Wages for Housework founders did not embody the classic notion of a housewife themselves: few of them were married, and even fewer had children. But they were nevertheless aware that the expectation of housework as “women’s work” still shaped their daily lives.
As these women sharpened their demands—crafting a framework for what, exactly, a government wage for housework would look like—they saw firsthand how transformative the demand itself could be. During the mid-1970s, the women of Wages for Housework partnered with welfare activists, whom they saw as natural allies, to rally against cuts to welfare. “Welfare mothers” weren’t lazy or charity cases, they argued; rather, they were the closest thing that America had to women who were being justly compensated for the work they contributed through child-rearing and maintenance of their homes. (A poster advertising a 1976 conference hosted by the New York committee of Wages for Housework makes this connection plain: “NO to Welfare cuts. YES to Wages for Housework from the Government for all Women.”)
On November 15, 1975, Federici and the other members of the New York committee of Wages for Housework opened a storefront in Park Slope inn a nondescript one-story building at 288B 8th Street with large windows out front. It was a momentous occasion that the group celebrated with a street festival: the block was strewn with banners that championed the demand for wages for housework in multiple languages, the rallying cry “Wages for Housework” repeated on a massive balloon that had been transported all the way from Manhattan for the occasion.
What do you think would happen if women went on strike?
There’d be no breakfast in the morning. There’d be no screw at night.
Wages for Housework members came from Canada, Italy, and New Orleans to join in the celebration and hear songs and speeches celebrating the storefront’s grand opening to the public. “With our work we make it possible for other people to go to work; we slave, so our husbands and children can slave,” Federici declared to the crowd. Wages for Housework member Boo Watson performed “The Wages Due Song,” a song she’d written and composed with another member, Lorna Boschman, which included the lyrics: “What do you think would happen if women went on strike? / There’d be no breakfast in the morning. There’d be no screw at night.”
Setting up a storefront gave Wages for Housework access to an entirely new method of activism. Prior to the storefront, the New York committee had required recruiters to go where women were—the laundromat, the unemployment line, the park, the supermarket—and distribute leaflets and flyers. “Women: We’ve Always Worked, We’ve Never Been Paid, We Never Retire,” declared an early flyer, which asked women to consider whether their daily existence counted as “Life or Just Survival?”
Multi-page pamphlets available at the storefront went into more depth, outlining arguments that positioned the fight for better housing conditions within the movement’s framework (“A Woman’s Home is not her castle, it is her workplace, but a workplace we pay rent for!”) and argued that older women, whose lifetime of housework left them ineligible for a pension or social security, were due wages for housework both going forward and retroactively.
Though Park Slope had once been home to wealthy New Yorkers fleeing the congestion of Manhattan, by the 1950s the moneyed classes had made their way to the suburbs, leaving behind Irish and Italian working class residents, who were later joined by black and Latino neighbors. As Wages for Housework became a fixture in the neighborhood, the residents warmed to them. Five months after the storefront’s grand opening, Reverend Finley Schaef, the minister of the Park Slope United Methodist Church, wrote a letter in support of the organization that was published in a local paper, the Home Reporter and Sunset News. “I agree with the idea of a wage for housework,” Schaef wrote, urging his neighbors to head to the storefront and “see what it’s like for yourself.”
But even as the Wages for Housework movement was finding its footing within New York City’s women’s liberation movement, it was facing pushback from other feminists. Objections were rooted in an assumption that securing financial compensation for domestic labor would merely trap women within the home, rather than gaining them financial freedom.
Angela Davis’s 1981 essay “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective” offered a lengthy critique of the call for wages for housework. In the essay, Davis states that the act of domestic labor “invades the female personality, that the housewife becomes indistinguishable from her job.” Providing compensation in exchange for this soul-crushing labor would merely serve to further isolate women from one another and from the revolution, a tragic outcome that would mainly serve to stifle women’s progress. “Would the housewives who felt they were ‘going crazy staying at home’ welcome the idea of being paid for driving themselves crazy?” Davis asks.
Liberation from housework can’t come from dismissing it as drudgery.
Other feminists feared that applying a financial value to housework would be too complicated to administer in a fair and equitable way. Demanding that the government pay out a wage to all women engaged in housework might sound nice, but, as Shulman asks now, “How would it include everybody?”
Yet for the women of Wages for Housework, these critiques missed the point. “The question of wages for housework was not about happiness with housework. It was a way of saying, ‘We’re already doing the work, we’re already doing a job that is benefiting—tremendously—the entire employer class, [and] we want something back,’” Federici tells me in an phone interview.
As much as the movement valued the promise of economic autonomy provided by a literal wage, its larger aim was to examine the role that women played within the capitalist economy, as Federici tells me, by “refusing unpaid labor and unmasking what this work is really about.”
The New York Wages for Housework Committee never had a massive membership base: with just seven core members, including Federici, all of whom were white women in their late 20s or 30s, it was dwarfed by other, more mainstream groups like NOW, which has more than half a million members today. Yet as small and homogenous as the group was, it was part of a larger, global network that allied a diverse collection of women for a common cause. Throughout the 1970s, Wages for Housework chapters cropped up in American cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia; globally, the group had chapters in Toronto, Montreal, London, northeastern Italy, Berlin, and Geneva.
And before the idea of intersectionality was part of feminist discourse, Wages for Housework encouraged marginalized groups within the broader feminist community—specifically, black women and lesbians—to form their own allied yet autonomous groups to independently advocate for their own tailored agendas. In April 1976, at the conference on Wages for Housework and Welfare, Brooklyn-based activists Wilmette Brown and Margaret Prescod launched Black Women for Wages for Housework, a group which staged its own initiatives and actions. Wages Due Lesbians served a similar purpose for lesbian activists in Canada, the US, and England, reframing the philosophy to meet the needs of women whose lives, and housework, existed wholly independent from the burdens of caring for men.
Despite all this enthusiasm, by 1977, the New York Wages for Housework movement was largely defunct. There were a number of reasons for the organization’s collapse, such as New York City’s declaration of bankruptcy in the summer of 1975 had a detrimental effect on the city’s residents. In an environment where wages were frozen, contracts were up for renegotiation, and workers were being held to account by managers who monitored their every move, political organizing became more difficult for many members of Wages for Housework. As attendance dropped at organizing meetings, the committee made the decision to put its work on hold, with the hopes of regrouping in the future. Some members left the failing city altogether. Unable to find a job in New York in the late ’70s, Federici joined the faculty at the now-defunct Franconia College in New Hampshire.
Globally, the movement was in trouble as well. Personal disputes between the founding members of the International Feminist Collective threatened the coalition’s stability. And as political oppression increased in Italy, openly engaging in leftist political activism became dangerous, threatening the safety of the members of one of the organization’s largest chapters and putting further strain on the international movement.
But in other respects, the work and activism of Wages for Housework was a casualty of the broader feminist movement’s success. The mainstream women’s movement was racking up a number of achievements: convincing the UN to adopt women’s rights platforms, and newspapers to abandon sex-segregated employment listings; helping women gain access to formerly male-only office spaces; wholly restructuring married women’s legal status within their own marriages; and establishing legal access to abortion. It was easy to shunt aside the thorny question of how to handle housework in favor of more concrete goals.
Yet housework—the tasks that Angela Davis deemed “neither stimulating nor productive”—stubbornly remained. Despite Davis’s view that housework might be replaced by “new social institutions to assume a good portion of the housewife’s old duties,” like universal and subsidized childcare, there’s been little progress in the liberation of everyone from household drudgery. Although countries such as Sweden and Denmark have found success with universal child-care most housework has not been successfully addressed anywhere by a “new social institution.”
To the contrary, when housework is escaped or avoided, it’s often by outsourcing to a low-paid (and usually female) worker. And when it’s not avoided, it still falls to women to do the lion’s share of the labor, in addition to whatever work they do outside the home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average day sees 84 percent of women and 68 percent of men doing housework, with women spending almost an hour more doing household activities than men.
Becoming the primary breadwinner doesn’t remedy this imbalance for women either. A 2014 study from About Gender: The International Journal of Gender Studies found that when men make less money than their wives, they’re more likely to decrease rather than increase their housework contributions. When children come into the picture, household labor questions become even more fraught. Researchers have found that the birth of a baby increases a mother’s workload by 21 hours per week, in contrast to the 12.5 hour increase for fathers—a 70 percent difference between the sexes. Even same-sex couples who had previously deemed their housework split as equal divide chores on gender lines after having kids.
Which may be why, a full four decades after their heyday, the ideas espoused by the women of Wages for Housework have begun to come back into the conversation. For example, discussions of “emotional labor”—a term that’s become shorthand for the unpaid work women do as amateur therapists, project managers, caretakers, and secretaries for the various people in their lives—owe a debt to the writings of the Wages for Housework movement, which recognized that freeing women from the burdens of the patriarchy required broadening the definition of “work” to encompass the broad swath of usually uncompensated labor expected from women.
Liberation from housework can’t come from dismissing it as drudgery. It has to come through a recognition of its value, its importance, its necessity. It has to come through a recognition that women’s housework has always has been work—work that women should be compensated for, and work that women should have the freedom to refuse. As Silvia Federci wrote about the movement in 1975, “to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature...to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.”