Sunday, 22 June 2008

Housework, part 2.

I received a number of great comments to my post on housework and some raised a number of issues I thought would be better addressed at length, rather than in the confines of a comments box.

The first major issue raised was that house-cleaning is not just seen as demeaning because it is associated with women, but because it is also associated with women of colour and poor women. In Scotland, cleaners are not usually women of colour (because we are a VERY white country- though that’s slowly changing), but they are almost always poor and frequently poorly educated. In a more global context, cleaners are frequently women of colour. This association arises from housework’s poor social status. As it is seen as having little social value, it falls to the people ranked lowest in the social order to do it (women/ poor women/ women of colour). As it has little social value, the people who clean homes are open to abuse of all natures. As it has little social value, the people who clean homes are seen as suspicious, dishonest, impure.

Yet, housework is absolutely vital to the survival of the human race. It is not just a frivolous, social desire to have a well-functioning house. Historically, until very recently, if no one performed the functions of the household, the people that lived within it would have starved and/or died from disease. Today, as we have outsourced considerable parts of the household economy (such as food preparation) and because we have technological conveniences (such as central heating, washing machines and cleaning fluids), the role of the housewife/ cleaner appears considerably less significant. But, this disguises how vital it is to our health, mental well-being and economic productivity that we live in clean, safe environments. It only takes a quick glance over to the average life expectancy of the poor in nineteenth century tenements to get a sense of the importance of decent living conditions to our health. (I distinguish between clean and tidy houses- it is unsafe to live amongst mould and rotting food, rubbish or bodily matter- dust isn’t likely to kill you).

Even economists recognise that housework is vital part of the economy. One study in Canada estimated unpaid housework and childcare to be worth $275 billion to the Canadian economy. Non-employed single mothers put in an average of 50 hours a week, worth $24,000 a year to the Canadian economy ‘at current market rates’. If anything, these numbers are low, due to the low value placed on these occupations. If housework had a higher social value, it would be worth more to the economy and the women, who worked in housework and childcare industries, would have higher social status, more money and more power. One of my commenters suggested that housework does not have the power to affect many lives. This is not true. Through allowing people to live healthy lives and have roles in society and economy, cleaners affect the lives of everybody. Furthermore, as a feminist, I would be worried about promoting a system that saw value as associated with how much power a person could exercise over others.

One response to this is that ‘anyone can do housework’, so that it will never be seen as valuable, or that it’s ‘grunt work’. But housework is a learned skill, like any job; it’s just one that most people are taught from childhood. And there are plenty of jobs that are well- paid or respectable that ‘most people’ could do with some training. Farming, rearing animals, dairy-work, food preparation, and cooking are all reasonably well-paid jobs that have been historically performed by women of various social classes, with little formal training (but, like housework, lots of informal training). Jobs in construction and plumbing, which are very well-paid, require only short apprenticeships and can be learned by people with a variety of educational levels and social backgrounds. But, even if housecleaning is easy or can be performed by ‘anybody’, it doesn’t mean it should be of lesser value than any other occupation. Let’s face it, the average prime minister could not function if his basic needs were not being met. Jobs, which are ‘low-skill’, are not less important; they just have less social value. Furthermore, there is an implication in this discussion that certain types of people are worth less than others and that is hugely problematic. People have different skills and some find certain tasks easier than others (and this is without reflecting on how poverty and social class impact on education, etc), but this should NOT reflect on their social value. Their value lies in their humanity.

Finally, the question of privilege inevitably enters into any discussion of housework. Only the privileged can afford to pay someone else to clean their house (although in the past almost every household at all social levels had servants). And this raises some really complicated issues. As raised by one commenter, being able to hire people to clean your home and look after your children, allows many women to enter the world of work, which would not be possible otherwise. For some women, working is necessary to survive and the extra income they earn can pay someone else to reduce their burden. This is more complicated than a simple exercise of privilege. This is about coping and surviving. Yet, there is also the question of who cleans the house of the cleaner, another working woman?

What about rich women with leisure time who would like to pay someone to clean their house, not to free them for work, but for pleasure? Is this an exercise of privilege too far? Is there something fundamentally different about employing someone to clean your house when it is acceptable to buy prepared food and ready-made clothes? In fact, could you argue that because you pay your cleaner directly (not through the middlemen of factory owners, product buyers and the shop), they get a fairer, less exploitative wage than many people under the capitalist system?

At some point, we have to accept that as a society we rely on each other for survival. Households in the past needed servants because two adults could not do everything that needed to be done to survive. This is true today, but, instead of work being done by servants within our homes, we purchase ready-made food and clothes and rely on new technologies to allow us to cope. Because so much of that labour is invisible, we forget that humanity is a giant organism. Increasingly, we are trying to make housework invisible too. We give it little or no social value; we refuse to recognise its vital function to survival; we resist paying people to do it as it highlights its existence- it highlights that our survival depends on others. When we do pay people to clean, we demean them and trivialise their role.

Under the current capitalist/ patriarchal system, employing people to clean your home is an exercise of privilege. So is being able to buy your meat, pre-slaughtered and butchered, your vegetables grown, cleaned and even diced! We would like to forget that. We like to imagine that our successes and failures came through our own merit and hardwork. This is not true. We got here together. Now, we need to recognise that and give credit where credit is due. Perhaps, when we do, the social/ class/ gender/race distinctions that permeate our society will be harder to sustain.


Zenobia said...

As raised by one commenter, being able to hire people to clean your home and look after your children, allows many women to enter the world of work, which would not be possible otherwise. For some women, working is necessary to survive and the extra income they earn can pay someone else to reduce their burden.

But if their work is necessary to their survival, surely they can't afford a housekeeper.

I mean, you and I are in the world of work. I work office hours with a 45-minute commute either side, which is pretty common, and I clean my own living space, which is also pretty common. I need to work full time, and could never afford to pay a cleaner - which is also pretty common.

How is'entering the world of work' be impossible if you also have to do the dishes and clean the toilet? Isn't that what most women do anyway? I mean, I don't know many women who can afford not to work, and they all do their own cooking and cleaning. Really, it seems pretty way out to me to imagine not having to do that stuff. I mean, it's basic stuff, like wiping your own arse.

Feminist Avatar said...

Well, I need to work, but I am also highly skilled so earn reasonably well and one day may be able to afford a cleaner. If I don't work, I will starve- so working is about my survival even if I am well recompensed. If I work long hours and commute, and then also have kids to care for on top of that (who also make mess), maybe a cleaner would make my life easier. It might be the difference from spending my whole life either 'at work' or cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and having some leisure time (which may even be necessary for my mental health).

It also depends on your culture. The commenter who said that is from India and would probably have more food preparation than in the UK where we can by pre-packaged food pretty easily. There are places where basic tasks take longer because they haven't out-sourced housework as much as we have.

Sage said...

A cleaner would make my life easier only if I got sucked into the belief that our homes need to be spotless. I think part of the issue has to do with a cultural obsession with cleanliness and perfect order. Whenever I read stats on the number of hours women spend on housework (typically compared to men), I'm dumbfounded. I have no idea how to spend that many hours tending to my house. Is it all really necessary? Or have marketers convinced us to buy their cleaners or else we won't be good enough human beings. I think many people clean so much to maintain social status, not health.

Basic sanitation is necessary for health, but the fact that we can flush the toilet instead of dumping a bucket out the window right in front of the house, have our garbage taken away, and having hot water on demand, these are necessities to prevent disease. Having someone dust or vacuum, not so much. A housekeeper isn't going to affect my health by sweeping out the cobwebs or washing windows.

My partner cooks, and the kids and I do dishes and laundry. Then we all trip over toys and craft supplies on every horizontal surface of the house. The kids stick pictures to the windows, so I wouldn't want those cleaned anyway. And they can practice writing their names in the dust! I don't own a vacuum or iron, and I've never missed them.

Zenobia said...

I think part of the issue has to do with a cultural obsession with cleanliness and perfect order. Whenever I read stats on the number of hours women spend on housework (typically compared to men), I'm dumbfounded.

Yeah, I think it was Theodor Adorno who said that the house is like a tomb to the housewife and making it more and more beautiful is like embalming yourself.

Also, Simone de Beauvoir had similar views about women's lives pretty much ending as soon as they get married, which is why a lot of middle-class women fantasize so much about their young teenage years, just before they officially became 'women'.

Or there's the Gang of Four song, It's Her Factory...

apu said...

Again, my Indian perspective is quite, quite different on this. Just because someone needs to work doesn't mean they cannot afford to hire a maid (in the Indian context). Its not a housekeeeper - typically, maids here spend about an hour or in two in a house, before moving on to the next one. So, in a sense, many,very middle-class households share the cost of a maid. Also, labor saving devices are not yet ubiquitous. So the dynamics are quite different from what they would be in a Western context. I wouldn't call the average middle class household here privileged in that sense, though obviously, they are more privileged than someone who lives in a slum tenement.