Thursday, 19 June 2008


Sometimes, mainly on American blogs, I come across comments of disgust that people pay other people to do their housework. The argument usually goes that people who pay other people to do their housework are exploiting them, regardless of how much they are paid. Apparently, there is no financial remuneration that could compensate somebody for the loss of status brought by cleaning a house. Implicit in this discussion is the sense that doing housework is so demeaning, so awful, that nobody should ask another person to do it for them. Now, why is housework viewed in this way?

First, I think at least part of this argument is driven by a sense of insecurity about placing a numeric value on women’s contribution to the economy. If we can decide on a going rate for house-cleaning, we can calculate how much a woman’s work in the home is worth; as worth decides your social status in a capitalist system, there is a risk that you devalue the social role of housewives. As housewives traditionally took their social status from their husband, there is a risk that women married to high-earning men would be worth less than them and thus risk losing power within their marriage. Implicit in all of this, of course, is the sense that housework isn’t worth very much, and even if it’s not at the bottom of the pile of poorly-paid jobs, it won’t be at the top. This is exasperated by the fact that housework is not seen to be driven by economic factors, so therefore the value of wages would not be driven by economic forces, but by an arbitrary social valuation.

Second, housework is seen as demeaning as it is women’s work. This, of course, is never explicitly said, but why else would such disgust arise at the idea of doing housework. Housework is not that difficult; it’s not that disgusting. I have cleaned houses for money and would much, much prefer that to, say, to having to bathe and dress elderly people, which is considered to a be a respectable (women’s) occupation. It is far less disgusting than working in an abattoir or cleaning out stables. For the queasy stomached like myself, it is far less disgusting that stitching up gushing head wounds or cutting out people’s hearts. The work is not that physically hard and it is only as demeaning as you are treated. I personally had much more patronising and sleazy employers in retail than in house cleaning. Furthermore, while it is not often recognised, housework is an essential part of the economy. If houses weren’t cleaned and laundry left undone, workers would not be able to go to work in clean clothes, or make themselves food; they would eventually be made ill by bacteria, germs and mould; eventually (ok this would take a while but...) houses would decay and fall down, leaving worker’s homeless. Housework is only considered demeaning because it is something that women do.

Third, housework is demeaning because it is associated with the private sphere. The inviolable private home is meant to be a haven from the economic forces of the ‘real world’; a sanctuary from the harsh competition and strife of the capitalist system. Yet, because we value things with an economic value, the private home is seen as worth less than the public sphere. It was meant to be an equal, but different, environment, but inevitably, as capitalism shaped how we viewed the world, it came to hold less social import. To be placed in that environment is to be worth less, whether you are there as a wife or as a worker. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that the private home is also an economic environment undermines the private/public divide. That people could be paid for what goes on inside the home problematises the public/ private distinction that is at the heart of middle class, patriarchal values.

For these reasons, housework is seen as demeaning and paying someone to do your housework is seen as demeaning someone (which is unacceptable for feminists). Paying someone to do your housework is also problematic as it makes very visible the social hierarchies that exist in society and which, especially the privileged, like to pretend we don’t play a part in. Yet, those social distinctions continue to operate in every sphere of life; they are just more obvious when we do it the home and are directly responsible for the payment of wages. Housework is not demeaning, in and of itself. It is seen that way, because we do not value it. This is something we need to respond to as feminists, both because housework is associated with women and tends to overwhelmingly fall to women, and because a critical rethinking of the economic value of housework destabilises the capitalist, patriarchal system.


Anonymous said...

"Paying someone to do your housework is also problematic as it makes very visible the social hierarchies that exist in society and which, especially the privileged, like to pretend we don’t play a part in. "

very well said. that seems particularly american as we like to believe we are egalitarian. add the fact that the stereotypical (and often the actual) professional cleaner is non-white and it all gets a little uncomfortable.

Renee said...

It's also about who does the house work. Most domestic workers are WOC. This is problematic a we are most often in support staff roles rather than leadership roles. I am not saying that house work is unimportant, I am saying that it does not have the potential to effect the lives of many

apu said...

Interesting piece. From my (Indian) perspective - domestic labour in India is very cheap. So cheap that sometimes I feel it is exploitative - an affluent family sometimes spends more on a posh dinner than on a maid's wages for a month.

Yet - at one level - it does provide employment to a lot of women who are not qualified for any other jobs - even in cases where they are, I do know women who would rather work as maids inside a (relatively) safe home environment than in other options such as garment factories - which may pay more, but require much longer working overs under poor conditions.

Secondly, housework and overall management of the house, is still largely women's work. So domestic laborers "allow" more educated women like me, to go out and work. There is an imbalance there of course. But a big part of it is tied down to the country's overall economic situation. I agree with you though, that housework by itself is not a demeaning job.

Zenobia said...

Lots of good points here.

I think my main objection to employing a housekeeper is that most of us work full-time and look after the hygiene of our living space. So the assumption, when you hire someone else to do it, is that your time is too important to be spent on these things, whereas hers isn't.

Also, having been a cleaner (in an office and in halls of residence), it is a very undervalued job, since it's so important - people's health is at stake if it isn't done. For instance, when I worked as a cleaner, I didn't have a last name (or often a first one), and it was assumed I didn't speak English. Also, it never happened to me, but a friend of mine actually had to quit her job for an elderly couple because she could see that if anything went missing in the house, she'd be the first to be blamed, and since she was in a precarious position to start with...

Also, one thing you don't mention here is that thousands of women are trafficked into semi-legal or illegal domestic labour, for terrible wages, and are often treated appallingly.

Sage said...

I hate housework, and many people suggest a housekeeper. But personally I wouldn't get one because I'd be embarrassed at my own laziness. I picture someone cleaning around me while I read a book or blog - both activities I find far more engaging than tidying up. My concern is more with how I view myself in that context. It suggests that my ability to read all afternoon is more important than basic cleanliness, which feels arrogant and pathetic at once.

I grew up in a mess - my mother always said she didn't want it on her tombstone that she kept a clean house. This implies again that it's work of lesser value and importance than pretty much anything else she could think to do. But is it just because it's seen as woman's work? I wouldn't want to be known for taking out the garbage well or keeping the lawn mowed and gutters cleared, stereotypically male jobs around the house.

I think we want to see ourselves as accomplishing more than the basic necessities of life whatever the gender attached to them, so we ignore these necessities or pay someone else to do them. At the end of the day I feel better if I wrote something insightful but tossed the papers off the table briefly to feed the kids grilled cheese than if I made the house sparkle. I think it comes down the that, since anyone can clean, it's perceived as grunt work regardless who is doing it.

Zenobia said...

I think we want to see ourselves as accomplishing more than the basic necessities of life whatever the gender attached to them, so we ignore these necessities or pay someone else to do them. At the end of the day I feel better if I wrote something insightful but tossed the papers off the table briefly to feed the kids grilled cheese than if I made the house sparkle.

Well, first I think we need to acknowledge that it's not just gender, it's also class and race. When I was a cleaner, I was just as educated and qualified as the students whose kitchens and toilets I was cleaning, in fact possibly more because I already had a degree - only, it was a foreign degree and employers were dubious about it, I didn't have any other professional experience to speak of, and I really, really needed the money. But the students I met assumed I didn't speak any English and was generally a lower form of life than them - and after all, I was cleaning up the shit where they'd got drunk, missed the toilet bowl, and pebble-dashed the bathroom as a result. I had a male colleague who was also educated to degree-level, and his English was iffy so he was treated like he was a bit stupid and childlike as well. I'm also horrified, wherever I've worked since, that whenever something goes missing from the kitchen, everyone instantly thinks the cleaner did it.

Nevertheless, there is a need for cleaning in halls of residence or in offices. In the home, it's just a message that because you're a superior person you can't waste your time doing that stuff, so you can pay someone who doesn't have your lofty aspirations or your potential to do it for you - even though they probably have to clean their own house at the end of the day. They don't want to be remembered for keeping a sparkling house either. In fact, the fact that you even think in those terms shows a certain amount of privilege - how many people can aspire to being remembered at all?

Also, with programs like How Clean Is Your House, how many of the houses shown belong to writers and middle-class professionals, as opposed to the overall message being 'the underclass roll around in their own filth'?

Besides, it's basic hygiene we're talking about here -washing your clothes, doing the dishes. If anything it should be shared among housemates, but it's certainly not too important for anyone.

Zenobia said...

If anything it should be shared among housemates, but it's certainly not too important for anyone.

By which I mean, of course, 'no one is too important for it'.


Feminist Avatar said...

Ooh, thanks for all the great comments. I think they raise a lot of great issues, namely about the place of race in this discussion, about leisure and privilege, about cleaning and its greater importance to society, etc.

I am going to respond in a longer fashion tomorrow, I promise, but I am a bit hectic tonight!

apu said...

While I agree that issues of class come into it, I am a bit confused by this point from many commentors, that paying someone to do housework "implies" that your time is too important for it. But that sort of means that one cannot outsource any work at all. Should you not leave your children at a day care centre - after all, someone else is being paid to watch over them? How about getting a car wash done at a service centre? Many of these things can be done by one self, but we do decide to outsource them.

So, while I agree that there is something disrespectful about the way cleaners etc are treated, and something needs to be done about that, I don't see the hiring out of work itself as wrong. It seems a bit odd to relate it to how a person uses his or her own time.

Sage said...

When I say I don't want a housekeeper to clean while I perceive myself as doing something more important, like reading, I mean to say that it's because that's such an embarrassingly pretentious concept to me. This is exactly why I don't want to hire someone to clean my dirt. It feel arrogant to determine the task as less valuable.

I'd put carwashing in that category too, but not daycare. I can avoid tidying house or car, but my children need care during the day. Someone has to watch them. If I can afford to stay home and do it myself, that's my personal preference. But when I need to work to live, I have to send the preschoolers to daycare. This outsourcing is a necessity.

However, it occurs to me in responding that I have no problems paying someone to do work if I think it's something I can't do as well as they can. I might, even if I could afford to keep the kids at home, send them to a specialized school, a music camp or something similar. I don't second guess outsourcing in that way. Similarly, I'd take my car to a mechanic (if I had a car), but not a car wash.

Perhaps a preferable perspective to take is that a housekeeper would do a much better job than I would do. It's the truth, yet I'd still feel bad that I'm such a slob. I can't get past the uncomfortable feeling I get from the idea of being cleaned-up after. Personally, I'd feel reduced to childhood.

Zenobia said...

What's the problem with the carwash? It's automated, isn't it?

Privilege is a kind of second childhood, really, all that 'deserving to be pampered', 'because I'm worth it' stuff. And there's an interesting parallel with gender, because the way white, Western women are infantilised has a lot to do with treating them like princesses as well. And all that eternal debating about the colour pink, of course, comes from the fact that pink dye is a relatively recent invention, so it would have been both striking and expensive not so long ago.

You don't want to be employing a cleaner 'because you're worth it', do you? (I don't mean you specifically, Sage, it's a general question)