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.