The politics of housework, and why doing the dishes is not a trivial matter
This was published on Saturday in The National
If fathers want their daughters to aspire to successful careers, a new study has revealed the answer: fathers should share housework with their wives. While mothers’ gender and work-equality beliefs were key factors in predicting youngsters’ attitudes towards the roles of women and men, the strongest predictor of daughters’ own professional ambitions was their fathers’ approach to household chores.
The findings follow other studies revealing the benefits of sharing housework, such as improvements in marital harmony and making wives feel more attracted to their husbands.
Aside from the fact that it’s simply fair for adults to share the housework, such studies demonstrate that even with selfish motives, sharing housework has immediate and long-term benefits for men.
Yet housework is still overwhelmingly done by women even though many also work like their husbands, and most childcare is still women’s responsibility. The division of housework is politics at play in the home.
In 1970, the US feminist group Redstockings published an article titled The Politics of Housework. Depressingly, nearly 50 years later, it still holds true. Writer Patricia Mainardi recounts the struggle with her husband about who should do the housework: he admits in principle that he ought to, because that’s fair, but when the time comes he proffers excuses. Everyone agrees housework is dull, says Mainardi, but she deconstructs the reasons – the same ones still used today – that men give for not doing it. Such as: women are naturally cleaner or women do it better. When a man says women are better at it, what he means, according to Mainardi, is: “I don’t engage in dull work, but it’s OK if you do.” When he says he doesn’t know how to do it, it means he has better things to do.
Mainardi’s most important point is that housework is considered “trivial”. Why do women go on about such trivial matters? Because it fundamentally shapes their lives and choices. The demands of housework and childcare determine where they can go, the decisions they make about their lives and how they engage in the public space. That’s why women have attempted to put it on to the political agenda. Campaigns such as “Wages for Housework” attempt to counter the “unimportance” of housework by putting an economic value on it. In a modern capitalist economy when something is “free” it is not valued, because only “paid” employment is worthwhile.
If women want paid work, they still bear household responsibilities, restricting them to part-time work, or preventing full focus on their careers in the way men are free to do without a care about who will look after the children or how food, utilities and daily life will be managed.
Of course, the counterargument is that running a household is an important job, requiring skill, effort and tireless devotion, and that our society should focus on developing pride in housework and childcare for whoever does it.
I agree. That’s exactly my point. Housework is considered trivial, playing second fiddle to “paid” work. If it was considered of value, we would hear men boasting to their friends about how they have washed all the dishes, and filled the freezer with lunches for the children.
The next time you’ve vacuumed, cooked, bathed the kids, put them to bed, done the laundry and paid the bills, remember that your housework is a political act. Don’t consider it to be trivial.