What is Wages for Housework Movement?


By: Suad Soueilem

Radical feminist movements never leave the spotlight, bringing with them debates and arguments about the issues they are fighting for. The “Wages for Housework” movement, for example, is one of the most important political feminist movements.

The movement is of great historical and political importance for discussing and deconstructing household chores and understanding their roots, especially within patriarchal discourses. Most of these discourses discuss housework as a natural and essential role for women and girls.

What is Wages for Housework Movement?

Wages for Housework is an international feminist movement that fights against capitalism and rejects the economic perspective that turns women’s housework into unappreciated, unnoticed, and unpaid work.

In this context, the movement introduced a new perspective on feminism that remains important today, launching the slogan of wages for housework. Through this slogan, the movement drew attention to the economic, physical, and psychological exploitation of women and girls in the home. It deconstructed the importance of what they do within the capitalist economic system, considering that their work is a guarantee for the continuation of life itself.

The “Wages for Housework” movement was founded by an international feminist group in 1972, at a feminist conference in Padua, Italy. In just two years, the movement has held conferences in America, England, Canada, and Italy, presenting a radical and different feminist perspective on women’s caregiving work.

This kind of work is not a biological imperative and is not out of love. Caring work has been shaped throughout history, specifically with the advent of capitalism, because it contributes to the process of reproduction, by providing food, drink, and health and emotional care to workers. This ensures that they remain contributors to the productive forces that accumulate wealth for the dominant class.

The movement’s primary goal focuses on bringing together unpaid workers at houses (mothers, wives, and unpaid domestic workers) and unpaid social service providers. This was to organize a foundational movement struggling from the base, and disintegrating power relations at the top, including class and patriarchy.

The founders of the “Wages for Housework” movement analyzed the impact of capitalist exploitation and left-wing exclusion on women and their issues. On the one hand, capitalism and patriarchy do not regard housework as work, even though they depend on it for survival. On the other hand, the left narrows down the concept of “struggle” to wage labor and class struggle only from within factories and fields.

Housework is actual work

“Wages for Housework” stressed that housework is work, but it is unpaid and not acknowledged. All women are workers exploited by capitalism to accumulate profits, and all homes are workplaces. The demand for pay for housework is a symbolic request.

What was really important was the recognition of women’s intentionally marginalized work, even though economic and social structures are based on it.

Analyzing care and reproductive work through the application of union strategies has disrupted the entire patriarchal and capitalist value system, which links women’s reproductive roles to housework.

Demanding a wage is, above all, to explore what it is like for women to provide free work such as caregiving. Accordingly, the Movement called for fighting against the conditions of exploitative welfare work, negotiating the services provided, and determining their duration.

As the struggle expands, domestic work can be dismissed as a role limited to women, destroying the idea that it is part of their “nature.” This aims to dismantle power relations and attack domination in gender and class systems.

Using housework to politicize social justice issues

The main objective of the campaign is to bring together people assigned to household and care chores to fight for a change in their status.

As for the path, it involves a reversal of power relations and redistribution of the wealth women contributed to producing. This can be done through liaising with working women since the majority belong to the working class, and most of the women of this class work inside and outside the house. Consequently, they live in poor economic and social conditions and are subjected to class and patriarchal exploitation in the public and private spheres. They are a militant force that, if united around the destruction of paid and unpaid work conditions, can establish a popular base against capitalism and patriarchy.

In this sense, the goals of struggle in the movement have become an opportunity to politicize issues of caregiving work and issues of class and social justice. These goals included family allowances and free care for children, reproductive health, reproductive and gender autonomy, sexual freedom, the rights of sex and LGBTI workers, the provision of social facilities such as shelters for women, and the adoption of workers’ issues in homes, factories, and farms, including vendors and workers in the public and private service sector.

The movement also used the concept of wages to draw attention to broader sectors such as living conditions, i.e. the situation of women working in their homes. Consequently, it called for housing, decent and free transportation, and social services.

In addition, it demanded the provision of daycare centers accessible to women, which would reduce the time of household duties. For this reason, the movement formed a labor and feminist struggle to change the social and economic conditions of everyone.

A new kind of policy

The movement challenged traditional ways of politics, describing its male-dominated institutions as boring and exclusionary. Accordingly, feminists were committed to creating new joy-laden paths that included being with other women to defy the isolation of homes.

In this context, the movement offered a perspective that allows the formulation of a whole range of struggles not only in neighborhoods and homes but also in hospitals, factories, and the service sector. These struggles represented a new attempt to reject the separation of the private and public spheres in the struggle against capitalism.

From here, they perceived issues according to the order of priorities by showing the link between patriarchy and capitalism.

The movement also contributed to rethinking the home as a workplace. Neither feminism nor leftist movements can separate the class struggle from the struggle against patriarchy while fighting both.

The movement challenged traditional ways of politics, describing its male-dominated institutions as boring and exclusionary. Accordingly, feminists were committed to creating new joy-laden paths that included being with other women to defy the isolation of homes.

In a movement booklet, Silvia Federici linked the exploitation of men at work to the exploitation of violence against women in the home. Men vent out the exploitation they are subjected to on the bodies of women and girls.

Therefore, there should be alternatives that link individual resistance to collective resistance which moves these issues out of the kitchens and bedrooms onto the streets. The movement presented its feminist perspective through a cross-cutting action joining the struggle against domestic exploitation and exploitation in factories or workplaces.

Fighting the exploitation of domestic workers

“Wages for Housework” stressed that the solution would never stem from the same system or the exploitation of other women. It criticized the second wave of feminism and its perspective that women’s enrollment in paid work would ensure freedom from patriarchy.

This liberal perspective exacerbated class distinction and left more women under the exploitation of capitalism, which left “ housework” to poorly paid domestic workers. This exposed them to further exploitation and racism as most of them are from marginalized ethnic groups. This happened instead of dismantling the patriarchal and capitalist system, challenging the concept of domestic work, or moving it into the great battle against the exploitation of the productive forces.

For this particular reason, the campaign warned against falling into the trap of capitalist patriarchy which encourages women to continue working for free or for meager pay. Rather, the campaign provided recognition for housework as a major contributor to production processes and their continuation. This paves the way for a feminist future where care is a social work rather than a woman’s work.

Fighting exclusion in leftist currents

In brief, the movement considered “domestic work” to be any work feminized in social spaces inside or outside the home. It also dismantled social and emotional work, referring to it as productive work that keeps the working class alive and healthy enough to produce the same oppressive structures. Of course, this includes offering sex, childbearing, feeding, and not harming men’s feelings.

However, this has been marginalized by both the patriarchal left and the Labor Movement. The radical left considered women’s issues of secondary importance in class struggle. It resorted to superficial analyses that speak for women and don’t give them room to represent themselves and their causes.

The founders of the “Wages for Housework” analyzed the impact of capitalist exploitation and leftist exclusion on women and their issues.

Capitalism and patriarchy deny the value of domestic work and don’t consider it actual work, although, on the one hand, they depend on it for survival. On the other hand, the left limits the concept of “struggle” to paid work and class struggle within factories and fields. Thus, the left marginalized any work that supports the wheel of capitalism, such as domestic work and immaterial creative work.

This is a dual authoritarian strategy that exploits women’s reproductive and social workforce while keeping the kingpin of the struggle in the hands of left-wing heterosexual men.

Does the movement normalize housework or call for its dismantling?

“Wages for Housework” received a lot of criticism, especially from leftist currents, who considered that demanding wages for domestic work opposed the Marxist theory’s concept of wage and the value of work.

On the other hand, the movement also received feminist criticism which saw that the movement’s slogan normalizes housework and contributes to keeping women within the private sphere. However, the movement’s institutions were part of the Marxist generation which contributed to the development of the theory of social reproduction.

“They say it’s a work of love and we say it’s unpaid work”.

This theory is a fundamental pillar in the project of the emancipation of women and marginalized, impoverished, and oppressed groups. This goes back to its being the basis of analyzing power relations and encircling the capitalist and patriarchal systems that bet on them in shaping society. Thus, the movement offered a Marxist feminist reading of the concept of work itself. It shed light on the groups contributing to the production processes. Unfortunately, these groups are marginalized even by the forces rebelling against the economic system.

As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the movement presented a feminist analysis of its slogan. The slogan “Wages for Housework” does not call for the feminization of domestic work or making it paid. However, it is a symbolic slogan that deconstructs the roots of exploitation. It is neither love nor biology, as promoted by patriarchal propaganda.

Moreover, the campaign launched its slogan “They say it’s a work of love and we say it’s unpaid work.” This was to highlight that housework should be recognized as a major contributor to production relations.

Despite the criticism, the movement provided a new perspective on understanding the feminist struggle as an international, anti-capitalist struggle that rejects the exclusion of women’s and girls’ issues. This happens when we consider their issues the bedrock of fighting capitalism and patriarchy and stop engaging in schemes that exclude or domesticate them in favor of regimes.

The founders of ‘Wages for Housework’:

“Wages for Housework” was founded by left-wing revolutionary feminists who demanded wages for care work for the first time.

Maria Rosa Dalla Costa

She is a feminist activist, writer, and founder of several feminist organizations, including “Wages for Housework”, “International Feminist Group”, and “Feminist Literature Publications”.

Maria was a cornerstone of feminist work aimed at challenging masculinity in labor movements. She co-founded feminist debates on social reproduction and patriarchal capitalism.

Silvia Federici

Feminist activist, academic theorist, and university professor. She is best known for her anti-capitalist and patriarchal writings and writings in which she deconstructed the history of these systems.

She helped found many feminist and leftist organizations, including the International Feminist Group. She also contributed to the launch of the “Wages for Housework” campaign. She participated in many anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and indigenous human rights organizations. She is considered one of the pioneers of Marxist feminism and feminist history.

Selma James

She is a feminist, socialist, and academic activist. She has been involved in shaping a feminist narrative about feminism and has many important writings about it.

She helped found the “Wages for Housework” movement, to shed light on how housework and caregiving work as a whole are used in the production of the working class.

In her writings, she emphasized how the dominant forces of production persisted through women’s domestic work. Over the last two decades, she has been involved in organizing the “World Feminist Strike”, becoming an internationalist anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal movement.

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