Redefining Work: A Case for Wages for Housewives
Work has long been defined by a patriarchal society. Access to the rich bounties and upward social mobility that the American Dream promises have never exactly been equal. What counted as ‘work’ that could be bought and sold on the market has always been defined by men, for men. The idea of paying housewives is by no means new, with Charlotte Gilman’s ‘Women and Economics’ proposing the same as early as 1898. Housework, done mostly by women, has often not met the criteria of ‘work’, but on a revisit, proves largely arbitrary. Women often do hard labor: cooking, laundering, and cleaning are jobs that count as work on the market, but not at home. The differentiating factor? Marriage.
Marital relationships are often steeped in a tradition of sacrifice (more specifically the sacrifice of women’s jobs, dreams, and aspirations) as they embark upon the (male-centric and male-serving) of their lives. For the longest time, we have come to applaud the great sacrifices that housewives make to give their spouses all the support they need in their careers. Very few, however, discuss the circumstances under which these sacrifices are made, or why they should be sacrifices to begin with. Weddings, we need to recognize, are often built exclusively to serve the needs of men, specifically erasing the contribution of women to male success. Servile and meaningless rhetoric like “behind every successful man is a woman” serves to provide token recognition to the far less palatable reality that in most conservative societies, a marriage is a contract of indentured servitude.
Make no mistake, the semantics can get very ugly, and I am not quite prepared to argue whether it trivializes the mutually beneficial marital bond. It is, however, the principle that I am here to argue, and the principle is not entirely novel. In fact, society, in general, agrees that the contribution of women to a household is significant enough to receive payment. We only see it when the institution of marriage unravels. Alimony is a common default arrangement on divorce; practical in not leaving women — often the party less likely to be equipped to earn a living on their own — to fend for themselves, but also a concession on principle. The wife, through the work she did at home, plays a role in the husband’s success (pre decidedly half), and deserves compensation.
The praxis, on the other hand, is an elaborate and largely inconclusive discussion. While many argue that paying a housewife provides women a certain amount of freedom from financially abusive households, it often does not account for the fact that most individual women are not equipped with the support structures, knowledge, or even will in them to be capable of their own emancipation, and that only the success of large scale movements (like the feminist movement) and targetted structural reform can address these issues.
Capitalism isn’t prepared for it either, with an Oxfam report estimating the total value of uncompensated care work in the household comes up to around 11 trillion dollars. Naturally, should a system that encourages paying housework emerge, it should be independent of the male-dominated free market and state, instead to be provided on a community level, and to deliberately recognize housework as an essential service that can be taken pride in, and not as a reluctant sacrifice.