Thoughts While Cleaning The Living Room

Domestic work is undervalued - but it doesn't need to be

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 16
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute


Families are work, and most of the work gets done by women. In his classic book
Home, Inc.(Doubleday, 1975), Scott Burns concluded that the total value of goods and services produced in households (but neither sold nor compensated with wages) was about one-third the value of the entire market economy. His prediction that the "household economy" would one day replace the market economy has yet to come true, but it remains a fact that domestic work is seriously undervalued. To cite an odd example, the cost of storing toxic waste gets included in the Gross National Product (the measure in dollars of the productive output of the economy), while the value of a home-baked loaf of bread does not.

Dana Meadows looks at the facts on domestic work, but she gives them a fresh twist and points the way to a healthy reconceptualization of the value (and, yes, the pleasure) of "cleaning the living room." To get her weekly column "The Global Citizen" into your newspaper, write your editor or directly to Dana at PO Box 58, Daniels Road, Plainfield, NH 03781.

My female friends throughout the world have been sending me thought-provoking statistics about women’s work.

Twenty years ago only 10 percent of the women in the industrialized countries worked full time. Now over 50 percent do. But the average amount of time men spend on housework has not increased. Men average 2-1/2 more hours of leisure time per week than women.

In Norway the more children there are in a family, the less total time is spent with them by the father. In Canada the more children in the family, the more time the man spends watching television.

In the U.S. the income gap between full-time working men and women has not narrowed. Only one working woman in four earns a wage high enough to support herself and her family.

Nearly all Russian women work full time, many in traditional male occupations, from heavy construction to high bureaucracy. Soviet men do almost no cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping or child care. Doctors in the Soviet Union are among the most poorly paid and least respected workers, and most of them are women.

These figures make me sad. They say not only that the power relationships between men and women are still badly skewed, but also that industrialized society has not yet learned to value the tasks of cleaning, cooking, child care, the nurturing of people and the maintenance of homes.

I suppose everyone grows up as I did, certain that there is hardly a worse way to spend your time than doing dishes or scrubbing floors. Being forced as a child to do these things doesn’t help. As a female child, though, I absorbed without question the idea that these were my jobs, which I would be expected to do all my life.

It took years before I finally shook off the childhood associations and noticed how I actually felt about household chores. I discovered that I didn’t mind them. Work in itself is not a bad thing – it is necessary for a good life. Household work is as pleasant as any other. I can easily convince myself that vacuuming the living room is a healthful exercise, it produces economic benefit (maintaining the worth of capital assets) and aesthetic benefit (a clean living room). On all those counts it beats sitting through a faculty meeting or writing a column.

I gradually learned that an ongoing responsibility for a house or a child is a constant opportunity to practice fine human virtues – selflessness, patience, practicality, orderliness, intuition, love – womanly qualities not because of genetics, but because of the way many women, and some men, spend their lives.

Another thing I came to realize is that the nurturing and maintenance jobs hold the world together. Their social worth is inestimable. The women of Iceland made that point dramatically one day in 1975. All the women in the country, paid and unpaid, took a day off and gathered together for a discussion of women’s rights. In the words of one observer, "the wheels of society came to a screeching halt, and no one questioned the value of women’s work again."

Why does anyone ever question the value of "women’s work"? Why don’t we honor it and the people who do it? I mean really honor it, with decent wages and with personal respect. People who clean up or care for people – homemakers, nurses, attendants at day care centers or retirement homes, social workers, maids, launderers – are at the bottom of the pay ladder and are socially invisible. Most of them are women or minorities. Above them are people who care for machines; still higher people who care for flows of paper; highest of all, people who care for money. Where did we get that set of priorities?

Either we valued cleaning and caring jobs so little that we foisted them off on people we didn’t value, or we thought so poorly of some people that their jobs became devalued by association. However it happened, we now take jobs that are pleasant enough within the varied routine of a household – peeling potatoes, wiping the noses of 2-year-olds, serving food to the table – and make some people do them full time. In the process the jobs become boring and demeaning, we look down on the people who do them, and all but the strongest of these people come to look down on themselves.

Kenneth Boulding once said, in response to a forecast that someday every American would be earning $100,000 per year, "So what? Someone will still have to take out the garbage." Whoever that is, no matter how much she or he makes, that person is not likely to be respected or have self-respect, as long as we view the cleaning and caring jobs as distasteful. Around those jobs we will continue to construct social classes:

  • Upper-class people never clean up after themselves or care for the physical needs of others. They consider their time too important to spend that way.
  • Middle-class people clean up after and care for themselves and a few others in reciprocal arrangements – I’ll do your laundry if you shovel the snow – and they consider themselves just ordinary folks.
  • Lower-class people clean up after themselves and others, all day, every day, and figure that’s all they’re good for.

As a woman I don’t want to be liberated out of the middle class. I want everyone to be liberated into it. Especially those men who don’t help their working wives, don’t respect the work those wives do, and don’t realize what they’re missing by not vacuuming the living room.

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