“Wages for Housework”: Silvia Federici and the value of domestic work

In the 1970s, feminists in the United States and Europe founded the “Wages for Housework” movement, challenging society’s view on the value of domestic labour and demanding a recognition of the work that was mostly performed by women.

Today, in 2021, after relying on essential health and care workers for over a year, the value of domestic work, both paid and unpaid, is still questioned. The anti-capitalistic ideas of Silvia Federici and her contemporaries are still relevant.

Silvia Federici was one of the initial members of the “Wages for Housework” campaign in the United States in 1974, founded partially as response to the cutting of welfare programs. Her essay “Wages Against Housework”, published in 1975, expressed the movement’s desire to put an end to the exploitation of women and the work they were performing.

“To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital”, Federici wrote, pointing out that capitalism had been built at the expense of women who performed the domestic work necessary to keep society working. Along with others, Federici fought against the perception that domestic labour came natural to women as “labour of love”, stating that “We want to call work what is work, so that eventually we might rediscover what is love.”

With their campaign, the women behind “Wages for Housework” not only criticised contemporary gender roles in capitalist societies, they put forward the notion that domestic work was work in the first place, an idea new to both mainstream society and also other contemporary feminist movements. “What was most concerning for us was that many feminists thought that the only place women could have power was in the waged workplace.”, Silvia Federici reflected in an interview with New Frame.  

The constant exclusion of domestic workers from the mainstream feminist movement, which instead valued an exclusive class of women in high-paying jobs, continued well into the 2010s. The age of “girl-boss” feminism celebrated the rise of very few women in the capitalist workspace at the expense of an overlooked majority. This did not only devalue women who did domestic work, it also excluded women of colour and LGBTQ+ people from the mainstream movement.

The problems that Federici and her contemporaries vocalised in the ’70s are still visible and have been especially highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the UN, women make up about 70% of the global health and care workers and are therefore hit hardest by the pandemic, while still earning less than their male co-workers in fields that are underfunded.

The UN report also revealed that women were doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work, with the prognosis that the situation was likely going to get worse due to the ongoing pandemic, with home-schooling and the lack of childcare support as additional factors.

The “Wages for Housework” campaign was, according to Silvia Federici in an interview with New Frame, unsuccessful, since a wage for housework has not yet been realised. Federici recognised, however, that the campaign did put forward the idea that domestic work greatly contributed towards society and therefore should be seen as work and not an inherent act that came natural to women. 

“As long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division.”, Federici told the New York Times in 2021. It was solidarity that feminists, especially women of colour, demanded in the ‘70s and continue to demand today.

In the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, black feminists articulated that solidarity, especially of and with marginalised groups, was the key to form a movement without excluding certain groups.  “We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough”, said the women of the Combahee River Collective, tying in with Federici’s ideal of leaving no-one behind in the struggle against oppression.

In the minds of the feminists of “Wages for Housework” movement, the recognition of housework as real work would include the women that were carrying the majority of domestic work. 

“To change the condition of waged work, to change the issue of services – childcare, eldercare – we had to question the nature of unwaged work”, Silvia Federici said in an interview with New Frame. According to Federici, Women’s issues that have been highlighted by recent data by the UN and WHO, pointing out women as the primary carriers of the pandemic, relate back to the work women have been performing since the emergence of capitalism, and without rethinking the value of this work, the status of the essential workers affected by the pandemic will not improve. 

Image: pxhere

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