The Gender Politics of Housework

It's been said before and in various ways (such as this great recent "Bitch Ph.D." blog post which includes commentary on the subject), the fact that housework is political and gendered should be reiterated on a regular basis for everyone of every gender and race and class. It is amazing how easily so many of us live out the patriarchal status quo in this aspect of our lives, even when we are otherwise progressive, feminist, even radical.

The Second Shift. One key concept to understanding how housework is political is to grasp the concept, developed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, that housework is work. It is valuable yet undervalued labor because it is unpaid. And the bulk of this unpaid labor, even in dual-career marriages, is done by women, without recognition of this fact. In the 1960s, Hochschild found that women did 15 more hours more housework and childcare per week than their husbands. This results in what Hochschild calls a “leisure gap” between men and women in heterosexual married relationships: men get more time to rest and think (which can mean more happiness, more career success, more time for contemplating one’s place in the cosmos, for activism or even thinking about activism, etc.). And doing more housework and having less leisure time increases women’s anxiety, depression, and worry.

In 1997, Chloe E. Bird updated Hochschild’s findings. Using 1990 and 1994 National Opinion Research Council data, she found that: women who marry (heterosexually) gain 14 hours per week of additional household labor, while their husbands gain only 90 minutes per week; and women report doing at least 70% of household labor, while their husbands self-reported doing only 37%—whether their wives worked outside the home or not. In 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted the “American Time Use Survey,” which reported that employed adult women (18 years and over) spent about an hour more per day than employed adult men doing household activities and caring for household members, and men spent more time doing leisure activities (5.4 hours) than women (4.8 hours). Though the gap may be seem to be narrowing, we want to keep in mind that the American Time Use Survey lumped financial and other household management tasks in with housework and that leisure time has been lessened over the years for both men and women in middle-class career tracks.

Though these statistics are based on heterosexual and otherwise traditional family relationships, it is important to note that imbalances in housework sharing occur in many varieties of relationship, from LGBT couples to communal homes to parent/child living arrangements to college roommate arrangements. The key is to recognize that housework is, indeed, political, and that who does what and how much is often gendered or otherwise imbalanced in the home.

The next step is to strategize for equality and justice. A central element of strategizing is education. As Pat Mainardi of the Redstockings argued in her 1970 article “The Politics of Housework”: “[W]e women have been brainwashed more than even we can imagine. Probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognize the essential fact of housework right from the very beginning. Which is that it stinks.” To come to this kind of recognition, we need to learn to “desocialize” or “denaturalize” how we think, which means to think through the bases of our perspectives and actions rather than taking them for granted. We must ask, To what degree have we been conditioned to believe and act in certain ways and to consider these ways “normal” or “natural” without exploring or questioning them?

After careful thought, if you decide the way your household views and does housework needs some reworking, it’s time to move toward a participatory democracy. Everyone needs to be working toward the same goal: equality and fairness in the home. The specifics of how you work out who should do what and how often may vary from household to household (based upon work schedules, finances, skills, and personal preferences), but they need to be out in the open and a matter for discussion.

Some things to keep in mind as you work toward your democracy—especially if you find active resistance:

· It is not acceptable to presume that one’s biology determines who is better at housework or even given tasks. Do not base negotiations here.

· The one who is doing less and not analyzing is the one who will feel the change more: (s)he is losing some leisure and you’re gaining it.

· Watch out for red herrings. Do not be swayed by claims that discourage change, such as: “I’m not good/new at this; let’s do what we each do best”; “You’ll have to show me how to do it”; or “My career is more difficult/important than yours, so I need more ‘down time.’”

One useful approach for creating positive change is to make a list of all the regular (daily, weekly) housework chores that must be done for the household to function. Estimate how much time/effort each task takes. Separate these from chores you’d like to see done but are not vital, and leave space for additional now-and-then tasks. Then, share the list with your housemate(s). Often just looking at the list together can be a form of consciousness-raising. Next, review the list to consider who generally does what and how often. Work toward a shared understanding and agreement of how you currently share housework. (This may be easy or may take some time.) Finally, discuss each item on the list. Decide who prefers which tasks and whether tasks are permanently assigned or if you want to take on responsibilities on a schedule.

If the discussion gets tense, remember your ultimate goal: housework assignments that are reasonable and equitable to all. While negotiating, avoid defensiveness. When we feel attacked or threatened, we get defensive. Once defenses go up, it is difficult to process new information. Validate each other’s perspectives, allow for “cool down” time, and use praise.

Once you’ve accomplished the difficult task of toppling housework from its status as “women’s work,” you can begin to bring your new consciousness to your entire household. With a combination of assertiveness and patience that will vary in proportion to the resistance of those in your home, you may come to live in a household that sees housework as both political and negotiable. Such a change is a vital—if often unexplored—part of achieving feminist goals for empowerment, equality, and justice for all.


TB said...

You are absolutely right. What it comes down to for me and my husband is this. He is messy. I am not. He works from home and I tend to get bitterly cranky if I have to clean up after I come home from working all day. He's catching on and now we also have a male housekeeper who comes to do all the deep cleaning once every three weeks. I still straighten up because it bothers me to have things out of place, while my husband would be content to live in chaos, but I don't resent him for it, that's just who he is. For us, this is a perfect solution.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Ooh, where can I get a nice deep-cleaning male housekeeper :)

Actually, my husband and I are both messy types and he resists the idea of getting someone in to do cleaning... We keep up with dishes and laundry, but the rest is a struggle at times. Still, we hate housework mutually, so at least there isn't that gender struggle!

Grace said...

the only thing i miss about my ex husband is that he was GREAT, quick and efficient at cleaning. I leave messes everywhere and can't be bothered with putting things where they belong, etc...

he did it without griping or holding resentments, it's as if he didn't even notice that he did 98% of the cleaning...goodness i miss that!

Nate said...

hi Elyce,
I'm new to your blog but I'll definitely be back. This is a great post. Are you at any chance familiar with the work of Mariarosa Dallacosta? She wrote a long pamphlet on housework in the 70s called The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. It's pretty great. It was part of what started the Wages for Housework campaign, I think, who are still around, here - http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/crossroadswomenscentre/WFH.html

My wife and I have started keeping a log book of the housework we do, at the end of the month whoever does more gets taken out on a nice date and catered to during. She beat me last month by 20 minutes. The log book is, frankly, kind of a pain in part because it reminds us of how much time we spend on housework, but it works really well to take away resentment and all that stuff (I displace the resentment onto my boss - we're reproducing our labor power by doing housework, so they should pay us for it - that works okay for me.)
best wishes,

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