Revolutionary feminism is resurging across the world. But what were its origins? In the early 1970s, the International Feminist Collective began to organise around the call for recognition of the different forms of labour performed by women. They paved the way for the influential and controversial feminist campaign ‘Wages for Housework’ which made great strides towards driving debates in social reproduction and the gendered aspects of labour.
Drawing on her extensive archival research, Louise Toupin, author of Wages for Housework, looks at the history of this movement that changed how we see women’s work forever.
‘Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy.’
– Claudia von Werlhof
The Wages for Housework perspective was a completely original school of thought, and a toolbox for action, at the beginning of second-wave feminism. It was accused of being a simple demand for money, partial and reformist – even reactionary – that went counter to the objective of women’s equality in society. But it was much more than that.
The Wages for Housework campaign was pursuing a grand objective: to bring together people assigned to perform domestic work and housework – as it happened, women – in order to change their situation of dependency, reverse the relations of power, and redistribute the wealth that they produced. The vast majority of women who had waged jobs returned to being houseworkers once they got home, having worked during the day in specialised sectors associated with housework. It turned out that waged and unwaged women were, in reality, the same people. This was a potentially unifying force, and the strength of the Wages for Housework demand.
In this sense, the targets of the struggle became opportunities to politicise housework issues such as family allowances and welfare; abortion and women’s health; sexuality; community facilities; women’s shelters; and the situation of nurses, teachers, waitresses, lesbians, and ‘prostitutes.’ The demand was not always expressed in monetary terms. In different forms, it was aimed, too, at living conditions, which were also, in fact, houseworkers’ working conditions: decent and affordable housing, free transportation, nearby services, green spaces, daycare centres accessible to women at home, and all services likely to reduce housework time. Overall, Wages for Housework remained more of a general perspective on struggle than a formal demand.
The Wages for Housework political analysis made original theoretical and strategic contributions to early neo-feminism. Notable among these were the premises for an integrated vision of the different oppressions that divided the category ‘women’ that could not be made uniform. Thanks, in particular, to the autonomous organisation of each group, the strategy involved building alliances beyond racial and ethnic barriers, beyond those erected by social class and age class, beyond divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, between ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly,’ between lesbians and heterosexuals, between women at home and women working outside the home, between ‘whores, wives, and dykes.’ Through the embodiment of this thought in different struggles, Wages for Housework groups tried to act with a focus that today would be called intersectional, often performing unprecedented symbolic transgressions and ruptures of economic rules, both patriarchal and wage-related.
Analysing housework and reproductive work through the prism of work and using union strategies disrupted the entire value system on which the age-old role of the houseworker was based. Demanding a wage was, first of all, to discover oneself as a worker. It was also to discover other possibilities, such as struggling against the conditions of this work, negotiating them, defining the duration and extent of the workday, and, as the case may be, refusing to work. Putting a price tag on this work would make it possible to negotiate the quantity and quality of services rendered and to be rendered. Demanding a wage meant not only negotiating, as an individual, one’s personal sphere of freedom but also destroying the idea that doing housework was an integral part of the ‘nature’ of women.
In short, analyzing and measuring housework in light of the notion of work had eminently subversive strategic implications, such as ‘counterplanning from the kitchen,’ which politicized the entire question of housework and reproductive work by challenging the conditions of marriage and wage society, as well as the power relations inherent to the wage relationship. It meant attacking the system of domination of gender relations, class relations, and wage relations.
This counterstrategy even opened the possibility of performing this work and receiving a wage to men, thus ‘degendering’ – at least potentially – housework and domestic work. This is why the demand was for a wage ‘for housework,’ for any individual who performed it, and not a wage ‘for housewives,’ as so many people liked to claim in order to emphasise the ‘essentialism’ that they felt the demand involved. Wages for Housework was in a position to destabilise the socio-sexual division of labour.
And then there was the question of sexuality (in this case, heterosexuality). Posing heterosexual sexuality as one of the many clauses in houseworkers’ ‘work contract’ – that is, marriage – went beyond taboo to pure scandal. When, in 1975, Wages Due Lesbians titled its ‘coming out’ manifesto within the Wages for Housework movement Fucking Is Work, the walls of Jericho trembled … Other ideas and sentences had a similar effect – for example, ‘Homosexual and reconstructed; nevertheless, it was recognised that not all women, obviously, had the same kind of relationship with this work. It was also a position from which the resistance could be organised. To paraphrase the discourse of activists of the time, it involved organising women’s power, starting from their shared weakness: the lack of money, the fact that their work had been made invisible, that they therefore were not paid for all the work they accomplished, and that as a consequence they could not access the social wealth they contributed so greatly to creating. It involved returning dignity and power to women, however different the relations that each might maintain with this work, whether it was based on race, ethnicity, class, or ‘North-South’ situation. And also, as Silvia Federici summarised, it was ‘to redefine in the public consciousness what this work is.’
In reality, Wages for Housework’s political thought was a feminist theory of reproduction, a theory for understanding reproduction on a global level and the central role that the vast majority of women and wageless people played in it. It was an innovative theory for understanding how the socio-economic system of capitalism was reproduced through this work; the place of wageless people and how they were divided among genders, sexualities, races, and classes; and the role of wageless people in wage society and how to resist that role.
This rereading of Wages for Housework theoretical works and how the current of thought was tested in action obviously are not intended to reopen the Wages for Housework debate in the terms of the 1970s, but to recognise the resources of the perspective, which were unique in the history of second-wave feminism. Also, and particularly, it offers a historical backdrop for many of today’s debates, such as domestic and family work, care work, task sharing, family-job reconciliation, recognition of acquired knowledge and skills, sexuality as work, the international socio-sexual division of labour, the new stratifications and power relations among women, the intersectionality of struggles, the changing of dominant economic and environmental models, and more.
Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement, 1972-77 by Louise Toupin is available from Pluto Press.
Louise Toupin taught Political Science at University of Quebec in Montreal. She was a member of the Quebec Women’s Liberation Front (1969-1971), and co-authored numerous anthologies of activist and feminist writings.