February 26, 2021 - 8:30am

A Chinese woman has been awarded $7,700 in payment for housework she performed over five years of marriage, as part of her settlement in a Beijing court case. The court ruled that housework creates ‘intangible property value’ and should be considered an asset.

The case prompted widespread debate. China has seen a rising feminist movement, that pushes back against traditional Chinese expectations for women, scorning the traditional, submissive role of wife and mother as a ‘married donkey’. Some might argue that for feminists, ascribing a pecuniary value to housework as an advance — after all, it acknowledges that housework is, in fact, work.

This was the argument made by the 1970s Wages for Housework feminist movement. But it may be less of a victory than it seems at first glance. The sum awarded gives a clue as to why: little more than $1,400 per year spent as a housewife. Rather than acknowledge the value of housework, the award underlines how under-valued it is. One commenter remarked: “Let’s see who dares to be a housewife”.

Worse still, the award doesn’t so much value housework within a marriage as confuse any effort to value it on its own terms. As critics pointed out, full-time nannies or housekeepers are paid considerably more than $1,400 a year, and the existence of this disparity implies there must be some other benefit to being a wife over being an employed housekeeper. In other words, as the housekeeping work is undervalued even while being ascribed a financial ‘value’, the actual value of a marriage is as invisible as ever.

This mysterious other value stays so elusive because the moment you try and put a number on it, the relationship stops being a marriage and becomes something else. You can reframe housekeeping and sex as services (and indeed, some modern feminists are keen on viewing prostitution as a feminist activity) but this leaves little space for the possibility that either of these might happen outside of a transactional setting, in a context of mutual loyalty and love.

And yet if you enter a marriage expecting it to function as a series of win/win contracts it will rapidly sour. Nothing will erode a loving relationship like using sex for leverage, or resentfully scorekeeping over who gets up with the baby at 4am. A healthy marriage is more like a miniature commune, in which loyalty and mutuality precede any particular thing you do with or for the other person. That relation can of course be abused, but a marriage premised on the need to hedge against abuse will not foreclose a resentful dynamic but cultivate it.

Relationships of transactional exchange also only make sense between autonomous adults – a state in which none of us starts or ends life. And as Leah Libresco has pointed out, pregnancy is literally a state of symbiosis, meaning this fantasy of freedom from dependence or care is especially precarious for women.

So while the replacement of dependence, care and mutuality with the logic of transaction may seem superficially like a feminist advance, in fact it serves to marginalise types of relationships that are particularly salient to women.

We can certainly debate how to support individuals who find themselves abused within a relationship supposedly premised on mutuality. But seeking to hedge this risk by rendering interdependence in transactional terms is profoundly damaging to all of us.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.