by Mary Harrington
Friday, 26
February 2021
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08:30

Paying for housework is not a victory for feminism

Not everything is a financial transaction
by Mary Harrington
China is experiencing a rising feminist movement

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.

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John Jones
John Jones
1 year ago

I never quite understood the “logic” of paying people to do their own housework.

Where is the money to come from- taxes? So working people who are paid are meant to give money to those who stay home- including working women? Won’t that create an incentive for women to quit work and go back to being a housewife?

Or is the money to come from the man, who gives his own money to his wife? In that case, since he is already providing her with food, housing and clothing, can he bill her to pay for those things that used to be free?

And is it just women who get paid? If the man stays home and the wife works, does she pay him? Feminists would never support that, would they?

And for that matter, why just housework? How about cleaning gutters, mowing lawns, painting houses, repairing fences… in other words, the labour men traditionally do? Paying women for housework but not men for yard work would be sexist, wouldn’t it?

And if my wife stays home but doesn’t do the housework, can I dock her pay? If the government pays through increased taxation, do they send an inspector around to ensure the dishes are done?

How does this scheme work, exactly?

M Spahn
M Spahn
1 year ago
Reply to  John Jones

And here I’ve been wiping my own backside for free all of these years. Perhaps time to demand my back pay with interest.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
1 year ago

The fact that the case was brought in China serves as a good example of how libertarian consumerism and utilitarian socialism. are two sides of the same coin. We think Communism and Socialism, based on ideology around community are above commerce and transaction and that Berlin/Friedman type liberal individualism and the free market is opposite to socialism. But both regard humans as nothing more than workers/spenders.

The fallout from the Govts. idiotic reaction to Covid might save us from anymore of this ‘rational, enlightened’ nonsense in that husbands in countries in the liberal West will not have the funds to start paying women for housework. But since it is the ‘logical’ conclusion of thinking of everything in life as transactional and human beings as merely workers/spenders it will come to pass eventually unless there is some huge shift back to traditional conservatism and morality.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

‘The fact that the case was brought in China serves as a good example of how libertarian consumerism and utilitarian socialism. are two sides of the same coin.’
Yes, a point that has been made many time before. Russian friends once described to me the process by which one acquired a better or different apartment in the USSR. It involved far more transactions and capitalistic behaviour than any such process in the West.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
1 year ago

I know it won’t be popular hereabouts, but families are the original “socialism” which is part of why it can never be completely stamped out. We are pack animals.
Also, commodification of everything is a revolting and petty reductionism that ignores other dimensions of what it means to be human and reveals an impoverished and/or disordered mind.

Bertie B
Bertie B
1 year ago

I agree with the article that this award seems to undermine the value of housework, but also highlights the difficulties around fairness in the breakdown of a marriage.
If it becomes the norm for a judge to decide that one party to a marrige should have finacial restitution during a divorce because their actions had:

creat[ed] ‘intangible property value’

Then the only people who will benifit are the lawers
In this case the marriage was the entity that was required to make fincial restitution, but what if the other party had argued that they suffered from lack of sleep, or medical conditions based on the stress of having to hold a paid employment in order to finacially spport the marridge itself.
Marriage needs to be seen as a partnership where you both have to pull your weight, and operate for the good of the marriage! When it breaks down the apportioning of blame is never easy and in my opinion finacial assets should be split 50/50 unless there are extrordinary circumstances. Perhapes with the ongoing finacial support of a complelty finacially dependent partner for a short period.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

There is nothing feminist about the institutionalisation of tedious and repetitive work as ‘female’. Everyone eats, everyone needs clean clothes, everyone needs clean bedding, floors, lavatories and surfaces; every adult should earn a living and every adult and teenager should do housework. ‘Wages for housework’ embeds ‘gender’ roles. Feminism challenges them.

Robin Banks
Robin Banks
1 year ago

every adult should earn a living – Why? I stay home and do the housework. I prefer it that way. My wife prefers to go to work. It was the same in my previous relationships. Who do think you are to make rules for others? Our children like there to be someone home when they return from school. I was a latchkey child because both of my parents worked. I don’t wish that on my children.

John Jones
John Jones
1 year ago

Feminism challenges gender roles…unless they are arguing for money for doing your own housework. Then suddenly it’s part of women’s liberation.

It’s almost as if feminism wad totally incoherent as a belief system…

Andrew Tribble
Andrew Tribble
1 year ago

If Wages For Housework are paid by the taxpayer, it’s only right that we should also employ a Housework Inspectorate who will make surprise visits to monitor the quality of the housework, running a finger along the shelves to check for dust, and penalising full ashtrays and unmade beds.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

Absolutely fascinating (and a little scary) what is going on under the hood in China. At the top end are increased projections of muscular assertiveness from the CCP leadership, which is well aware that nothing the west does is going to make a dent in China’s continued ascent. In China itself though, change trajectories underway, some of which are similar to those experienced by other developed nations, some utterly unique to China. This particular ruling is a symptom of changing Chinese sensibilities on the ground, which have not yet percolated through to the leadership, but it is inevitable that they will. The ruling is likely to exacerbate the various approaching demographic crises in China – fewer marriages and fewer children.

Still, nothing prevents the Chinese leadership, in a few years when the technologies allow, from setting up industrial scale zygote banks to fix the problem.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
1 year ago

Hmm, prenups and marriage vows could take a totally new direction. I ( name) take thee ( name) to be my lawfully wedded (husband/wife) to have and hold etc and to pay you £x per hour for the following activities : ………………….

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
1 year ago

Putting the sole earner’s income into a joint account surely collectivises family income all you need. Or do they not do joint accounts in China?

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago

Let’s note, the case in China was a divorce case. It wasn’t a case of someone entering a marriage or remaining in one claiming pay for housework. So it can’t be used to justify any feminist style argument for paid housework within a marriage.
The Chinese case is actually closer to a childcare case in divorces, at least in the US, in which a partner stayed home to take care of the kids while the other partner worked. Courts do sometime recognize that value when considering alimony in a divorce proceeding in which the non employed partner had no income during the period when childcare was needed.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

In a scenario where the husband (or wife) did more than half the housework – as well as being the sole earner – how would they get paid ?

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Barton