A domestic wage?
In 1878, the Association for the Advancement of Women wrote to the United States Congress to protest that the Census Bureau did not measure women's non-market (unpaid) work. Housework was not considered "productive", yet prostitution was. Prostitutes, unlike housewives, were classed as workers.
Earlier this month, the usually reactionary Australian television program A Current Affair reported on a study by researchers at Melbourne University's Household Research Unit. The researchers, led by Professor Duncan Ironmonger, supplied several women with a diary in which they recorded the time they devoted to various tasks around the home, such as cleaning, looking after children and other relatives, and general home, garden and car maintenance. The researchers then assessed what these tasks would be worth if someone was hired to complete them.
The team concluded that a homemaker's work is worth an annual salary of around $64,000. The hourly wage rates used were $16.80 for child-care, $15.10 for laundry, $16.40 for driving, $17.70 for doing the household accounts, $15.50 for food and drink preparation, and $17.80 for home and car maintenance.
According to the research unit, a mother's average weekly workload includes 24.8 hours of domestic activities, 18.1 hours of child-care, two hours of voluntary work; seven hours of purchasing and 12.8 hours of paid work.
Reaction to the TV program was mixed. On the show's web site, 75% answered "yes" to a poll asking if household duties should be considered work, but the content of the discussion board at the site was less heartening.
Many who took the time to write expressed very conservative views. A large number of men seemed to be under the impression that looking after a house and children was something akin to three weeks at a resort in Noosa.
Many women were outraged or alarmed that an hourly price was placed on what they do for love. Most of these women, and virtually all women and men who said they did primarily home-based duties, acknowledged that it was difficult, demanding and time consuming.
Home duties and child-rearing haven't always been mainly solitary, privatised activities. During World War II, for instance, when women were needed to staff the factories left empty after men were sent to war, the provision of child-care and other services usually provided by women in the home was organised by governments and employers.
When the war ended and the men returned from the front, women were forced back into the home to patriotically breed the next generation and household tasks were once again women's private responsibility. Despite the huge range of shiny new appliances that promised to cut household labour, women in the 1950s were more chained to the sink and cradle than ever.
While most women and men feel that a certain amount of equality has been won (and this is true), the reality falls short of the image. Women's greatly increased participation in paid work has barely diminished their responsibilities and unpaid duties in the home.
The outrage at the idea of paying someone to perform tasks labelled by capitalist society as not "waged" brings to mind accounts of the outrage that accompanied women winning the right to vote at the start of the 20th century. That did not really threaten the status quo, but questioning the role of women's unpaid work means questioning the whole nuclear-family-based capitalist system.
If big business and government had to pay for the services provided free by women, the profit system would be severely undermined.
BY MARGARET ALLUM