During World War II, many North American women were put in the workforce for the first time. Middle-class housewives felt financial independence from their husbands and saw the opportunity of renegotiating the distribution of unfulfilling housework. After the war, the women who took up these jobs were expected to return to their previous lives as housewives; however, dissatisfaction with this change generated the second-wave feminist call for a return to the workplace. Since then, the number of paid working women has risen, but how did this movement of North American women into the workforce affect their part in domestic labour? The results were far from ideal. The movement ignored the conditions of racialized women which were fundamentally different from the white middle-class framing of the movement (Rio), and women are still left with the majority of unpaid labour alongside new forms of exploitation in the economy (Bianchi et al.). The second wave of feminism brought more women into the paid economy to alleviate household exploitation but failed due to the movement’s lack of intersectionality and a failure to foresee how the growing workforce would allow neoliberal capitalism to further exploitation.
The ideal outcomes of receiving a paid job failed in part due to many second-wave feminists treating the conditions of unpaid labour for white middle-class women as universal for all North American women (Rio). Many African American women were not burdened by unpaid labour; rather, they longed for the ability to do it. Black women were often paid domestic labourers who would have wished to act as caregivers for their own children and work in their own homes instead of being paid to work in the houses of predominately white families, but their economic position made this impossible (Rio). Framing unpaid labour as the locus of exploitation excludes the many women who have only known labour oppression within paid work. North American Black women often never faced a husband who would unfairly divide household labour, since economic opportunities meant many Black women could not get married (Rio). This trend continues today; in 2018, only 26% of Black women from the United States were married, while 46% of all women were married (“Black Women Statistics”). Having an income independent of a man is not used as a tool of independence from husbands for many Black women who could never be married or chose not to be. The large number of women gaining paid work had no effect on Black women’s part in unpaid labour, who were already working low-paying jobs (Rio). Examining the effects of “women’s movement into the workforce” is dishonest to a certain extent to the working-class women who were always exploited in the economy, and the only meaningful change of women’s work was for middle-class citizens. Not only was the movement built upon a universalization of white women’s experience, but the goal to equalize unpaid labour was not met for most women.
The middle-class women who moved away from housewife positions did see a more equitable distribution of unpaid labour in the household, but the results were underwhelming. When women’s paid labour participation increased, to some extent, men increased their part in household work in a nuclear family model (Bianchi et al.). A more equitable division of household labour is predicted to occur with women in the workforce due to the bargaining power narrative (Rio). This narrative predicts that paid work increases women’s economic power, ending the reliance on men’s earnings, which would give women the ability to bargain with husbands for a fairer share of unpaid work around the house (Rio). This model excludes the lower-class women and unmarried who are burdened with both housework and paid labour (Rio). Despite the exclusiveness of the model, overall trends point to less household labour for women and more for men. In 1965, it is estimated that American women performed 6.1 times the weekly hours of housework compared to men, and in 2009-2010, American women did approximately 1.6 times that of men, while married women do 1.7 times more than their husbands (Bianchi et al.). Married mothers from the United States are worse off, estimated to work nearly twice as much on housework when compared to married fathers in 2009-2010 (Bianchi et al.). Without a doubt the change is substantial, but considering the added labour of a paid job, there is a double burden of labour for the women who maintain the majority of unpaid work. For the middle-class women who moved into the labour force, the sizeable changes in unpaid labour distribution did not live up to the intended outcomes of the movement, and further still, many of these middle-class families would find themselves in worse conditions resembling that of the lower classes.
North American middle-class families now usually require two working parents to support a family, meaning that women have no choice but to work paid labour, and they often lack the time to do household work, similar to the overburdened conditions of racialized women since before the second wave of feminism (Rio). There has been falling average household incomes since 2000, meaning more paid work is required of both parents in a nuclear family, leaving little time for household unpaid work, even with an equitable distribution of labour (Craig). Rather than a source of liberation, women in the workforce turned into a necessary site of additional exploitation for many women who would wish to have more time to do the unpaid work around the house. The larger labour force has only increased exploitation as women fought to be exploited alongside men rather than fight against the system itself. (Azmanova). Women working paid jobs as a method to fight exploitation does not address the deeper problems of the capitalist market, and because of this, only serves to solve the gendered distribution of labour, thus ignoring the alienating and unfulfilling work itself. (Azmanova). Nuclear families with two working adults often now rely on cheap commodities and hired labourers to assist in the household work, but this requires money, further entrenching the need for more paid working hours to cover the costs, causing a cycle where the “needs of the time-poor households are met through the labour of the money-poor” (Huws). The distribution of household labour has thus changed form with parts of it opened to the market for people, usually racialized minorities, to perform tasks that households no longer have the time to do. (Huws). Unpaid work is still very gendered and unequal (Bianchi et al.), and when the labour is done by the market as in the case of paid labourers, they are usually underpaid (Huws). The movement of women into work did not bring about a fair distribution of unpaid work and failed to change the nature of the labour itself.
Universalizing the conditions of white middle-class families and failing to reach into the deeper problems associated with capitalist labour meant the issues of household work were not solved, only partly improving the gendered aspect of unpaid work. Lower-class women, largely composed of marginalized minority groups, have had to work throughout history in overburdened households (Rio), and for the middle-class women who acted as housewives, moving to paid labour brought a lower portion of housework, but still left them with an overburden of work overall (Bianchi et al.). The methods of second-wave feminism dealt solely with the distribution of flawed labour, failing to address the problems with the labour itself (Huws). A new approach is needed to assist the overworked modern individual and consider the different conditions of women with an intersectional lens.
Families should continue to work towards a fair distribution of unpaid labour, but this alone cannot help the time-poor families who cannot do the much-needed housework after a full-time shift, nor can an ungendered distribution help single-parent families and unmarried individuals who must look after the work themselves. Bargaining out of housework made some important gains in unpaid work distribution, but the nuclear family model has increasingly shrunk, making distributive tactics more irrelevant than ever. A new organization of unpaid labour itself must be proposed to go beyond the temporary respite given with equitable work distribution, and the solution must be applicable to all low-class citizens, racialized groups, and adults outside the nuclear family model.
Many economically stable people seek market alternatives to perform household labour for them since they lack the time (Huws), but this option is not affordable for most households. Market alternatives could successfully lessen labour burdens if they are made affordable, and the labourers working in other households are not performing exploitative labour themselves. This may be achieved with a public-sector labour force that could perform unpaid labour in a short amount of time using specialized skills and modern technology. This transformation of household work must meet two conditions for it to improve upon current conditions: labourers in the field must be paid well, and it must be readily available to all households. Activist Angela Y. Davis believes such an institution would be difficult to form under the conditions of capitalism, as industrialized housework implies expensive subsidies to make it affordable, and it is overall an unprofitable enterprise (Davis 223). Government subsidies would reflect a recognition of the importance of unpaid labour, which it undoubtedly is since it makes up over half of Gross Domestic Product (Craig). Unfortunately, all that is not profitable is often disregarded in a capitalist economy; for a subsidized non-profit labour force to succeed, there also must be an ideological change in what constitutes valuable labour.
A productive change in economic thinking must entail an equal appreciation of all work, but this contradicts the profit motive of capitalism which presupposes a workforce of individuals raised with unpaid labour and sustained with free household work. Raising children takes massive amounts of time and money, and it is extremely valuable to the economy since it creates labourers who will later work in markets. The value of childcare must also be reaffirmed and acted upon with childcare supports, or even socialized childcare. These programs require a large public sector without a profit motive which is opposed to neoliberalist goals of privatizing labour wherever possible, implying a larger struggle is needed against neoliberal ideology. A new focus on meeting collective needs rather than fulfilling profit goals would alleviate the overburdened workers of today.
With public institutions performing unpaid labour efficiently, the problems of overworked women can be solved. Renegotiating housework brought only minimal gains for middle-class women whose unpaid workload was somewhat lessened, but with falling household incomes, both parents in nuclear families were forced to work outside the house and now lack the time for unpaid work. These conditions are mirrored by the working-class individuals throughout history who felt the overburden of work. Equitable distribution of housework applies only to a select family model and does not propose a solution for the overwhelming labour burden of modern times. Socialized assistance would provide an end to inefficient individual housework with the recognition of unpaid labour’s value, and it would bring a non-exploitative institution to increase leisure time without excluding racialized groups and lower-class people.
Azmanova, Albena. “Empowerment as Surrender: How Women Lost the Battle for Emancipation as They Won Equality and Inclusion.” ProQuest, vol. 83, no. 3, 2016, pp. 749–776., https://www.proquest.com/docview/1848814138?accountid=14739&forcedol =true&pq-origsite=primo&forcedol=true.
Bianchi, S. M., et al. “Housework: Who Did, Does or Will Do It, and How Much Does It Matter?” Social Forces, vol. 91, no. 1, 13 Sept. 2012, pp. 55–63., https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/sos120.
“Black Women Statistics.” BlackDemographics.com, 3 Sept. 2021, https://blackdemographics.com/population/black-women-statistics/.
Craig, Lyn. “Coronavirus, Domestic Labour and Care: Gendered Roles Locked Down.” Journal of Sociology, vol. 56, no. 4, 24 July 2020, pp. 684–692., https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783320942413.
Davis, Angela Yvonne. Women, Race and Class. Vintage Books, 1983.
Huws, Ursula. “The Hassle of Housework: Digitalisation and the Commodification of Domestic Labour.” Feminist Review, vol. 123, no. 1, 10 Dec. 2019, pp. 8–23., https://doi.org/10.1177/0141778919879725.
Rio, Cecilia. “Whiteness in Feminist Economics: The Situation of Race in Bargaining Models of the Household.” Critical Sociology, vol. 38, no. 5, 7 Dec. 2011, pp. 669–685., https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920511423724.
Aidan Ulrich has been interested in marxist thought from a young age and is currently attending the University of Saskatchewan. Aidan is majoring in political studies.
In any capitalist society, a disconnect between an individual’s selfhood and her labor will arise. Ask any college student and you’ll hear about the never-ending questions that go something like… What career do you want with your degree? What field are you looking into? Where do you want to work once you graduate? Inevitably accompanying that question comes intense anxiety for the student themselves. Yet, this isn’t an issue only experienced by college students— questions concerning one’s career never cease to end. They usually present in different forms, most often as self-reflecting questions the working-class subconsciously ask themselves every day… Man, what am I doing with my life? I just have to get to the weekend! I hate my job but my kids need food on the table. According to Che Guevara, capitalism moves people away from expressing their interests without even knowing it. And even beyond alienating people from their interests, the interrelation between a person’s ability to produce, save, and organize, which are vital elements of a revolution, are also damaged under capitalistic systems. People are disconnected from their labor because even if they are working in a field they are interested in, capitalism separates the individual from the products of their labor and likewise, disconnects them from their sense of self and purpose. Martizen-Sanez writes,
“The distinction that people experience between communal interests and individual interests arose because in capitalist society, human beings lacked the control of the distribution of the products of their labor and were treated as a means to an end rather than an end; their relations were reduced to purely economic relations, and the difference between an animal and a human existence had become unintelligible” (Martinez-Saenz, 24).
This alienation under a capitalist system is something Marx and Guevara shared in concern. If the individual is alienated because of oppressive external conditions under capitalism, then the individual will inevitably lose touch with self. So, not only are workers frustrated with the inability to reap the fruits of their labor but they are forcibly stripped of any identity of selfhood.
Marx talks of this exact same issue in his manuscript Alienated Labor. Petrović writes of this when considering Marx, stating,
“The alienation of the results of man's productive activity is rooted in the alienation of production itself. Man alienates the products of his labor because he alienates his labor activity, because his own activity becomes for him an alien activity, an activity in which he does not affirm but denies himself, an activity which does not free but subjugates him. He is home when he is outside this activity, and he is out when he is in it” (Petrović, 241).
Labor becomes alien to the worker who is completely disconnected from their work. Yet perhaps even worse than Marx could have predicted, “home,” where “he is outside this activity” is arguably no longer even a space where his selfhood can be reconnected in the United States. Labor has not only alienated the worker from his work but has created such extreme conditions that almost all spaces are now alienating in this country.
Marx and Guevara weren't the only ones to recognize the divide capitalism causes between labor and passion, capital and self. W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey Newton, and Paul Robeson all observed not only the social differences in the Soviet Union and Mao’s People’s Republic of China, particularly related to race, but also the differences in how the working people of these places viewed and digested their labor. While we can obviously recognize the differences in their ability to reap the fruits of their labor compared to US workers (or any workers under capitalism or neoliberalism), less often do we examine the psychological relationship a Marxist revolution enables. The psychological relationship being the connection one has between his labor and his selfhood.
Du Bois immediately recognized the safety and welcome he felt when he visited the Soviet Union. Yet, even beyond those social changes, he was also able to observe a new dynamic among the working people. “Du Bois applauded the Soviet program, which had made of the working people of the world ‘a sort of religion,’ a form of scientific idealism he posited as being indispensable to progress” (Carew, 54). The Soviets were dedicatedly connected to their work— producing historically groundbreaking results (we mainly consider the scientific ones), but they also psychologically pushed an entire population onwards with the same unifying intensity exhibited in religion. Du Bois’ idea that work can create a motivating spirit in the people is something he also observed in China: “Du Bois saw ‘a fable of disciplined bees working in revolutionary unison. Cataloging the public places, restaurants, homes of officials, factories, and schools visited,’ he saw only ‘happy people with faith that needs no church or priest’” (Carew, 61). Once again we have this reference to a sense of drive, pride, and motivation so unifying that it is comparable to the togetherness brought on by religion. Workers had faith in their labor and therefore did not struggle with the questions that I examined earlier in this piece. Work in Marxist societies erases the disconnect that laborers otherwise have between their selfhood and work-life in capitalist systems.
Huey Newton also observes the connection between selfhood and labor that America lacks when he visited The People’s Republic of China:
“While there, I achieved a psychological liberation I had never experienced before. It was not simply that I felt at home in China; the reaction was deeper than that. What I experienced was the sensation of freedom as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense or pretense or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life-completely free among my fellow men. This experience of freedom had a profound effect on me, because it confirmed my belief that an oppressed people can be liberated if their leaders persevere in raising their consciousness and in struggling relentlessly against the oppressor… To see a classless society in operation is unforgettable. Here, Marx’s dictum— from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs— is in operation” (Newton, 348, 352).
Again, Newton mentions this psychological liberation that is almost spiritual or religious in nature. The societies that America paints as those in which people are forced to work for “hours without reward,” in reality actually provide a sense of freedom and liberation for one's selfhood through Marxist labor structures, the antithesis to everything we’re told in school. Yet it cannot be a coincidence that all of these African-American revolutionaries observed such similar feelings of liberation. Undoubtedly, the widespread feeling of disconnect that I described earlier in America’s working culture, is the exact opposite in cultures that have experienced Marxist revolutions. In places where Marxist revolutions have occurred, a feeling of intense connection to one’s labor arises.
Du Bois and Newton do not speak of the mysticality of an un-alienated society randomly.
Petrović also accounts for the same role the rejection of alienated labor has in a spiritual setting: “In this sense, Marx… speaks about communism as a society which means ‘the positive supersession of all alienation and the return of man from religion, the family, the state, etc., to his human, i.e., social life (existence)’” (Petrović, 424-425). If alienation between a worker and his work is ended, he will be able to return to his truest human condition and existence. In the same sense that Du Bois and Newton observed, ending alienation in labor, returns the man to his truest self.
Paul Robeson, a local hero for my fellow Princeton, New Jersey residents, found this connection so powerful (that along for obvious social reasons) he moved his family to the Soviet Union for a period of time. This reinforces the notion that Marxist revolutions create spaces for marginalized people to not only experience less racial prejudice than in the States, but also a complete liberation of selfhood. A liberation that can remove the constraints of not only racial oppression, but of the realities that all working class people experience in the United States: the inevitable disconnect between selfhood and work, or labor-alienation, that is inevitable in capitalist-based systems.
Che Guevara’s idea of the “new man,” is the alternative that American workers need. In America’s capitalist hellscape, not only are adult workers disconnected from the fruits of their labor and individual sense of belonging and purpose, but the youth population is as well. We tell our youth they have to work to survive, but when they produce the tools of their survival they are completely stripped of the fruits themselves. Instead, the products of their labor go to the bourgeoisie so that this system can continue. And not only are people physically disconnected from the products of their labor, but they are psychologically disconnected from their labor as well. This makes it nearly impossible to love or find meaning in one’s job, regardless of one’s theoretical interest. Instead, American workers work only to put food on their families’ “tables” (arguably the vicious cycle doesn’t even allow that). It's a twofold issue that creates a never-ending cycle that is intentionally impossible for the working-class American to escape. Make the working-class person work a job that only gives him enough to keep him in an endless cycle of crises until he no longer love his work and can no longer love himself.
Yet if we have a revolution in this country, if our workers are able to embody Guevara’s vision of the “new man,” the connection between laborer and labor can be reformed. Martinez-Saenz quotes Guevara who said,
“The relation of economic controls to moral incentives is more subtle than indicated. Moral incentives, if they are truly the individual’s incentives, cannot be directed from above. That is why the many Cubans ask, ‘How can you plan voluntary work? Is this not a contradiction in terms?’ What types of economic controls are compatible with a system of moral incentives? Recognition of this issue has emerged in two forms. First, an understanding that moral incentives are directly related to the level of education and the nature of one’s employment, and this is reflected in Cuba’s intensive educational effort, particularly in technical training. Second, experimentation with a new worker organization and system of emulation whose aim in part is to stimulate greater participation and eliminate bureaucratic controls” (Martinez-Saenz, 22).
Guevara clearly lays out these two steps that are important to understand in order to truly alleviate the disease of worker alienation. America, however, is nowhere close to adopting the steps Guevara saw for the people of Cuba: a revolution must take place first. This issue, therefore, is actually deeper than just a singular failure of capitalism. We know that it will be the working-class that unites to create a revolution in this country. Here we see the perfect connection: it is a working-class issue that can only be alleviated by the working-class themselves. It will take a revolution led by the working class to instate a positive relationship between workers and work. The myth of the “American Labor Shortage” shows the dissatisfaction the working class has with the exploitation of their labor. Now, more than ever, the working class must band together to revolutionize a system that does not work for them. To not only create a place where they can reap the fruits of their labor, but where workers can love their work and reject alienation.
 Martinez-Saenz, Miguel. “Che Guevara’s New Man: Embodying a Communitarian Attitude.” Latin American Perspectives 31, no. 6 (November 1, 2004): 15–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X04270639. (pg 21).
 Martizen-Saenz, 21
 Carew, Joy Gleason. Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. muse.jhu.edu/book/6044.
Carew, Joy Gleason. Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. muse.jhu.edu/book/6044.
Martinez-Saenz, Miguel. “Che Guevara’s New Man: Embodying a Communitarian Attitude.” Latin American Perspectives 31, no. 6 (November 1, 2004): 15–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X04270639.
Newton, Huey P., and Fredrika Newton. Revolutionary Suicide: Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
Petrović, Gajo. “Marx’s Theory of Alienation.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23, no. 3 (1963): 419–26. https://doi.org/10.2307/2105083.
Ella Kotsen is an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College. She is majoring in English and double minoring in History and Growth & Structure of Cities. She plays Division III women’s basketball and has received Centennial Conference Academic Honors. Her main subject of interest is in geopolitics and understanding the historical implications of colonization in Latin American countries. She is interested in Marxist literary theory and enjoys the work of Fanon, Eagleton, and Althusser. Ella also writes for her own independent blog where she produces opinion pieces, book reviews, and audio-based interviews.
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About the Midwestern Marx Youth League
The Midwestern Marx Youth League (MMYL) was created to allow comrades in undergraduate or below to publish their work as they continue to develop both writing skills and knowledge of socialist and communist studies. Due to our unexpected popularity on Tik Tok, many young authors have approached us hoping to publish their work. We believe the most productive way to use this platform in a youth inclusive manner would be to form the youth league. This will give our young writers a platform to develop their writing and to discuss theory, history, and campus organizational affairs. The youth league will also be working with the editorial board to ensure theoretical development. If you are interested in joining the youth league please visit the submissions section for more information on how to contact us!