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.
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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!