The Tea Turned Cold in the Cup,
or, Why Women’s Work is No Work
When I was a teenager, my parents agreed that I was academically gifted, but had no practical talent whatsoever (by contrast to my brother); this was despite the fact that I had been capable of cooking and baking and taking over the household to the same exacting standards, whenever the need arose, from the age of twelve.
This must mean that domestic work is no practical work and no skilled work either.
When I looked for odd jobs during my university studies, I had no experience to offer, apart from some intellectual gymnastics such as teaching Latin; this, despite the fact that I had already participated in the never-ending cycle of housework for almost twenty years.
This must mean that domestic work does not even qualify as disciplined unskilled work.
When I later looked for employment other than domestic, I could not offer any examples of independent work or teamwork or time-management; despite the fact that as an au-pair (or really, domestic servant), I was in sole charge of children, cooperated closely with other adults responsible for them, and managed a raft of chores. Often, I juggled three tasks, so that the tea I had made myself turned cold in the cup next to my busy hands: there was no time to lift it to my lips.
This must mean that domestic work is neither intelligent nor demanding.
Since I have pursued a career and ended up mainly sitting at a desk, I have to be apologetic about not doing enough, or vigorous enough, exercise; this, although I look after family, house and garden for as many hours again as I spend at the office, almost all the time on my feet or on my knees – bending and stretching, pushing and pulling, kneading and wringing, lifting and carrying, rushing up and down and out and in.
This must mean that domestic work is no physical work.
I conclude that housework as employment is low-status and low-paid, considered low-skilled and of low importance. The same work unpaid, in the context of the home, is no work worth mentioning, no work at all.
Since domestic labour obviously constitutes a very considerable part of the labour performed every day, across the globe and across history, the question arises why it is classified as low labour or non-labour.
I suggest that the labour is overwhelmingly performed by women, whereas the world view is established by men – and massively supported by women.
Photograph: Home-made cakes. Christina Egan © 2012.
When a woman cooks a nourishing meal from scratch for her family and afterwards wipes the table and counters, scrubs the sink, rinses and washes all the crockery and cutlery, all the spoons and utensils, and the casserole or baking-tray, will she say: “Well, washing up is as much work again as cooking”?
No, she will say: “I do it by hand. It’s only four plates.” And she will say it with a shrug of her shoulders and a throwaway tone.
When a woman makes a beautiful cake for her friends – buying the ingredients, chopping some fruit, mixing the dough, waiting around for it to bake, or more likely, getting on with other work in the meantime, then tidying and cleaning everything – will she say: “Now, this has taken a few hours of my life, but it has been worth it”?
No, she will say: “That cake is in the oven in half an hour!” And she will say it with a half-laugh and a throwaway gesture.
When a mother manages an impossible workload of job and studies, household and childcare – as if she were juggling four balls – and then has to put up with a rather modest career, will she exclaim: “Ah, well, I am potentially brilliant in everything and indeed brilliant overall – I am superwoman!”?
No, she will state: “I am not good enough.” And she will state it with a whisper and a blush.
Finally, when a woman writes in to the newspapers – which ceaselessly present success stories of female film stars or female politicians who are rarely at home but have six children or a newborn baby – and states her exasperation at being blocked by several hours of housework per day even without any children, will other women rejoice that someone has pointed out the elephant in the room?
No, they will ridicule her by responding: “Have you got a mansion?” And the world will be all right again.
Women will blame the burden of studies for lack of progress at work, and the burden of work for lack of progress at studies, yet for neither will they blame housework. They might quote responsibilities for dependents, yet not the chores due for dependents, much less for a partner, and never for themselves. It seems that only very young children need food and clothing and shelter, children of school age much less so, and adults none at all.
Women who are less successful than men will rather admit to lack of intelligence, lack of motivation, or lack of discipline than mentioning the unmentionable, the pathetic, the negligible: the mundane and monumental task of keeping a home. How many degrees were left behind for dinners; how many promotions lost out to dirty wash; how many stories were never written, only planned, while the author was sweeping the floor?
As a last resort, women will blame their health: they have underlying conditions; they have issues. The idea that these issues of women may have been exacerbated, triggered, or caused by overwork and ultimately by an overload of housework, does not occur to them or anyone else. Domestic labour is not considered physical labour or demanding labour, it does not count as a night shift or Sunday shift, it does not account for lack of breaks or lack of rest. Women’s work cannot cause stress or fatigue or illness because it is no proper work.
It is the women who play down the burden of necessity; who cover up the inequality and injustice of the system; who hasten to blame themselves for trailing behind men. It is the women who, instead of accusing this primitive society, apologise for not performing well in the domestic sphere and in the professional sphere and elsewhere and everywhere at the same time.
This is the self-imposed servitude that Kant exposed: the collective submission to the status quo. Well over two centuries later, we still need Enlightenment.
Photograph: Home-made cakes. Christina Egan © 2016.
The notion that women are paid less although they work as much and as hard is erroneous: women are paid less although they work more and harder than men. In fact, women are paid less because they work more than men.
If you take into account that women spend much of their time and energy on domestic chores, it stands to reason that they have less space left for their education, training, development, paid and unpaid work, and are less likely to be promoted.
You wonder why someone devotes an essay to something as humble as cleaning toilets or filling washing-machines, and why this should be a political issue. Well, it is a question of principle but also a question of scale.
If you work out that a woman’s additional labour – by comparison to the life partner or other male peers – may well amount to 1,000 hours per year, you reach the figure of 10,000 hours rather soon across a lifetime. This is supposedly sufficient to become a veritable expert or great artist; and this is cut out of women’s lives, with no one noticing a hole as big as the Bermuda Triangle.
This is not about cleaning the toilet alone: it is about cleaning 50 toilets a year, 500 toilets in ten years, several thousand in a lifetime – and not doing other things in that time. (The fact that it is always the same toilet does not markedly improve the situation.) This is about washing a staggering 30,000 garments and towels and sheets in the machine every ten years, and some more by hand. (Please note that these are low estimates for a family of two; with several young children, you may be talking 100,000 items of laundry across ten years.)
We have to rethink. Women are often classified as ‘part-time’ workers because they work double shifts. Many are seen as ‘low-skilled’ workers because they develop a wide range of skills. Even very educated or ambitious women can generally progress less because they work harder. Only does half their working life remain unremunerated, unrewarded, unrespected, unnoticed.
Unless it gets paid in blame and contempt: How often must a woman apologise that she is still not ready to go out – instead of reaping thanks for feeding people or pets or plants? How often must a woman justify herself for not gaining another qualification – instead of raking in praise for juggling two jobs already, one ‘at work’ and one ‘at home’?
Which man would be prepared to get disadvantaged for working more than the next man, and to get criticised for lack of achievement on top of it, and to get ridiculed for ‘moaning’ and ‘nagging’ when he claims equal rights?
As to voluntary work, political work, artistic work, for which society kindly allocates special quotas and grants to women: all this gets swallowed by a gulf of invisible chores. Women’s presence in public life goes literally down the drain when they wash the clothes, wash the dishes, wash the sinks.
The notion of a female arts prize is a mockery in a society that makes it technically impossible for a woman to even look at the contest, never mind take up a pencil to write or draw or compose. Urging a woman with no spare time to participate in the arts scene is like showing a destitute person cakes through the shop window.
There should be no gender quotas and no gendered awards: there should be equal access to the most precious resources of all, time and space and health. The ‘Room of one’s own’ which Virginia Woolf demanded generations ago for women writers has not materialised; for even if the space is there, it is no use without the time to dedicate to your own pursuits.
Woolf also claims education, liberty and independence for women, and since these are granted to many of us in the 21st century, we appear to be free to write or to follow any other dream. Our time and strength and health, however, are still eaten away stealthily by the incessant female labour of caring and chores – eaten away like a garment is by moths.
Photograph: Christina Egan © 2013.
Imagine that in times of austerity, companies and organisations started sending out new job descriptions, proposing that everyone could keep their job if they agreed to do some additional unpaid work.
Since there were no funds any more for cleaning and catering nor for gardening, all staff would have to hoover offices and clean bathrooms, buy and prepare lunches and snacks, serve coffees and wash up, mow lawns and water flower-beds.
The schedules, we would be assured, would be very flexible, so that everyone could to a great extent choose at what hours to carry out these extra duties or whether to come in on Saturdays or Sundays. No one should be worried about their prospects because they would be kept on if they had to change their working patterns or go down on their hours.
There would be no law passed about this; it would be a general consensus of an enlightened society.
The workload of the austerity scheme would depend on the size and type of organisation. To give an example, all male employees of a company might be obliged to contribute seven hours of housekeeping per week and all females twenty-eight. Furthermore, men would have preference in choosing their jobs and their rota.
So if the men opted for mowing lawns, hoovering offices, and cleaning windows for 7 hours at the weekends, this would be welcome; the women could share all the rest in their 28 hours of duty per week per head. Since our advanced society grants equal rights, women who wish to work precisely as much as men could simply choose to do only half a paid working-week!
Absurd? You will have understood by now that the picture I present is one of our daily life, only that the additional unpaid duties are performed at home and therefore invisible.
They are kept invisible by a massive media machinery – and by the men and women themselves, who have never learnt to see housework as work. There are no job descriptions for homemakers, no working hours, no rotas, no career development plans. The job simply gets done.
In more progressive societies, a man will do a share of chores: but he will choose precisely what he wants to do; and when he wants to do it, and how often; and not last, how he wants to do it. A woman has no such choice. She must pick up, literally, whatever lies around (for example a sock) or whoever lies around (for instance an infant).
I wonder if there is any man who realises that he picks and chooses, or who could be convinced that his honest estimate of 50% of housework or 50% of overall work is random. Whatever women produce cannot be facts but must be fantasies; whatever men bring forward cannot be fantasies but must be facts.
Modern men are positive that the issue of unequal labour is historical and the debate closed. Of course, things are moving forward everywhere in the world, but too, too slowly and desperately far from the goal. It has been shown that, on average, the younger men are, the more duties inside the home they take on, yet not at the same rate that women take on duties outside the home.
To explain any disproportionate female activity, men tend to claim that women have a talent in a certain field (children or garments) or that they pursue it as a hobby (cooking or gardening), and that they therefore enjoy it. Women frequently agree, glad of the appreciation, or assume the same of other women when they admire their work.
This is like claiming, for instance, that I ought to do my job at the university for free because I am the right person for it and thrive in it. It also implies that I ought to enjoy dealing with grime and garbage because I love making cakes, or dealing with weeds and brambles because I love tending roses.
Home life is all about cute babies and pretty dresses! Women’s work is a stable full of hobby-horses! Why would they not want to indulge in it? Why would they not consent to a double working week?
In summa, every day, the public debate about women’s rights evolves a bit further, so that they can get an education according to their talents, may choose to marry a person they love or not to marry, will receive the same pay for the same job as a man, and so forth; and every day, the declarations that in the Western world equal opportunities for women have already been achieved further obscure the farcical reality of a drastic gender gap.
Before the law, women are free and equal; de facto, they are second-class citizens, enslaved by necessities, born to be servants.
Garden planted from scratch. Photograph: Christina Egan © 2013.
When we read that many millions of young children in developing countries have to toil for their living, we are outraged; and when we learn that teenage boys often continue in forced labour while girls are usually forced into marriage, our outrage increases. However, we officially stop counting the child brides as child workers – because they ‘only’ do chores in their ‘own’ homes.
This policy of the International Labour Organization has been branded ‘insulting’ and ‘nonsensical’ by campaigner Stephen Lewis. We have learned to identify child marriage as child abuse; yet we have failed to identify domestic chores as child labour.
When we hear that in many regions of the world, girls must walk for hours to fetch water or firewood, so that they arrive at school late or exhausted, we do not fool ourselves for a moment about their ‘equal opportunities’, even where those are granted by law or where schooling is free.
So why do we blindly believe in equality when Western girls stand by the cooker for hours and hours every week, while boys pursue their studies or work for money or roam around – just because the water flows from the tap and the fire springs up from the cooker and no one ever goes hungry, and the girls go to school and on to college like their brothers?
We have manoeuvred ourselves into a bizarre situation where ‘part-time’ workers who do 30 + 30 = 60 hours of labour – visible public plus invisible domestic – are considerate moderate performers, in truth, quite lazy; while women who ‘are at home’, slaving away 60 hours for their family, are pressurised by public opinion and bullied by governments to take up studies or employment on top of it.
How many courses of study or training have been secretly weighed down by women’s chores so that the student fell ill, ended up in hospital, or became suicidal for sheer overwork? How many women have been identified as ‘ill’ and been given highly dangerous pharmaceutical products – instead of society diagnosing its collective illness of large-scale gender-specific exploitation?
How many degrees and diplomas of talented and dedicated individuals have received mediocre grades or been deferred, dragged on for years, and finally given up? I am surrounded by females not reaping success in their studies principally because they are females. Usually, of course, neither their environment nor they are aware of this shibboleth.
Everyone talks of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment these days and would even take people to court over it. Yet no one talks of housework: this has become the unmentionable face of sexism.
The same is true, evidently, of any further intellectual or artistic activities, or any social or political engagement. With great fanfare, quotas for female participants are established everywhere, so that women are pressurised into taking up ever more duties. Since there are no men’s quotas for domestic labour, women’s quotas for professional roles serve as a further, if unintended, tool of exploitation.
Women are expected to combine the old roles of homemakers and carers with the new roles of students and workers, as if their time and energy were unlimited, as if they did not need any breaks nor any sleep.
Most ‘advanced’ in this development are perhaps French women, who have to be pretty fashion-models, dexterous chefs, successful professionals, sparkling intellectuals, all simultaneously – and bring forth equally perfect offspring.
This is the liberation of women which we have striven for and hold so high: the new servitude of necessity, the shackles of all-round perfection on duty round the clock.
Our lot is not overt humiliation and violent exploitation, but an ill-use too banal and gradual to mention or to notice: chores and cares. Yet it leads to a similar existence as, presumably, that of most women throughout recorded history: an existence of constant total exhaustion.
A towering achievement:
Sauerkraut with pork and mashed potatoes.
Photograph: Christina Egan © 2016.
We squeeze ourselves against the walls rather than driving the elephant out of the room. We keep patching broken china together or replacing it rather than acknowledging the existence of the elephant.
This is the early 21st century, and women all over the world, including all Western countries, are de facto second-class citizens. Most women – with or without children – live in servitude through domestic labour, while declaring themselves free from all shackles. Most women – whether poor or rich – are left behind men from childhood onwards, while deluding themselves that they possess equal opportunities.
Why is a housewife officially a housewife and stays so all her life, while an unemployed nurse is a nurse, a retired cleaner is a cleaner, and a sick teacher a teacher? Does the nurse not give her child dinner any more? Does the cleaner not clean her own home any more? Does the teacher not change her bed any more? Have they not all been homemakers besides their paid employment? Why is this simple fact denied? Why are homemakers derided, and any homemaking also?
Why is ‘housekeeper’ a recognised job and a qualified vocation but ‘homemaker’ is not? If a housekeeper also keeps her own house, let’s say in a flat on top of her employer’s flat, and does exactly the same job at both places, how can one be recognised by society and the other one not? If a girl learns homemaking from her mother, let’s say from the age of nine or ten to the age of fifteen or sixteen, almost like apprentices of past times, why does she leave school without even ‘work experience’?
My mother was, after thorough schooling and training, a housekeeper by profession; yet in the many years she looked after her own home, she ‘did not work’, and when she taught me her skills, I ‘did not work’ either. Naturally, neither of us received any remuneration in money or kind or gained any entitlement to pensions or insurances.
When well-meaning people encourage me that I shall surely be a writer when I am retired, I reply now that there is no retirement for housewives, and that the best I can hope for is a reduction from a double working week to a single working week. Even this is not likely, since I do not earn enough to build up a living for my old age, precisely because unpaid work keeps me from paid work and professional development.
When kind people wish me a relaxing evening or a restful weekend, I sometimes state that I find so-called ‘time off’ more exhausting because the work in the home is physical and the work at the office is not. Since people do not identify housework as work, they conclude that I renovate my house or pursue another career from home.
Indeed, as soon as I sold my services to someone else, the touch of Midas would transform them into real labour. With the identical jobs performed at a weekend for strangers or for my family, I would either have had a ‘working day’ or a day ‘off work’; I would either have been ‘productive’ or ‘economically inactive’. In principle, I would either have been useful to the commonwealth or not.
The real worry here is that we have internalised those bizarre notions as scientific facts. Unlike homemakers and home carers of the past, who were viewed as humble but invaluable pillars of society, we cannot but feel inadequate. We have no other reaction available but guilt: however hard we work, we can never reach the goal of providing simultaneously outside and inside the home, of being excellent bread-winners and excellent bread-makers.
As part of our uninhibited worship of Mammon, we have poured contempt on the tasks that women – or men or children – perform in the home free of charge. They care; they provide; they work.
We have to rewire our brains. Whenever we queue up for a cabbage, chop an onion, scrub a grill-pan, change a pillow-case, mend a shirt, shake a door-mat out, we are not ‘wearing ourselves out for nothing’, we are certainly not ‘doing nothing’ – we ensure the survival of mankind; we enhance life for ourselves or our family; we work.
Only when housework is recognised and rewarded – and care work, naturally, too – shall we proceed from a patriarchal society which openly kept women in lowly positions in the home, via a patriarchal society which stealthily kept women bent over with a double load of work, to a truly equal society where gender simply does not make a difference to a human being’s quality of life and opportunities.
Homemade herbal tea from the garden.
Photograph: Christina Egan © 2016.
There are many impressive novels about humble women’s lives in former times, written both at the time and since, written by both women and men. Thomas Hardy’s Tess, a farmhand, toils in the field as if in a chain gang; Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a seamstress, languishes at the workshop into the night; Claire Etcherellli’s Elise, a factory worker, rushes and sweats at the conveyor belt.
They all get exploited; they all get exhausted. Yet none of these women seems to wash any sheets by hand on top of that; none of them is seen heaving pots of stew around; none of them does as much as sweeping the floor of her dwelling. When a girl has a baby, someone has to care for it, but no one seems to boil and mash food or soak and scrub linen for it. It all gets done by itself.
It all gets done magically. It all gets done in the wings. The never-ending chores are performed by invisible girls and women; by hands which get worn over the years without ever receiving a penny in return; by hands presumably too busy to drink the cup of tea turning cold in the cup.
Old novels and current newspapers perform the same magical trick, even while they report on women’s working lives, women’s civil rights, women’s uneven relationships with men. No one becomes aware of the ocean of women’s additional labour, neither those who benefit from it nor those who carry it out.
For millennia, art and literature depicted women of all social classes bent over fabrics: spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering, mending, washing, ironing. In the never-ending production and maintenance of garments and household textiles, women were kept busy with invaluable but unpaid labour – and were safely kept at home (safe for whom?).
Now the spinning-wheel has been relegated to the folk-museum, needlework has turned into a pastime in the wealthy parts of the world, and the washing process is aided by machines of all sorts, has anything really changed?
Why is it considered natural for females to clean male underpants – so natural that you have never considered it at all, have you? – yet out of kilter for a male to deal with female underwear, slightly bizarre, slightly obscene? Why can you, when a man has to remove his shoes and reveals holes in his socks, almost watch the same thought flashing through the witnesses’ heads: “His wife has not darned his socks!” Well, can you picture him darning her socks or hand-washing her tights?
Why is a woman who hangs up clothes a familiar, a natural, an eponymous image – woman equals wife or mother equals housewife – whereas a man under the washing-line appears misplaced, ludicrous, a cartoon character?
In Clifford Odets’ drama Awake and sing!, the young woman who is about to abandon her husband with the baby (a baby who is not even his) orders him to wash the nappies: “Take those diapers out!” she repeats. This devoted father and carer in Thirties’ New York functions not as an alternative role model but as a deterrent to other males: the good-hearted dupe, the weakling who slides into a feminine role, the little cartoon man in the apron.
Of course, men very often shop for food nowadays, cook or at least prepare dinner, or perhaps wash up, or all that in one day. Apart from the fact that more and more men live in gay couples or on their own without a female relative or housekeeper, more and more help care for their families. Yet how many would think ahead to the next day, the meals for the others, the needs of their partners?
Why does a woman, when her boyfriend sticks his head into the fridge to find something edible, feel a pang of guilt as if she neglected her nearest person – and not vice versa? Can you imagine him mixing muesli for her breakfast, chopping vegetables for her packed lunch, soaking beans for her dinner – unless he is there to have it himself?
There is, if you observe more closely, an undeniable difference between men’s and women’s approach to domestic labour. Beyond the vast quantitative difference which still occurs in most couples and families and gets eroded only very slowly over the generations, there is a shocking qualitative difference, all the more shocking since undetected, relegating women to the role of servants, with their internalised acceptance.
Thousands of years after our various holy scriptures were written, and in societies where most people have long gone beyond taking them literally, the woman is still the man’s “helpmate”. She is not simply his companion, which suggests equality: she is his complement, his extension, his support. Who is hers? She must be her own helpmate. This is the reality of the early 21st century.
(to be continued)
Christina Egan © 2017
Christina Egan by Christina Egan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.