It’s March, which means it is Women’s History Month, a commemoration of “the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields”…with one notable exception: the field of domestic labor.
Domestic labor—cooking, cleaning, childcare, and other activities related to household maintenance—remains largely invisible and undervalued. Domestic labor is mostly done by women, and particularly women of color, who keep those around them fed, safe, clean, and cared for. It is essential work, without which no other economic activity could take place, but it is considered unworthy, for example, of being an achievement to celebrate during Women’s History Month.
Silvia Federici, who was one of the organizers of the Wages for Housework movement, has described domestic labor as “a form of gendered economic oppression and an exploitation upon which all of capitalism rests.” Domestic labor enables others to work outside the home, and to enjoy higher status jobs and better wages. It is the invisible work that makes all other work possible.
If women in the United States earned minimum wage for their unpaid domestic labor, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Imagine what would happen if women either refused to do any domestic labor or insisted on being paid for it. Our entire economy would be transformed.
Of course, some people are paid for doing domestic labor. During the past three decades, as more and more women entered the workforce, those with enough income (usually white, college-educated, and middle to upper class) began to pay others to help care for their children or clean their homes or even buy their groceries for them. The majority of domestic workers in the United States are low-waged women of color and immigrants. Women with privilege working outside the home have depended on outsourcing domestic labor to women with less privilege. Even though there have been efforts to organize and protect domestic workers from exploitation, they don’t have much protection, and are often denied formal benefits and time off to care for their own families.
During the last year, with schools and offices closed and an New York State executive order that classified most domestic workers as “inessential”, more people had to perform their own domestic labor rather than outsourcing it. Many women with privilege have been forced to quit their jobs, as they can no longer hire domestic workers to help them. Because of the pandemic, some have become more aware that their careers and comfortable lifestyles depend on the underpaid labor of undervalued domestic workers. It seems like a good moment to reevaluate the low value assigned to life-maintaining labor and to start celebrating women for all of the kinds of work they do.
Want to learn more about women and work? Check out these ebooks from the City Tech Library!
[This post was co-authored with City Tech Librarians Nora Almeida and Wanett Clyde.]