Women’s Household Labor Is Essential. Why Isn’t It Valued?Roundup
tags: gender, family history, labor, womens history
Alexandra Finley is assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade."
During the covid-19 crisis, many women are home-schooling children, cooking more meals with restaurants shuttered and tackling even more household tasks than usual. Being stuck inside together has both increased women’s workload and drawn newfound attention to it thanks to media attention on the home during quarantine. A recent article from The Atlantic, for instance, proclaimed the pandemic a “disaster for feminism” as much of the increased workload of stay-at-home orders has fallen on women.
The attention paid to the burdens of stay-at-home orders on women may be new, but the work is not. Domestic work is one form of socially reproductive labor — daily work that enables people to perform their jobs and maintain their health. Socially reproductive labor is the dinner that keeps us going, the supply and sale of groceries to cook such meals, the clean clothes that we put on each morning and the sanitized kitchens we cook in. It is empty trash cans, clean sheets, stocked shelves, changed bedpans, hot meals and bathed skin.
Despite its centrality to any functional society, socially reproductive labor is rarely celebrated or well compensated. Why? Because historically this work was performed by female family members, servants and, in many cases, enslaved women. During the 19th century, Americans conceptualized domestic labor as feminine and confined to the private home. This made household labor both vital and invisible to society, and the legacies of this way of thinking remain with us today.
In the 18th century and earlier, husbands often recognized the foundational role that wives, if not other female workers, played in a family’s success; marriage was as much a labor arrangement as a romantic bond. Working in close quarters on farms or near workshops, men were daily witnesses to women’s productive efforts. In addition to cleaning, health care, child care and cooking, women made many of the household’s necessities, from candles and soap to cloth and clothing. What they didn’t keep, they often bartered with other women for additional goods. This meant that women had a clear role in the family’s economic transactions.
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