In the late 1960s I was teaching at a community college in upstate NY and, among the books I assigned to my students, was Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” It usually generated interesting discussions, perhaps the most interesting of which was the gender gap in the response to the question I would ask about expectations for the household division of labor (including child care and other housework) in their future lives. The young women turned out to be better predictors of where the future was going than the young men.
Maybe the young men were thinking about 1900 when 1 in 5 women in the US – and only 1 in 20 married women – were in the wage labor force. Housework, “women’s work” was demanding and time consuming; the average household contained almost 5 people and almost 20% had more than 7 members. Or maybe the young men were just reflecting the reality that, in the 1960s, their mothers were doing 6 hours of housework labor for every 1 expended by fathers. In contrast, perhaps the young women were envisioning a society – like today’s US – when 3 of every 5 women, both overall and for married, work for wages. And they understood that human labor time is not indefinitely expandable.
In a Marxian analysis, the use values produced by “women’s work” of the household are central to social reproduction. What was being reproduced? Not just children but the gender division of labor, a division of labor rooted in two different spaces, one that creates use values and one that produces exchange values. But if human labor time is finite, when more labor time is devoted to the production of exchange values, less can be expended the production of use values.
So, what has happened to “women’s work,” the labor of social reproduction in today’s world? And how has fathers participation in the labor of social reproduction changed?
Throughout the wealthy countries of the world, the gap between the weekly hours of “housework” that men and women do has diminished. In the US most of the change occurred in the 1965 – 1999 period. By 2000, my former female students – and their daughters – were spending 1.5 hours in housework for every hour my former male students and their sons contributed.
The decline in the female to male ratio of housework was not, however, simply because men did more of the labor of social reproduction, although the average hours in housework doubled among US males in this period. Much of the change in the ratio of female to male housework hours reflected the decline in total hours devoted to the labor of social reproduction in the household declined, particularly among married couples. In the late 1990s, one study even asked, “Is Anybody Doing the Housework”? The limits of human labor time forced a reduction in the amount of reproductive labor performed in the household as more women entered the world of wage labor.
But probably not in the amount of social reproductive labor in the society as a whole. During the past four decades, the neoliberal political economy has industrialized much housework, a goal articulated by some early socialists who thought the result would be the emancipation of women. The labor of social reproduction includes attending to the very young, the elderly and the sick along with the preparation and serving of food, tasks that, in the early years of capitalism were defined as women’s work in the household. As these facets of social reproduction have been shifted from the household to the market place, both the affective performance and the scope of this labor have become subject to the dictates of exchange value production. The result has not, therefore, has not been the emancipation of women but instead the intersection of, and to some extent the reinforcement of, existing hierarchies of power and domination: gender, race, ethnicity and class.
Today the industrialized housework sector is generating new jobs through the growth of day care, the increasing number of meals taken outside of the household (even in the very weak recovery from the Great Recession, hiring in “food preparation and serving” has been a leading source of new jobs), the increased demand for home health and personal care aides as well as cleaning and yard maintenance services. Most workers who have found jobs in the industrialized housework sector are female, and, in addition, disproportionately women of color. Of course the jobs pay poorly, reflecting the historical devaluation of women’s labor of social reproductive in the household. Consider a few of these occupations: food preparation and serving – the largest employer in the BLS “Detailed Industry” tabulation – pays only slightly over 50% of the median wage – and is 2/3rds female, half of whom are African-American or Latino; over 90% of child care workers are female, the wage is less than 60% of the US median and 35% of the employees are African-American or Latino; and 85% of home health care and personal aides are female, almost half of whom are African-American or Latino and are paid only 60% of the national median wage. Table 1 (calculated from BLS data) gives the details of the industrialized household sector.
What about the distribution of the reproductive labor that is still located in the household? Who does what? A significant division of household reproductive labor is that between child care and “other” housework. Young children are a 24/7 project and their arrival changes both the total hours of social reproduction labor and gender allocation of this.
Despite the decline in average US household size by 25% in the 1960 – 2000 period, the total number of hours spent in child care in the household has actually increased. In the initial years of second wave feminism (early 1960s), mothers decreased their hours of childcare. But in the neoliberal political economic regime, they have reversed that trend and are now spending more hours/week in childcare than in 1960, despite having fewer children. They have been joined by fathers who have more than doubled their child care hours, almost all of which growth has occurred during the neoliberal era. Overall, the arrival of children tilts the household division of labor back towards mothers when compared with fathers.
The political economy of neoliberalism, then, has industrialized much labor of social reproduction. This has been done by embedding this “women’s work” in the existing hierarchy of class, gender and color. We should, of course, celebrate the increased participation of fathers in household childcare, although this may reflect the increasing sense of class precariousness and concerns that the next generation may not be able to achieve their parents’ level of economic security.
Truly “family friendly” policies would address the gender division of labor in both exchange value and use value production. For the arena of wage work, we should advocate for a wage structure that says we value the care and raising of children. The “fight for $15” is one such demand. At the same time we need to think about career paths in these jobs. Both wages and careers are particularly important because the industrialized housework sector is projected to account for almost 1 of every 7 new jobs created in this decade (see Table 1). With exception of R.N.s, these jobs pay well under the median wage. Higher wages in this sector would help in the fight against both gender economic inequality.
Secondly, as noted above, although men have increased their hours of childcare, mothers still spend 2 hours in this labor for every 1 hour that fathers spend. A good way to address this inequality – and to reinforce the care work potential of men – is to adopt parental leave policies modeled on those found in much of Western Europe. The U.S. is alone among wealthy, and even some not so wealthy, countries in our failure to provide paid parental leave.
But paid parental alone is not sufficient to address the unequal gender division of labor in the household. As many western European countries have discovered, the policy impact on the gender division of labor comes only with the requirement that fathers use a certain minimum of the allotted time. Prior to this policy change that occurred mostly in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the parental leave time available was taken overwhelmingly by mothers. Women thus increased their role in the sphere of use value production but diminished their position in the arena of exchange value production. Once parental leave policies gave families the choice of either the father taking some specified minimum amount of time or losing that portion of leave, the distribution by gender of parental leave shifted rapidly. And, where these policies have been in place for some time, fathers often take more than the minimum leave requirement. Another step in “the longest revolution.”
Authored by CPEG’s Bill Barclay