Since the start of the pandemic, an old dilemma has been revived: the unequal gendered division of housework in the home. For middle-class workers who have been working from home to avoid the coronavirus, the home now functions as an office, online school, gym, leisure space, and whatever else is necessary, which has doubled — if not tripled — the housework to be done. According to dozens of news reports and studies, this new dynamic has caused the gender gap inherent to household management to widen, overworking middle-class mothers and reducing the issue of housework to personal negotiations between couples.
Though these articles depict a relevant gender issue that shapes some women’s daily lives, they are also, frustratingly, often race- and class-blind, focusing on White, middle-class, heterosexual workers and their frustrations with work-from-home setups. There are many things missing from the picture painted by these articles that seem to be published every couple of months; housework seems to not exist or matter when it comes to working-class women, single mothers, women of color, and LGBTQ couples. But the most egregious erasure these articles perpetuate is the fact that most care and maintenance work — also known as housework — is done by underpaid and undervalued racialized women. According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 80% of whom are women of color, but this is seen as a separate issue to White women’s housework load.
The original feminist critique of housework that animated the feminist movement in the 1970s was not watered down or whitened. Feminist theorist Silvia Federici has long argued that the first example of feminism in the United States was the struggle of Black welfare mothers who mobilized in the 1960s to demand a wage for simply raising their children. This laid the groundwork for the Wages for Housework movement, which was not focused on White middle-class women, but was an internationalist, anti-capitalist, feminist framework that demanded a reimagined structure of waged work and housework. In stark contrast to what passes for gender politics in the home today, the Wages for Housework movement was a radical recognition that unpaid housework means women have less power. “We have never been paid enough for all the work we have already done,” reads a 1977 Black Women for Wages for Housework pamphlet. “We don’t need more work. We need money to work less.” (Emphasis in the original.)
This critique is still crucial today, especially during a pandemic where domestic workers have been suspended without pay, forced to work longer hours if they are live-in workers, and left with little to no safety net due to low wages. But the mainstream coverage of the gendered division of housework has absolutely not reflected these issues and how, in addition to being gendered, domestic work is also racialized — how did we get here?
As scholar Françoise Vergès points out, not all White feminists were unified on the question of housework. Some of them equated liberation with entering the workforce, which called for other people to do the housework they no longer had the time to do. Citing Angela Davis and Hazel Carby, two Black women revolutionaries, Vergès writes that “Black women understood very well what was at stake[…] when some women are freed from cleaning/caring work, other women — primarily women of color — will have to do the job.” The effects of this division can still be felt today, and it explains why feminist perspectives on housework have been watered down to negotiations of division of the work with men; if this is seen as solely a problem of who does the dishes in individual White homes, the critique loses its revolutionary verve. And it creates a roadblock: Many of the women interviewed for these pieces say having conversations with their husbands does not fix the problem, with some exceptions. While this might have worked for many women who are now part of the workforce, the fact is that a collective problem cannot be solved through personal conversations — and that somebody always has to pick up the socks or do the laundry. It is once again an example of how class interests for some women can disrupt a collective demand for a better world.
Working-class single mother of color Leila Raven says that, for her, the pandemic has resulted in overwork to keep food on the table and full-time caregiving responsibilities, with most of the housework falling by the wayside: “Being a single mom without someone who can care for my daughter full time while I work has meant that working full time isn’t an option, so paying rent is one of the household duties that has fallen by the wayside. So many of us are facing eviction in apartments we’re renting in buildings that were barely safe to inhabit even before the pandemic. People like me can barely think about getting the dishes done because we’re focused on just maintaining our housing and staying safe from interpersonal and state violence.”
The cyclical coverage of the pandemic housework dilemma is a continuation of the whitewashing and depoliticizing of housework as a feminist issue. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that women are still responsible for 75% of unpaid domestic work worldwide, spending up to three hours more per day doing such work than men. The inequalities of housework didn’t go away because middle-class women entered the workforce or because they’ve had stern conversations with their husbands — women still do the bulk of the work that makes the world keep turning, even if some of these women are made invisible by virtue of their race and ethnicity.
“If wealthier middle-class families could be in solidarity with those at the margins, we could be making the kinds of demands that we’ve always needed: defunding the police and investing in care infrastructure for our communities like safe housing for everyone,” Raven says. “And yes, this is a feminist issue, for those of us whose feminism includes people who are Black and Brown, trans and queer, disabled, and housing-insecure.”
It’s about time to admit this approach has not liberated women, and that talking about housework calls for conversations about race, class, and colonialism. Introducing these categories into these conversations makes clear that White women’s upward class mobility has been prioritized over the well-being and quality of life of working-class women of color cleaning up after them. Women won’t be liberated through simply sharing or delegating the workload; we need a much more imaginative and revolutionary solution that goes beyond individual households.
Nicole Froio is a researcher and a journalist writing on gender, power, identity, pop culture, poems about feelings, and current events. Her work is available to those who sponsor her patron-only monthly newsletter (www.patreon.com/nicolefroio).
This essay was originally published by Zora, a Medium newsletter, on Oct. 2, 2020.