In this new and fascinating book about the Wages for Housework campaign we are looking back to a period of history when radical women were redefining the nature of women’s work and challenging the role of women in society.
The author, Louise Toupin, has produced an international history of the Wages for Housework movement which takes us from Canada to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, USA and England.
Wages for Housework challenged the overriding view at that time which said that calling for women’s work in the home to be paid was reactionary and would chain women to the home. Instead they proclaimed that the personal was political, and in 1972 in the founding manifesto of the International Feminist Collective they advanced a new definition of class. “This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity ie. the exploitation of the labour of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it.”
Rejecting the traditional definition of Marxism that class equalled productive work, they reached out to people from the unemployed to peasants, to those caught up in slavery to colonised people. It was an internationalist approach that challenged the division of labour with the central figure in the analysis being the houseworker. It brought to the fore issues of domestic violence and the criminalisation of prostitution and lesbians. Classic texts such as Sex, Race and Class, written by Selma James, co-founder of the IFC and Wages for Housework group in London were circulated and remain popular today.
Through the International Feminist Collective (1972-77) this political analysis was taken forward by a network of groups, mainly Italian, English, American and Canadian women. Innovative for its time, it was a feminist “International.” Toupin says, “it was a body for coordination and encounters, for exchanges of information on mobilizations underway in the network, for reflections and discussions on situations of the moment, and for concerted actions.”
Fascinating is how the movement took part in actions: either initiated by a Wages for Housework group, or initiated by other women’s groups and supported by Wages for Housework groups. Their campaigns involved mobilising around women’s invisible work, both inside and outside the home.
Activities varied, depending on the different countries involved. In Italy work was done on issues around women’s health, including abortion, pregnancy and hospital services. In Britain it focused on defending universal family allowances which the Conservative government wanted to replace with tax credits.
One of the interesting stories about campaigns around invisible work outside the home was the struggle by waitresses in Canada to end differentiated minimum wage rates in the tourism and restaurant industries which discriminated against women; women who were often not in a union, who were often the sole breadwinner and unskilled immigrants.
The Toronto Wages for Housework included women who were waitresses and formed the Waitresses Action Committee. This was an important struggle which one of them summed up; “Waitressing is the work of serving and satisfying other people, only on a public instead of a private scale. That’s why I call it housework. All women are taught to do this from the day we were born. In fact our very identities are tightly bound up in this work, whether we are secretaries, mothers, nurses, waitresses or full-time housewives.”
The Wages for Housework was a key movement in second wave feminism. It was totally original in its philosophy and threw light on the unrecognised and invisible forms of labour that are performed mainly by women. It is summed up in this comment by Claudia von Werlhof: “Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy”.
Wages for Housework is published by Pluto Press and costs £19.99 Buy it here