From the vaults: Women’s work under capitalism (1998)

The article below first appeared in # 7 of the Christchurch-based magazine revolution (August/September 1998), one of the precursors of this blog. It is part of our series of reprints from the magazine. Although some of the figures are now a bit dated – for instance, in a number of advanced capitalist countries women in the 20-30 age group are actually higher paid than their male counterparts – the broad framework of the article still holds. Indeed, it’s interesting that the article looks at the way the 1998 budget imposed work and job-seeking on women with school-age children and consider how the recent 2015 budget has further lowered the age of children whose mothers are expected to work in paid employment. This is ‘progress’, capitalism style!

imagesby Sharon Jones

The changes to benefits outlined in the May 15 budget highlight the continued importance of the oppression of women under capitalism. From next February domestic purposes’ and widows’ beneficiaries will be work-tested. Those with children older than 14 will be expected to look for full-time work; beneficiaries with children aged six to 13 will have to seek part-time work; and those with children younger than six will have to visit Income Support for a yearly planning interview.

The implication is clear: as capitalism continues to falter, women are not only expected to perform the bulk of domestic labour in the home – cooking, cleaning, raising children and caring for sick relatives – but more and more they are expected to be available for part-time and full-time work.

Between the 1981 and 1991 population censuses the proportion of the employed workforce (working one or more hours per week) holding more than one job increased from 4.4 percent to 6.7 percent, to a total of 94,100. The largest increase was for those with more than one part-time job, doubling from 1 to 2 percent – 13,600 to 27,000 – over that decade. Over three-quarters of workers in this group were female.

The benefit changes will intensify this trend. The changes also highlight the fact that in order to overcome capital’s crisis of profitability the living standards of the working class must be driven down. One of the ways to do this is to intensify the oppression of women both in and outside the home.

Still ‘women’s work’

While men are performing more domestic work than ever before, that it is still women who perform most of it is borne out in 1996 census figures for unpaid work in the household.

Women have the highest participation rate and do most of the actual unpaid work in the household. Close to 89 out of every 100 working-age women undertook unpaid work in the household compared to about 80 out of every 100 working-age men. Some 54.2 percent of people doing unpaid work in the household were women. Women dominate the three main types of unpaid work in the household. For instance, approximately 59 percent of people who did childcare or cared for others were female (1996 Census, p13).

Statistics New Zealand reported:

“Women spend more time on unpaid work than men. In the 1990 Time Use Pilot Survey, unpaid work accounted for an average of five hours in a 24-hour day for women, compared to about three hours a day for men. In addition, the care of children is often provided by women indirectly while they are performing other tasks, and this further increases their unpaid work time relative to that of men. The pilot survey showed a clear gender division of labour for those engaged in domestic work: women spent more time cooking, cleaning and ding the laundry, while men spent more time doing repairs, maintenance and gardening” (New Zealand Social Trends: Work, Department of Statistics, 1993).

Uncontested issues

Domestic labour and the dual nature of women’s oppression under capitalism are questions that are largely absent from feminist debates today. Contemporary feminism instead concentrates on questions of desire, images, and censorship. Such issues are of no relevance to the majority of women who are continually confronted with the material world of work and domestic servitude.

At the same time some feminists actually celebrate the fact that men are more and more likely to be performing domestic labour. The idea of abolishing as much domestic drudgery as possibly is entirely absent from feminist discourse. This is because feminism, like all the other social movements, takes capitalist social relations for granted. And it is certainly true that within these limits domestic toil will continue to be visited on both genders.

In order to understand and also contest the oppression of women it is necessary to understand that it stems directly from the economic and material requirements of capitalism.

Creating the domestic realm

The distinction between domestic labour and wage-labour only emerged in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the resultant creation of labour-power as a commodity (see Grant Cronin, “Who’s free in the free market?”, revolution 6, here).

The fact that labour-power has to be reproduced as a commodity under capitalism is central to women’s oppression. The existence of domestic labour – said to be women’s main function, even today – allows for the holding down of women’s wages in the labour market. Lower wages for women were long justified on the basis that they were only working to ‘top up’ overall household income. Women could also be shunted in and out of the labour market as required. Low wages for women depress all workers’ wages.

Domestic toil also cheapens the value of labour-power in general. In other words, given that the value of labour-power, like all commodities, is determined by the socially necessary labour that goes into creating it, the more work women (and, increasingly, men) can be forced to perform in the home for free, the lower is the value of workers’ labour-power. This saves the capitalists a great deal.

Social and private labour

Bosses are only interested in using up the capacity of their employees to work and are certainly not interested in how this commodity (labour-power) is replenished just as long as workers return in a fit state to work the next day. In other words, the work that goes on in the domestic sphere is privatised – meaning it is performed outside the sphere of production. Whereas the food we eat and the clothes we wear are all produced socially, the majority of domestic labour – cleaning, cooking and rearing children – is a private affair.

The distinction between the socially productive sphere and the sphere of private labour affects the nature of the work performed in the domestic sphere. The way in which capitalism produces goods is governed by the laws of the market, which ensures that goods are produced as efficiently as possible. An inefficient firm or even whole sector will soon go to the wall in the fierce competition of the market. Thus the capitalist has an interest in making the commodities – including the labour-power and goods – produced in the workplace as efficient and productive as possible in order to give him or her the competitive edge.

The domestic sphere is very different. It lies outside the laws of the general capitalist market and this means that capitalism has no interests in increasing productivity or easing the stultifying work that women perform in their homes every day. As Lenin argued in 1921, women “remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, back-breaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household” (Collected Works, vol 32, p161).

Domestic toil and the limits of capitalism

While for many women in the West at least, domestic toil may not be back-breaking any more, it certainly remains dull and stultifying. Moreover, whereas in earlier periods of history these kinds of tasks had to be performed by human labour, technological progress means that most of them could be done away with now. It is only capitalist social relations – the very relations that are uncontested by both labour and feminist movements – which bar the use of social productivity to abolish this work.

As we have seen, in order to keep the price of labour-power low, domestic toil must remain privatised under capitalism. Some aspects of domestic work, if they can be performed profitably, can be taken over by the capitalist class – through fast food restaurants, private hospitals, private nursing companies, etc – but as long as capitalism remains there are absolute limits to the socialisation of domestic labour. In other words, as long as labour-power (capacity to work) is produced as a commodity women’s oppression will continue to exist. Middle class women may be able to escape the domestic sphere by hiring maids or nannies but someone who gets paid for domestic labour still needs to perform domestic labour to replenish themselves.

Far from being a dead issue, the status of women’s work under capitalism today is a vital one. As the capitalist slump deepens, the ruling class have no option but to force workers to work longer and harder and also to drive down wages. For women this means not only domestic labour (note the emphasis on parental responsibility in the government’s Code of Family and Social Responsibility) but also work outside the domestic sphere.

Women are one of the most flexible groups in the labour force, being drawn in and thrown out of paid employment as required. (The contradiction of calling for greater parental responsibility and also increasing the need for paid work for women – and men – is lost on politicians who cannot – or care not to – penetrate below the surface appearances of capitalist social relations. They are merely responding to the dictates of the ruling class to drive down the living standards of the working class.)

Under capitalism, women’s capacity to bear children (biological accident) has been turned into a necessity to be child rearers and domestic slaves (social role). The naturalisation of this role is undertaken by ideology: motherhood is offered as the natural and desirable position for all women. From the almost momentary role as child-bearers, women are consigned to spend years as child-rearers and a lifetime as general kitchen drudges.

It is capitalism, not men, that originates and continually sustains the gendered division of labour and condemns the majority of women to a life of domestic servitude in the home and poorly-paid insecure part-time work outside the home. Thus the fight for women’s liberation can only be successfully pursued as part of the struggle against capitalist social relations.