domestic labour


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domestic labour

  1. the numerous, often repetitious tasks, including housework and child care, which serve to maintain the household. In most modern societies, domestic labour is unwaged, privatized and gendered. Women are primarily responsible for carrying out this servicing role and for ensuring that the physical and emotional needs of the family are met.
  2. (MARXISM) the particular forms of work within the household or domestic setting which produce ‘use values’ rather than ‘exchange values’ (see USE VALUE AND EXCHANGE VALUE). To conceive of the household or the FAMILY as a MODE OF PRODUCTION, and to study its characteristics as a socioeconomic entity, involves a revision of the conventional way of viewing the home, which is to see it as an expressive institution, separated from the economics of the marketplace, in which men and women play out their expressive roles. The concept of domestic labour highlights the interconnections between the world of the home (the private domain) and the world of the factory and the office (the public sphere) (see also PRIVATE AND PUBLIC SPHERES).
In either sense, domestic labour services the economy in ways which are hidden by the ideology of the family and private life – it is the sphere of CULTURAL REPRODUCTION and SOCIAL REPRODUCTION in which people are raised and cared for as members of the family and enter into the economy as workers. In the domestic economy, women mainly service men through private personal services which are not classified or remunerated as ‘real work’. Despite its importance in the national economy domestic labour is not usually included in the GROSS NATIONAL PRODUCT, and this is one reason why ‘Wages for Housework’ was a demand made by some postwar women's groups who saw domestic labour as an essential aspect of womens oppression. Before the publication of A. Oakley's The Sociology of Housework (1974), the SOCIOLOGY OF WORK and the sociology of organizations had ignored this area of life.

A further aspect of domestic labour within the SEXUAL DIVISION OF LABOUR, is that women experience a double burden of work since they participate in both wage labour and unwaged domestic labour. Their primary responsibility in the domestic sphere is a key factor exacerbating their exploitation and subordination in the public sphere. This primacy was always apparent in history, but since the 19th century in Europe has been accentuated by the separation of home from work and the construction of the notion of housewife: a married woman whose primary role is to engage in domestic work, with paid work outside the home being secondary Especially amongst the English Victorian upper and middle classes, this role became an ideal to which other classes aspired, but could not often achieve because of the economic necessity of having more than one wage or salary coming in to the household. When households were the focus of earned income or of self-provision, women often had important economic roles other than the domestic. Davidoff and Hall (1987), for example, show how male entrepreneurs in Birmingham in the early 19th-century depended heavily on the unpaid labour of their wives to establish their businesses. Only later, with expansion of the businesses, the development of new premises and the establishment of homes in the new suburbs, did wives cease participating and devote themselves to becoming housewives.

Since the 1970s, attempts to develop a political analysis of housework and child care in capitalist societies have focused on the domestic labour debate. This debate arose primarily from the work of S. James (1974) and M. Dalla Costa (1972), who utilized Italian social capital theory. In doing so they stressed the importance of analysing not only the position of the waged worker, but also that of the wageless. Both James and Dalla Costa argued that the wageless should demand wages and that housewives, in particular, should demand wages for housework. In doing so, the contradictions inherent in advanced capitalism would be intensified. James and Dalla Costa argued that the distinction between PRODUCTIVE AND UNPRODUCTIVE LABOUR was politically redundant, and that housework produced SURPLUS VALUE. Their work gave rise to two main Marxist responses, one of which sought to explore the implications of the ‘demand for wages for housework campaign’, whilst the other focused on the surplus-value question. The domestic labour debate is concerned with the extent to which Marxist categories can be used to explain the division of labour in the home, and whether the privatization of domestic labour is a necessary feature of capitalism. The debate has played a crucial role in highlighting the dual nature of womens work, and in demonstrating its usefulness to capitalism. A central theme of this debate has been the nature of the relationship of non-waged members of the working class to waged workers and to the ‘family wage’. It fails, however, to explain why it is women, and not men, who have the responsibility for domestic labour. Miles (1986) argues that the debate fails to address a number of important issues. It does not deal with the question of gender domination nor does it explore the ways in which the interests of women and men of the same class may be divergent. By concentrating on what are assumed to be the common interests of working-class women and men, the debate avoids consideration of the part played by male violence in the subordination of women in the home. The debate fails to explore the lack of womens leisure time relative to mens, the position of children and the role played by mens control over womens sexuality and reproductive power. The domestic labour debate has also failed to address the contribution made by radical feminists in analysing the relationship between gender and class. Finally, attempts by feminists to examine the virtually universal oppression of women have been characterized as an ahistorical attempt to replace a class analysis of social relations by a gender analysis. It is, however, important to recognize that social class, gender and also race, are interactive features within advanced capitalism and indeed within most societies.

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