The dignity of domestic labour

Louise Perry says there is nothing demeaning about work traditionally done by women

Features

Standing in the Post Office queue, wearing my face mask and keeping my two metres distance from other customers, I shuffled past a display of books by the internet sensation Mrs Hinch, just out of reach of the black dotted line on which we had been asked to stand. These pretty, grey covered books are currently at the top of the bestseller list in the UK, having risen to new heights of popularity under lockdown. Her first, and most popular, is titled Hinch Yourself Happy: All the Best Cleaning Tips to Shine Your Sink and Soothe Your Soul. Now doesn’t that sound nice?

Mrs Hinch (whose real name is Sophie Hinchliffe) became famous through an Instagram account on which she shares cleaning tips and photos of her young family in their immaculate home. A qualified hairdresser, she is the picture of femininity, all long blonde hair and toothy white smile. She is also what the media world call “approachable”, with a thick Essex accent and a love for domestic “bargs” (bargains) found in Poundland and Wilko. You don’t need to be rich to emulate Mrs Hinch. She is proud to say that all her favourite cleaning products are cheap cheap cheap, from the green wiper she nicknames “Kermit” to the £2.49 “minkeh” cloth that sold out nationwide as soon as she recommended it to her followers, self-described “Hinchers”.

As Instagram influencers go, this one could not be more wholesome. I could watch Mrs Hinch for hours. There is something so soothing about a video of her wiping down her kitchen sink with a manicured hand, producing another gleaming surface in her already gleaming grey kitchen. Her Instagram profile shows us domestic perfection being continuously perfected, a cleaning process that never actually reveals any dirt.

Many are taking the opportunity to do a spring clean while stuck at home

There is also a tenderness to her. She confesses that cleaning provides her with relief from her chronic anxiety, giving her a sense of control and purpose. In Hinch Yourself Happy she writes of being hospitalised with a serious blood condition and finding comfort in using a pack of wet wipes to clean her bedside table, the only piece of furniture within reach. She still lives in the Essex village in which she grew up, and describes her modest house with huge pride:

“My home means everything to me. It means safety and cosiness and happiness. All of my achievements are here and it’s mine.”

Mrs Hinch’s appeal relies on the ordinary nature of her home, an unremarkable new build that has been made special through care and attention. Her joyful and placid relationship with her home is perhaps one reason for her surge in sales since lockdown began, with so many of us not able to go out as we usually would, and therefore forced to come to terms with life within the same four walls.

Or perhaps people are just in need of cleaning tips, since it seems we are all doing more of it. Wealthier households are now deprived of their professional cleaners, and many more people are apparently taking the opportunity to do a spring clean while stuck at home. Google searches for “how to deep clean your house” have surged since lockdown began, John Lewis has sold out of most models of steam cleaners, and Mumsnet is teeming with discussions on deodorising mattresses and laundering curtains.

This recent increase in housework is, predictably enough, not distributed evenly between the sexes. Many women are both cleaning more than usual, and also doing much more childcare, even in families in which both parents work full time. In normal times, much of this work is done by professionals: teachers, nursery workers, and cleaners, most of them women. But the crisis has returned this work to the nuclear family. Headlines warn of the return of the “1950s housewife” and some women who usually do full-time professional jobs outside the home are expressing their frustration:

“To say that the coronavirus crisis has been like living The Handmaid’s Tale is at once a wildly self-indulgent exaggeration and exactly how I feel some mornings … When I realised that lockdown meant that the cleaner couldn’t come, it was clear I was living through a dystopian nightmare.”

So writes the novelist and fashion writer Harriet Walker in The Times. With nurseries closed to all but the children of key workers, her two small children are now at home all day, with childcare and other domestic work shared between Walker and her husband. So, not exactly like the 1950s, and certainly nothing like The Handmaid’s Tale. But still, Walker’s anguish at spending more time doing unpaid work inside the home, and less time doing paid work outside it, is a familiar refrain in media coverage of the lockdown. For women used to the status and stimulation of professional work, the experience of lockdown can feel like an unwelcome return to the past.

We have seen a sudden, albeit limited, reversal of one of the great historical events of the modern era. Since the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the proportion of working-age women in employment has risen almost continuously and, during the same period, there has been an unprecedented reduction in the amount of time that the average woman spends on housework, so much so that today’s women do just a fraction of what our forebears typically did.

This is only partially attributable to the (small) increase in the amount of housework done by men. A much more important factor has been the invention of household appliances such as washing machines, stoves, vacuum cleaners, central heating and microwaves, all of which have radically reduced the amount of time required to keep a household clean, warm, and fed. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the ownership of domestic appliances increased, the average amount of time spent on housework decreased at almost exactly the same rate.

My great-grandmother, born in 1907, recalled washday in her middle-class home in the north of England, as her mother and a servant worked together to churn through the week’s laundry. The work was so arduous that the children knew best to keep away or else risk their mother’s bad temper. And no wonder. In the days before modern appliances, laundry was hard, grubby, and time-consuming work.

Keeping one’s own house clean was by itself a full-time job, and working-class women would usually do other work outside the home as well, often by cleaning the houses of richer families. My great-great-grandmother had one washday a week; the servant who helped her must have had at least two.

The contribution made by these women has historically been under-appreciated. The sociologist Ann Oakley was one of the first academics to think seriously about the economic value of housework. She was among those Second Wave feminists who understood housework to be a key area of political analysis. They argued that this was work that mattered, despite the fact that the women who performed it were often publicly invisible and isolated from one another.

Until 1926, women could not even legally co-own the houses they spent all day scrubbing

There was no trade union for housewives, meaning that these labourers were unable to lobby for improved conditions, and they received no wages, at least not directly. Women performed their work in exchange for financial support from their husbands, who could withdraw their patronage at any moment, or else abuse their position of authority within the home through violence or other forms of abuse. This in an era before the creation of women’s refuges, when “a domestic” was all too often ignored. Until 1926, women could not even legally co-own the houses they spent all day scrubbing.

Housework is still unpaid, but the influx of women into the workforce, in large part enabled by the invention of domestic appliances, has partially freed women from economic dependence on their husbands. And it has been a boon for a particular category of person: the intelligent and ambitious woman who longed to be free of domestic servitude, and was newly able to hire professionals to step into her fluffy slippers while she went out to work.

It is these women who are most likely to dismiss Mrs Hinch and her ilk as a relic of another era, still wedded to a romantic view of domestic labour that should better be understood as burdensome drudge. “[C]elebrating cleaning feels at odds with the fundamental fight of the feminist movement” writes one critic of Mrs Hinch in Marie Claire. “Mrs Hinch and her cleaning obsession is dragging women back to the 1950s”, reads another headline in Metro. These feminist critics draw a distinction between paid professional work and unpaid domestic work: the first being meaningful, desirable, and high-status; the second being dull, degrading, and to be avoided at all costs.

But perhaps Mrs Hinch deserves a little more credit. The lockdown has brought to the surface an issue that has been simmering ever since the sexual revolution: how can we support a woman’s right to reject domesticity, without also devaluing an area of life which, for many people, both male and female, remains an important source of meaning and identity?

After all, the work still needs to be done by someone. Despite vacuum cleaners and washing machines, the average household still requires many hours of cooking and cleaning per week to keep the show on the road, even aside from the far more time-consuming task of childcare. The work required to keep house may have plummeted within the last hundred years, but it is still substantial. Now, as ever, the people doing that work are disproportionately female, and they are as essential to society as they ever were. With no one to do all this domestic work, we would very soon become a smelly, sick and hungry nation.

And housework has more emotional significance than a cold economic analysis would suggest. The work of scrubbing sinks and changing bedclothes is essential to the maintenance of a home, the place in which most people spend most of their lives. Although home can be a place of dissatisfaction, conflict, and even violence, most of us still long for the image of it that Mrs Hinch writes of, a place of “safety and cosiness and happiness”.

The dichotomy that some feminists construct between paid (good) work versus unpaid (bad) work does not resonate with everyone. Plenty of jobs are at least as monotonous as cleaning, particularly the sort of low-skilled and poorly-paid roles available to people with little education. It is not at all obvious that a job as a dinner lady, or a bus driver, or a supermarket worker — essential though these roles may be, particularly during this crisis — need necessarily be any more enjoyable than the work of the home.

For some people, housework might even be preferable. The cleaner who vacuums floors in an office building does so on behalf of others, in return for a wage, and is often ignored or disrespected while at work. Whereas the cleaner who vacuums her own floors on her own terms can more readily take pride in her role as housekeeper. “All of my achievements are here and it’s mine,” writes Mrs Hinch of her home, and quite rightly.

She lives in the house she and her husband bought together, their first property, acquired after years of careful saving, and she has put hundreds of hours of work into making it a nice place to live. Why should she be more proud of her hairdressing work than of her work as a housekeeper? Why should the former be considered valuable, and the latter not? Why should a pay cheque make an act uniquely dignified?

A solid proportion of women agree with Mrs Hinch’s priorities. In The Road to Somewhere, published in 2017, David Goodhart presents the data on UK women’s attitudes towards work, outlining three broad categories: The work-centred women who give highest priority to their careers, about 15 to 20 per cent of the total; family-centred women whose lives are devoted to home and family, also about 15 to 20 per cent; and “adaptive” women whose lives encompass both work and family, who make up 60 to 70 per cent of the population.

Some feminists might dismiss this 15-20 per pent of “family-centred” women, and perhaps even the “adaptive” 60-70 per cent, as having bought into a regressive feminine ideal that does them harm. To some extent, that view is defensible. In the restrictive environment of early 1960s America, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique drew attention to the plight of middle-class housewives confined to their homes, often lonely and frustrated, but trying desperately to conform to a conservative worldview that saw housework not as a form of economic labour, nor as an essential social service, but rather as a source of uncomplicated joy: the only thing a woman could possibly want.

For some people, spending all day cleaning, cooking, and looking after children is enough to drive one mad. For others, it is a life that provides far more meaning and purpose than any kind of waged labour. For most, the sweet spot is somewhere between the two extremes. But, in the decades that have passed since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the feminist reaction against the conservatism of the 1950s has often failed to get the balance right. Which is why we find ourselves now reading media reports that depend on a shared assumption that usually goes unquestioned: that of course housework is an inferior form of work, and of course it is a terrible consequence of lockdown that women are now doing more of it, in lieu of other work.

This assumption holds even — in fact, especially — when it comes to richer households in which the financial impact of lockdown is not a concern. The problem, it seems, is not the unpaid nature of housework, nor the poor conditions, but rather the existence of it at all. It must, necessarily, be degrading.

An article in the Observer quotes a mother who has been forced by the lockdown to temporarily give up her job as a freelance marketing consultant while her husband continues working full-time in advertising. “There isn’t a second I can work,” she says. “I can’t do anything productive.” It’s a revealing choice of words. Many Second Wave feminists pushed hard to persuade us that in fact domestic work is work, and important work too — just as important and “productive” as, say, marketing or advertising. But we’re still not quite there.

My great-grandmother, having watched her mother slogging through washday, went on to witness the social transformation enabled by the invention of domestic appliances and the sexual revolution, although she did not experience much of this transformation herself. As a young woman, she had wanted to become a nurse, but her family fell on hard times and so couldn’t afford to pay for her training. Instead, she worked as a nanny and, after she was married, became a housewife.

The likes of Mrs Hinch and her army of “Hinchers” do valuable work, and deserve our respect

That experience could be framed as a tragedy, a waste of female talent. But that is not how my great-grandmother understood her own life. She had plenty to be proud of. She raised three children, as well as caring for many more in her role as nanny. She kept a beautiful garden and was an excellent cook. Her husband worked as a plumber, a job that had its own ups and downs, like any other. The two of them worked hard, and at work that mattered, both to them and to other people. The only real difference was that his job received a wage, and hers did not.

I am not arguing that my great-grandmother shouldn’t have become a nurse, or that it wasn’t a terrible injustice that she was denied training for want of money. What I am arguing is that her working life was still valuable, even if it took place within the home, and that the housekeepers alive today — the likes of Mrs Hinch and her army of “Hinchers” — do valuable work too.

There is nothing inherently degrading about the work traditionally associated with women. The experience of lockdown has demonstrated the importance of these workers, who cannot be furloughed or made redundant, whose work must be done by someone, every day, as it always has been. These workers deserve our respect, not our pity.

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