The domestic labour debates
Most materialist feminists follow at least the key argument made in Margaret Benston’s (1969) early article, that capitalist accumulation relies not just on paid labour but on women’s unpaid labour in the household. I focus on her work as one of the most influential, earliest, and clearest contributions to the domestic labour debate. However, there have been many disagreements around aspects of her and similar approaches. In using Marxist concepts to understand women’s oppression, she argues that a structural definition of ‘women’ within capitalist conditions is required. That definition involves making a classic Marxist distinction between use-value and exchange-value. Every ‘product’ supposedly has a use-value, which means that people can make use of it to fulfil some of their needs. Within capitalism, most but not all ‘products’ (or commodities) have an exchange-value — they are worth money on the market. Even in capitalist systems where the market is central, there are some commodities that remain outside the market and have only a use-value. In particular, it is suggested that things produced within the home remain outside the mar – ket. The meals that housewives make, the clothes they sew or mend and so on, are used by the family without being exchanged on the market (sold). This work within the home is seen as women’s work. ‘Women’, Benston argues, are therefore the people seen as responsible for the production of use-value within the home. This is viewed as their primary task and any paid labour that they perform is seen as secondary, and therefore trivial. Meanwhile men’s primary task is producing products with exchange-value. Because women’s housework is unpaid it is not valued within capitalist society, where money determines value. Of course what Benston does not really explain is why housework is seen as women’s work. This is a point taken up by Christine Delphy (see below), but first there is more to be said about how Benston argues that women’s unpaid work at home is central to women’s oppression.
Even if women do paid work, women’s wages are typically lower than men’s so the male wage remains crucial for the economic survival of most women. Within the nuclear family under capitalism, the man’s wage is supposed to ‘pay’ for the woman’s work and support children (even if a couple divorce — hence the child maintenance payments expected of husbands). If the male wage is assumed to ‘pay’ for most of the household work done by women then it ‘pays’ very badly. This is most clearly seen if you look at how much the work done by women at home fetches if it is done through the market. Look at the rates paid for babysitting, professional childcare, cleaning and so on. Low as the market rates for these might be compared to other jobs, wives and mothers typically perform them in return for their ‘keep’.And though women may feel that they do this out of love and do not require payment, nevertheless the fact that their work at home is not actually paid — and therefore not valued — is key in making sense of gender inequalities.
Within the family women produce clean houses and cared for husbands and children and, because this is regarded as their main task, they can also be used as a reserve army of labour when other labour is scarce. When they are no longer needed in the labour market, they are expected to return to home and family. Thus the benefits that capitalists receive from women remaining primarily tied to their role in the home mean that capitalists will continue to encourage women to perform that role. So even when they are working, women are still expected to care for everything at home. Trying to do two jobs obviously affects the ability of women to perform in the labour market, and Benston (1969) argues that true equality of opportunity will require women’s freedom from housework. She argues that capitalist attempts to free women by providing services on the market, such as childcare, are of dubious benefit as the services remain expensive and therefore not available to all. Indeed feminists following in the materialist tradition have recently pointed out how such solutions can merely shift oppression from privileged to less privileged women. For example, professional women in North America hire immigrant women to do their housework and childcare, and many of those women have to leave their own children in their home country to be cared for by often-overburdened female relatives (Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003). This supports Benston’s argument that although the nuclear family may not be the best way to meet humans’ practical and emotional needs, feminists must ensure that any alternatives will end women’s oppression. She understands that oppression as fundamentally economic, but other materialist feminists introduce cultural aspects.