CLIO TALKS BACK: What is "women's work"?

Clio has been reading a new book called Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples can Have it all by Sharing it all, and Why it’s Great for Your Marriage, your Career, your Kids. .. and You. The authors are two young Californian mothers who are trying to combine professional careers with family life – a dilemma that is troubling a lot of young women today.
Clio is concerned about one thing, however. In this book, the authors, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, treat “women’s work” as what they get paid to do. Employment for money is the important thing. That is “work.” The lessons of the book revolve around splitting household labor with paid labor, but the authors never question the thinking that equates “women’s work” with their employment.
Yet one of the great feminist insights of the last 30 years is precisely that women’s work is “never done,” and that “work” or “labor” encompasses far more than what one gets paid to do. Indeed, it embraces most of what women do – and don’t get paid for.
This aspect of thinking about “women’s work” is not new. It dates well into the early nineteenth century, when male political economists began to think about “economics” exclusively in terms of paid jobs for breadwinning men that would enable them to “support” wives and children. Even then, feminists fought back against this type of thinking. Even then, some wrote poignantly about this problem and even demanded pay for housework.
Listen to what one woman in France had to say on this subject. Jeanne Deroin was a married woman, an employed woman and a mother. In 1848-49 she campaigned for women’s rights, including the vote for women, and posed her candidacy (unsuccessfully) for the French legislature. She was, in fact, the first woman in Europe and perhaps in the world to run for political office. Here are her reflections about “women’s work” in reference to the poor women of Paris in the early 1850s.

Women’s Work

“It is in the household that woman’s work is the most tiresome and the least appreciated.
“We are not speaking of a household where there is a live-in nurse and a maid for each child, and domestic servants to do all the work; we are speaking of the majority, of the proletarian household, where the mother alone cares for several children, where there is not always means to pay the laundress, where the wife must get up before dawn, often exhausted by having had to nurse her newest child through part of the night. She lights her stove and prepares her wash water, in order to wash her children’s clothing and the diapers. Moreover, she hasn’t enough of anything to be able to wait a week; the lodging is small, the basins inconvenient; the sink is either one floor up or two floors down, and the stairway is dark. Her husband gets up to go to work; his pants are torn and must be mended but a child cries or the clay casserole tips over; the woman runs; the husband gets impatient; the repair gets done. He leaves and the washing begins. The two biggest children get up and ask for their breakfast; the littlest ones cry to be gotten up; the sudsing finished, she hangs out the wash as best she can, wipes up the spilt water, makes the soup, dresses the littlest children and gives everybody breakfast; she puts some bread in the baskets of the bigger children and sends them off to school; she has not yet had time to sit down for an instant in order to nurse the little one who is crying loudly.
“The landlord’s wife enters: she is an early riser, a woman of order, a good housewife who does her own canning and makes her own jam, repairs her laces, cleans her own ribbons and embroiders her collars. Everything is neat and tidy in her quarters before nine o’clock. She rouses her maid and her domestic at five a.m. and supervises them, pushes them, prods them, so that the tasks get done promptly and well. Thus, upon entering, she is indignant at the laziness and disorderliness of her renter. The beds are not yet made, the room is not swept; the chipped bowls used for breakfast are still sitting unwashed on the floor; the poorly bleached diapers hang on the line, the torn caps and socks full of holes dry on the back of a chair. She concludes from all this that her renter doesn’t get up early enough and doesn’t work hard enough. She asks for the rent more severely than she might have otherwise and leaves, threatening to throw them all out if it isn’t paid by the fourteenth.
“Upset and already exhausted with fatigue, the poor wife nurses her infant, changes it and puts it back in the cradle, and leaves it in the charge of an obliging neighbor’s children so that she can run to the central market to buy potatoes a bit cheaper. She returns in haste, loaded down, breathless and perspiring. She nurses the infant to stop its crying, puts her irons on to heat, peels her vegetables, irons the caps, mends the vests and pants, fixes the shirts, darns the socks, repairs the slippers, and prepares dinner.
“The children come home from school: one has torn his blouse, the other has a bump on his head. She scolds the first one and bandages the second. During this time the potatoes have burned; her husband returns, and the soup is not yet poured over the bread. He is tired and in a bad mood, and displays his astonishment that a woman who has nothing to do but take care of her house is incapable of getting up dinner. He sulks or flies into a rage and, when dinner is over, he goes to bed. The wife undresses and puts the children to bed, washes the dishes, and is able to mend the most urgent items. But she has to interrupt her work every few minutes to calm the baby, whose cries are waking up its father, who gets upset at not being able to sleep and recover from the fatigue of the day. Often the poor baby has been changed with a diaper that is still wet; he gets colic, and the mother spends part of the night calming him. She scarcely gets a few hours of sleep and wakes up only to recommence the same life. And they say, in speaking of her, that only her husband works; she doesn’t do anything. She has only her household and her children to take care of.”

When Clio first read this account some 130 years later, she cried. Who among us has not confronted a similar experience?

Source: Jeanne Deroin, “Le Travail des femmes,” Almanach des Femmes (1852), as translated by Karen Offen and published in Victorian Women (Stanford University Press, 1981), pp. 304-305.