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Waging war: pay for domestic labour

Silvia Federici argued in the ’70s that capitalism relies on unpaid domestic labour undertaken by women. Her words ring with new resonance today

Feminist posters see red womens workshop architectural review

Feminist posters see red womens workshop architectural review

Image: See Red Women’s Workshop

A wage is something you take home at the end of the day. If you have a job you might bring home the bacon. Apparently, a wage is not made in the home. But workers are: the nuclear family is ‘a social form built on contradiction’, and raising children is reproductive labour. The essential continuation of a steady and viable line of workers-to-be is part of government policy, from child allowance and tax credits for nursery to free dentistry for pregnant women. It is also government policy that women do the majority of this work in the early years. Without fully equal parental leave there can be no possibility of equal pay or rights. 

Silvia Federici and the Wages for Housework campaign, which began in 1972 and included Wages Against Housework, a book published in 1975, proposed the radical and incendiary project of pay for the work done by women in the home. For Federici the link between these two ideas – a wage and housework – was a political perspective because, to have a wage, even in an exploitative job, means you are part of an explicit social contract: you do the work, you get paid. You can quit or get fired, you can get a new job; neither of these options is possible for the unwaged housewife whose work is not separated from her life, if she is allowed to call it work.  

‘If housework is understood as somehow beneath some people then no architecture can undo this hierarchy’

The women with whom Federici wrote were housewives as well as women who had jobs outside the home. Both groups resisted the separation made between so-called productive labour (the work done in factories, offices and fields) and the work they did to feed, clean and tend to the men, to raise the children who would go on to work, to fix the home so that all this work could keep happening. These worlds are continuous and co-dependent, but the wage for this combined effort goes to one person, and the work done in the house is apparently without value or skill. 

Cleaning and cooking aside, caring is held up by Federici as the most pernicious part of this transaction. Emotional labour – smiling, having sex – has been understood as part of the role of ‘woman’ to such an extent that, until feminists campaigned about it, domestic abuse was not seen as a crime. 

To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking.

To argue for a wage means forcibly removing ideas of love from the home-based aspects of production. It means putting pressure on governments to provide good services. It means treating men and women as equals.

If we assume that housework is not real work … then no one is entitled to any institutional support for raising a family. Then the state is correct when it claims that raising our children is a personal responsibility and if we want daycare centres, for instance, we have to pay for them. 

Architecture has had all sorts of collisions with exploitative labour and with the heralding of the family as some kind of emancipatory balm to the alienation of capital. Federici writes that ‘in the course of the 20th century, the working-class family has become more and more isolated from the rest of the community. Housing politics, with the creation of suburbia, have accelerated this process’. The family-friendly Unité in Marseille was built to encourage the production of more families to permit successive generations a retirement. In Sweden, Sven Markelius and Alva Myrdal thought the family home could help both parents work through collectivising cleaning, cooking and childcare. Their kollektivhus employed staff to provide these services, echoing the ‘al dente’ feminism of the radical housing project of Red Vienna, in which appliances like washing machines and irons were made collective (although it was still women who did the work). 

‘To have a wage, even in an exploitative job, means you are part of an explicit social contract’

If housework is understood as somehow beneath some people then no architecture can undo this hierarchy. More’s Utopia had a serving class of foreigners and criminals – the maid’s miniature room, from Hong Kong to Beirut, where workers live in the homes they clean, are one more expression of this ancient distinction between those whose time, and lives, are valued and those who are not.  

We can spot a glimmer of Federici’s utopia in the comedor popular in Lima, urban communal kitchens in which the work and pleasure of cooking is shared by groups of volunteers during times of economic hardship. Here, alternative patterns of vulnerability and strength are found in non-familial kitchens. Emerging from national strikes and economic hardship, the kitchens were organised by changing groups of women pooling skills, time and leftover resources. To read Federici is to encounter a call to arms in urgent, persuasive prose. She will make you a utopian too, looking for little shards of hope and huge shifts in perspective. By identifying as and with the housewife, architects can begin to unpick the history of their profession. 

Unfortunately, many women – particularly single women – are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and they do not want to realise they are housewives too. This is precisely our weakness, as our enslavement is maintained and perpetuated through this lack of self-identification. We want and must say that we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes and we are all gay, because as long as we accept these divisions, and think that we are something better, something different than a housewife, then we accept the logic of the master. 

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today