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Women’s Work: A Manifesto

Simple Life in France recently wrote on a subject that seems to be worrying a number of women in my circle. It’s a concern that speaks with profound irony to women d’un certain âge. “What would my husband think,” she wonders, if she decided never to go back to work but instead to devote herself to being…ah, let’s say it: “just a housewife?” And into “what he would think,” let’s read the more invidious “what would everyone else think?”

A dear friend of mine here is wrestling with the same questions. She’s contemplating making her escape from the day job sometime in the near future. She agonizes about the prospect of searching for another job, full- or part-time, when in reality she very likely would be happy and successful taking care of her husband and their beautiful home and expansive semirural property. Though she recognizes she needs a break from the work world—possibly a permanent one—she also feels that she should be contributing to the finances of the marital community. Her husband earns a good living that will support them well; their child is out of the home and married; and so the question of whether she should be working is not a matter of necessity but of conscience.

It’s the conundrum of the post-feminist middle-class woman. We’ve gone, over the course of a single lifetime, from a social milieu in which few women were even allowed to work to one where women not only can do just about any job they please but are expected to work, whether they want to or not. By “work,” of course, we continue to mean work two jobs: the day job plus the other full-time occupation of caring for a man, his children, and their dwelling.

The subtext for both Simple’s and my friend’s conflict—and it’s an important one—is “how will I be valued?”

We live in a culture where a person’s value is measured in dollars. The more you earn, the better you must be as a human being, right? And so what does it mean when a woman earns no dollars? A woman who has focused her whole life’s energies on being “just a housewife” receives exactly zero credit toward Social Security. More humiliating, her Social Security benefits, if any, will be tied to her husband’s, and only if she has earned less than half of what he is entitled to…assuming she stays married to the guy long enough. What does that mean?

Unwittingly (perhaps), we’ve not freed women, but instead we have further institutionalized the little-womaning of the American housewife. As feminists, we’ve done it by insisting that women must fulfill some imagined “full potential,” which we have situated in the commercial workplace. As a culture, we’ve done it by raising the cost of living so high that a single paycheck will no longer support a family in a middle-class lifestyle. And we see it in the not-so-subtle message implicit in that Social Security rule.

We as women need to rethink the value of what we are and what we do, and we need to disconnect that value from the dollar. Let’s consider what’s entailed in working as “just a housewife.”

For starters, a woman who lives and works at home takes on the following base responsibilities:

She raises and educates children (let’s face it: most of a kid’s education happens in the home).

She shepherds the children through public school and works to extract the most value with the least harm from the institutional system.

She cleans and cares for a house or apartment.

She may care for a yard and garden, often including small farm animals and large pets.

She designs meals and cooks them.

She shops for food, clothing, furnishings, household goods, and all other necessities and luxuries.

She budgets and handles money.

She cleans, a job that (as you’ll know if you’ve ever hired cleaning help) is a great deal more complex than we give it credit for.

She decorates and maintains a comfortable sanctuary from the outside world.

She does minor repair work around the house and property.

She sees to the maintenance of the cars.

She does sex work.

She volunteers at schools, churches, and community nonprofits.

She cares for elderly parents, whether her own or her husband’s.

In her husband’s old age, she may spend her own elder years caring for a sick old man.

In the course of learning to do these jobs over a lifetime, she attains skills in child development, bookkeeping, money management, hygiene, chemistry, nutrition, first aid, child care, elder care, gardening, interior decor, crafts, cuisine, entertainment, the arts of sexuality. If she volunteers outside the home, she builds knowledge and skills in subjects such as early childhood education, social work, event management, newsletter editing and publishing, office operations, and who knows what else.

That’s if she’s an ordinary, garden-variety just-a-housewife.

Let’s suppose she either is a particularly energetic, college-trained woman or she happens to marry a professional or business owner and so is expected to perform as what we might, in old-fashioned terms, call a society matron. In that case, she gets up to these sorts of things:

She represents her family unit and raises its profile through civic volunteerism and leadership.

She participates in elite service groups such as Junior League. In doing so, she takes on middle-management to executive-level responsibilities in one or more civic organizations.

She serves on the board of directors of one or more civic or nonprofit organizations, such as a museum, a social service agency, or a citizens’ group.

She hires and supervises household and landscaping staff to manage the house in her absence.

She entertains clients and colleagues in the home and at venues such as clubs and professional meetings.

She entertains and socializes with her husband’s partners’ wives, and in doing so collects intelligence on behind-the-scenes matters that may prove valuable for her husband’s career or investment strategies.

She builds and markets her husband’s profile in the community.

As a society matron—or, in more contemporary language, the partner of a professional—our just-a-housewife develops and engages all of the basic skills we’ve seen above plus management of household and landscaping staff, management of volunteers, event management, catering, public relations, marketing, fund-raising, office work, social work, fiduciary management, and a wide variety of other skills and knowledge specific to individual nonprofit organizations. If she has a college degree in business or some other technical field, she may apply that training to her unpaid civic work exactly as she would do in the workplace.

In either event—whether she focuses her energy and activities on her home, husband, and children or whether she also engages in civic voluntarism—the just-a-housewife manifests a wide variety of skills that, in any other context, would command a decent salary. Make that several decent salaries.

But because she doesn’t command a salary, we think of her as “just a housewife.” And she wonders if her husband (friends, in-laws, former roommate, college classmates) will value her.

My point here is that a woman is worth more than money. What she does can’t be measured in dollars, and so her worth can’t be measured in the currency of the marketplace.

When we feminists of the 1960s and 70s agitated to allow women into the marketplace, we did so because we wanted our daughters and grand-daughters to have a choice. We wanted women to be able to choose to enter the world of work, in any capacity, and not to be limited to the home or to menial, ill-paying jobs.

Choice works both ways. To be able to choose to do something means to be able to choose not to do something.

“Women’s work” and skills have great value—really, whether they’re engaged by a woman or by a man. A man, too, should have the choice to do or not to do, to work outside the home or not to work outside the home. The work we do, the knowledge and wisdom we possess should be valued for what they are, not for what they’re paid.

Of what real value are the bankers and financiers who so fabulously enriched themselves at the expense of the entire developed world’s economy? Of what value is the highly paid tobacco executive, captain of an industry devoted to sickening and killing its customers? These men and women are highly paid in the workplace, but we see their value as human beings: negative equity, we might say.

Value yourself for what you are and what you do, not for what you’re paid. Value yourself, and others around you will value you.

And, my friends, let us take up the torch again: demand choice, not bondage—neither to the home nor to the marketplace.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days;
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

James Oppenheimer, “Bread and Roses

15 thoughts on “Women’s Work: A Manifesto”

  1. What a great topic–and thanks for the mention of that post. I may have to go back and read it myself now that I’ve let it sit a while. By the way, it’s absolutely a topic that deserves a book. . .

    The first few months living in France for me were hard because I was coming down off a very serious addiction to work. I was a very career-identified person, in fact, it’s something I’ve been fighting for years.

    And you’re right–the work of running a household is complex and requires intelligence. Saving money, spending wisely and correctly investing money is as important as earning in my opinion. And when we were both working, our finances were just . . . unorganized.

    Before moving to France, we actually toyed with the idea of DH stopping his job and living on my salary (it was the larger one). We decided against that for the following reasons: 1) DH is a lot slower than I am at most household chores 2) I actually enjoy keeping our household running and he doesn’t 3) we liked the idea of living in France, which means sacrificing my career to an extent.

    The term ‘housewife’ is so loaded. On the one hand, it reminds me of a time when women really didn’t have the same rights as men and were dependent upon them. On the other hand, inheriting all the household work plus working 60 hours a week is something I find completely unacceptable and refuse to do.

    And finally–there will always be people to judge you for your decisions whether you decide to maintain a career, or just handle the family finances and the home. Lately I’ve felt that pressure quite a bit. But I’ll get over it 😉

  2. It’s an interesting story! Given an opportunity to live in France, I’d certainly jump at it. Eventually you’ll no doubt find something to there to crank a few bucks. The beauty of the Internet is that a lot of work is to be had online. If you have a master’s degree, you can teach in any community college’s online program…and through the enormous University of Phoenix. A lot of universities offer entire programs online through their extension programs, and community colleges are now offering a lot of coursework online. The University of Phoenix doesn’t pay much but the classes are short, and so the per-hour rate isn’t bad; my former RA teaches for them and says it’s very easy.

    The word “wife” has a long and complicated history. In Anglo-Saxon and Early English, wyf simply meant a woman, often one of common birth engaged in selling some commodity. This sense is reflected in terms like ale-wife and fish-wife. Later it meant the mistress of a household. We see from Chaucer’s Wyf of Bath that during the Middle Ages a wife could be a pretty lively, independent character. A number of variants connote affection: wifekin, wifelet, wifeling, wifelkin. And the words “wifehood” and “wifedom” are associated with honor or happiness: “Make of your wyfhede no comparison,” says Chaucer; and some soul in the 19th century laments, “joy and merriness are not for me, nor wedded wifedom.”

    LOL! My mother-in-law, who took up feminism like a cudgel, used to criticize my sister-in-law for not taking a job. SIL was a Polish woman (a rather spectacular one from the upper classes, such as they were at the time) trained as an economist; when my endlessly annoying BIL married her and brought her to the US, she settled in as a permanent huswyfe. Despite MIL’s carping, the kids went to ivy-league schools and the annoying BIL got off his duff and built a highly paid career. SIL’s daughter is now singing opera in London.

  3. This is an outstanding summation and reminder. The key element you touched on is valuing yourself and what you do no matter what that turns out to be.

    I’d also like to compliment you, Funny. You’ve transitioned out of the slavery of employment and into a lifestyle that suits you. It’s been a pleasure to observe that process through reading your posts.

    I left a blunt (awkwardly harsh?) comment here a long while back while you were lamenting your (perceived lack of ) options prior to your layoff. I’ve been very happy to see that not only have you not descended into total penury (LOL) but you’re so much more relaxed and seem to be enjoying life so much more – which my comment then was intended to suggest would be the outcome. Your writing reflects this happy state, too. Money and contentment both do happen.

  4. Wonderful article! I do struggle with being “just” a housewife and stay-at-home mom from time to time. While my friends are practicing medicine or lawyers or working for NY Stock Exchange, I don’t seem to be doing much.
    However, I know that I have value in my marriage because not only do I do all those things you mention but when I met my husband, he was clueless, financially speaking and didn’t begin saving until after we got married and I took over the finances.

  5. When I married in ’73, life’s possibilities seemed endless. Today, with my spirit as worn as Funny’s was a few months ago, all I dream of is a renewing rest. Yes, thank you, Funny, for a sane, reasoned look at the current stage in the liberated woman’s life. In all that I have “accomplished” over the years, I feel that I have missed so much. The accomplishments can be counted, as you have done in this posting. But it feels like a life skimmed over. How much I missed of my young daughter’s life–while others took care of her (sometimes poorly). At the same time, I could never give myself completely to a career because of all the “demands” at home. Personal interests? Forget it. It’s almost frightening to think that sometime soon I might have time that’s purely mine. Peaceful, unrushed time–in which to rediscover my own value.

  6. I don’t know….around here, being a non-working woman is a status symbol, indicating that she NEED not work.

    I think it’s the men who really have no choices–a non-working man is still an object of derision.

  7. @ frugalscholar: Yes, for men it’s really an issue. You should hear SDXB’s hilarious story of what used to happen, after he first entered bumhood, when he would go to a cocktail party and some gorgeous creature would come up to him. She would ask, as an icebreaker, the classic “And what do you do?” The conversation would go (riotously) downhill when he would answer, “Nothing.” Heee!

    A man has to have a stainless-steel ego to adjust socially to Bumhood.

    @ Betsey: Glad to see you’re still onboard! It certainly was difficult to believe, just three months ago, that anyone could survive on a third of what I was earning at the Great Desert University. It was, however, easy to believe that life would be a great deal better without GDU as a daily destination. 😉

    @ kjg: Yes. I can recall going to pick my son up at what was supposed to be the best daycare in town and finding him pacing, bereft, around the chain-link fenced perimeter, searching for me. Years later he told me the only thing he could remember of that time in his life was how miserable he was in that daycare center. Fortunately, I took him out of there fairly soon–after I walked in and saw him climbing on top of a makeshift table made of a door slung over two plastic kiddie chairs, which promptly collapsed on top of the little girl hiding beneath it.

    We can’t change those things, so I guess we have to put them behind us. Luckily, my son (and your daughter) was not alienated, and now that he’s a grown-up we seem to be making up for all those lost things in an adult friendship.

  8. My wife is home. When we had kids we agreed that if she liked it she could stay home. But if she went stir crazy there was no sin in daycare. She likes it, most of the time.

    We talked about her working part time when the youngest is in school. She hems and haws about what she will do. When we decided to have kids we agreed her salary would be allocated to the college savings. Since that plan was made I have come up professionally. Her salary won’t be “needed”, but would certainly help. She sometimes talks about volunteering instead. She doesn’t do things halfway, so if she volunteers it will be a lot like a job, just without a salary. As the breadwinner, I kind of resent that potential choice. I should be in favor of a fulfilled wife, but come on, if you are going to work outside the house, bring in a check and chip in.

    • 😀 I always felt that way about volunteer work, too. In my time and place, though, one was made to feel ungenerous if she expected to be paid for working.

      On the other hand, I will say that I know several former active volunteers who developed management-level and executive-level skills in unpaid work that led to well-paying jobs. Another option is to seek altruistic paying work, with nonprofits or teaching. A teaching job, if you can stand that kind of thing, has as a benefit that you can pretend to be on vacation three months of the year — although of course those three months are occupied with nearly full-time unpaid work.

  9. My wife and I have been discussing how we could possibly allow her to stay home and quit the rat race. We jsut have to come up with that extra income…

    But Wait….

    Let me run through that checklist….

    As a Father…

    I help raise and educate my children
    I shepherd them to and from school and help with projects and school work as well as after school activities like band, softball and flag corps.
    I do roughly half of all household cleaning
    I handle all Garden, Flower and Yard work as well as taking care of the livestock.
    I design about 60% of the meals and cook roughly 95% of them
    We shop together for all things (Food, Clothes, Appliances etc..)
    I do the budgeting and bill paying
    *Again about 50% of the cleaning (Showers and toilets…blechhh!)
    Not a lot of decorating goes on here
    I do pretty much all the repair work (daddy fix it!)
    I change the oil, oil filter, air filter, fluids and typically pump all the gas (One car family)
    Sex is not work
    Not much volunteering going on
    No elderly parents just yet (Hers are more than welcome though, her mom is an amazing cook!)
    And I sure hope to heck she cares for me when I am old and broken because I know for sure I will care for her when she is old and broken ;D.

    Holy heck I think I’m the one that needs to quit my job!

    Seriously though I dont think anyone (Woman OR Man) should be measured in currency. Unfortunately in our society (That of the US) we have been controlled for far too long by the corporation. And if you arent out earning a buck then you arent out spending that buck and making the companies richer. Hence they shout you have no value. We need to wake up as a group and stop lining these thieves and liars pockets with cash. Every one of us needs to be independant of all this pre-packaged pre-processed crap they foist on us and tell us we cant live without.
    I find it sad that there are so many of my peers that have no idea even how to do the simplest things (Square foot gardening? Cooking?!?! What a SHOCK!) that would lead to sustaining themselves and give them the ability to break away from the dollars hold over their lives.

    I’ll help you carry that torch!

    Just as soon as I’ve had a nap…….

    • @ Justin: Exactly so. Kids deserve to have a parent in the home, and they should get to grow up in their homes, not in day care centers or schools. IMHO, it doesn’t much matter which parent is the SAHP, as long as he or she can do a decent job of it. Really, it makes sense for the parent who can earn the highest salary to go into the workplace and the other person, male or female, to do the even more important work of maintaining the family’s home, safety, and health and of caring for the kids until they’re old enough to care for themselves. Men as well as women should have the opportunity to choose their lifestyles; as a culture, we should find ways to reward SAHPs in ways that recognize the real value of the job.

  10. My husband and I have been discussing these same thoughts for a little over a year now. When I was working for just over minimum wage, it was in deplorable conditions. On top of this, I was managing his finances, straightening out our debts, and fixing up our living space as our landlord refuses to make any repairs (highly illegal, but he always gets around it…)

    I was lucky to find someone who genuinely appreciated all I’d managed to get done. Even though we were both, combined, under the federal poverty line by thousands, he’d asked me to stop working. He didn’t like seeing me so stressed out for such a craptacular job. He continued working an equally stressful but higher-paying job. The place was cleaner, our cats and families were being taken care of (my single mother needed a lot of help sometimes), but… my self-esteem takes an occasional dive because I no longer have my own income. If I have no income, I’m not “really contributing”. He disagrees, but then, he came from a generation where women were just getting into the workplace- and I’m used to women doing ALL the work, lest they be useless.

    He has to remind me that all the things I’ve done would make me a lot of money outside the house, and therefore, I’ve earned my keep. Who will dye his clothing and repair it when the coin laundry machines bleach spots into his work shirts? Who will cook dinner when he’s too tired after work? He’d only make himself sick on fast food, and then lose work anyways because of health issues related to a poor diet. Who will work to track that diet and figure out what has been making him sick for more than ten years when he can’t afford a doctor? I am a diagnostician, a chef, a housecleaner, a seamstress, a personal assistant, a decorator, a repairsman, a negotiator, an economist, a tax preparer, and an artist. Who could pay me enough?

    But when I can, I will still get a part-time job in order to afford our “extras”. I do enjoy working. It’s just a tough market right now.

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