In the late 1960s, I was teaching at a community college in upstate New York. Among the books I assigned to my students was Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. It usually generated good discussions, perhaps the most interesting of which was the gender gap in the response to the question I would ask about expectations for the household division of labor (including childcare and home care) in their future lives. The young women turned out to be better predictors of where the future was going than the young men.
Maybe the young men were thinking about 1900, when 1 in 5 women in the U.S. – and only 1 in 20 married women – were in the wage labor force. Or the reality that their mothers were doing 6 hours of housework labor for every 1 expended by fathers. Maybe the young women were envisioning a society – like today’s U.S. - when 3 of every 5 women, both overall and those married, work for wages. And they understood that human labor time is not indefinitely expandable.
In a Marxian framework, the use values produced by “women’s work” of the household are central to social reproduction. Use value is anything that has utility, is useful, to people. What is reproduced? Not only children but also the gender division of labor, a division of labor rooted in two different spaces, one that creates use values and one that produces exchange values. Exchange value is anything that is produced for exchange, for sale. All exchange values have use value but not vice versa. But if human labor time is finite, when more labor time is devoted to the production of exchange values, less can be expended the production of use values.
So, what has happened to “women’s work,” the labor of reproduction in today’s world? And how has fathers' participation in reproductive labor changed?
Throughout the wealthy countries of the world, the gap between the weekly hours of “housework” that men and women do has diminished. In the U.S., most of the change occurred in the 1965-1999 period. By 2000, my former female students – and their daughters – were spending 1.5 hours in housework for every hour my former male students and their sons contributed.
The decline in the female to male ratio of housework was not, however, simply because men did more reproductive labor, although the average hours in housework doubled among U.S. males in this period. The total hours devoted to reproductive labor in the household declined, particularly among married couples, leading to one study titled “Is Anybody Doing the Housework?” The limits of human labor time forced a reduction in the amount of reproductive labor performed in the household as more women entered the world of wage labor.
But the amount of reproductive labor in the economy as a whole has probably not changed much. During the past four decades, the neoliberal political economy has industrialized much housework. Day care has expanded. People eat more meals outside of the household. (Even in the very weak recovery from the Great Recession, hiring in “food preparation and serving” has been a leading source of new jobs.) More people are employed as home health and personal care aides as well as in cleaning and yard maintenance.
Ironically, many early socialists thought industrialization would lead to the emancipation of women. Rather than female emancipation, however, neoliberal industrialization of housework demonstrates the intersectionality of domination and hierarchy. Most workers who have found jobs in the industrialized housework sector are female and disproportionately women of color. Of course the jobs pay poorly, reflecting the historical devaluation of women’s reproductive labor.
What about the distribution of the reproductive labor that is still located in the household? Who does what? A significant division of household reproductive labor is that between childcare and “other” housework. Young children are a 24/7 project, and their arrival changes both the total hours and gender allocation of social reproduction labor.
Despite the decline in average household size by 25% in the 1960-2000 period, the total number of hours spent in childcare by parents has actually increased. In the 1960s, during the initial years of second-wave feminism, mothers decreased their hours of childcare. But in the neoliberal political economic regime, they have reversed that trend and are now spending more hours/week in childcare than in 1960, despite having fewer children. They have been joined by fathers who have more than doubled their childcare hours, almost all of which growth occurred during the neoliberal era. Overall, the arrival of children tilts the household division of labor back towards mothers when compared with fathers.
The political economy of neoliberalism, then, has industrialized much labor of social reproduction. This has been done by embedding this “women’s work” in the existing hierarchy of class, gender and color. We should, of course, celebrate the increased participation of fathers in household childcare, although it may reflect the increasing sense of class precariousness and concerns that the next generation may not be able to achieve their parents’ level of economic security.
Truly “family friendly” policies would address the gender division of labor in both exchange value and use value production. For the arena of wage work, we should advocate for a wage structure that says we value the care and raising of children, such as the fight for $15. Higher wages in the industrialized housework sector would help in both the fight against gender economic inequality and would, at same time, likely also draw more men into this wage work.
Secondly, as noted above, although men have increased their hours of childcare, mothers still spend 2 hours in this labor for every 1 hour that fathers spend. A good way to address this inequality – and to reinforce the care work potential of men – is to adopt parental leave policies modeled on those found in much of Western Europe. The U.S. is alone among wealthy, and even some not so wealthy, countries in our failure to provide paid parental leave. Parental leave should come with pay, and parental leave policies should require that fathers use a certain minimum of the allotted time.
Bill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA, is a founding member of the Chicago Political Economy Group and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.