Housework and child care, reflections from International Women’s Day

So we’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day.  All over the world women demonstrated for equal rights and celebrated women’s achievements.  I spent International Women’s Day at a workshop run by the ‘Women work and value’ network in Budapest. Apart from the network event, the only signs of International Women’s Day seemed to be discounts in the tourist bars: one woman 10% off drinks, 2 women 20% off etc. I’m not sure that is what the International Day is about, and, no, we didn’t take up the offers.

At our workshop we were a little more focussed on women’s rights in the more usual sense of the word, from trade union activists in post-war Italy to redundant textile workers in today’s Croatia and care workers fighting for the right to overtime payments in the USA. All women, all low paid and all trying to get a better deal. My contribution was on the household duties tests in the UK sickness benefits schemes from the 1900s to the 1980s.

Housework not child care

I’ve written in other posts about these housework tests but what struck me at this workshop was the discussion on housework duties and ‘care’. Several of the other speakers talked about ‘care work’, either paid or unpaid in connection with providing personal care for older people and disabled people, or the work of looking after small children. In all the discussion of ‘housework’ in the archives that I have been looking at, the focus is almost entirely on the daily work that has to be done to maintain a household, with little mention of the people who live in it. So it is all about cleaning and washing, dusting and hoovering, shopping and cooking. Obviously the existence of small children or many other people in the house will increase the volume of these activities but there is barely a mention of the personal care which small children need or the sheer daily grind of getting children up and out to school, keeping them clean and getting them to bed. I also realised that the discussion in the archives is always about ‘married women’ not ‘mothers’. Now it may be assumed that married women and mothers could easily be equated in the early to mid-twentieth century but in many of the housework cases that I’ve identified, the women’s status as mothers was not mentioned. Either they did not have children, or their children were grown up or it was not felt to be relevant to discuss them. So what is happening here? It looks to me that the emphasis on housework was really that: the cleaning, cooking etc that was needed to maintain the house or the household, not the ‘child care’ that we think about today in relation to women’s ‘double burden’. So this was a recognition that housework was work but perhaps that looking after children was not – or maybe it was just so taken for granted that there was no need to mention it.

There is nothing like an international workshop like this to get you thinking about your research in a new way.

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Gender, housework and incapacity

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about men and women and claims for incapacity benefits. One recurring theme has been how to deal with housework. After all, as the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley told us in 1974: ‘the only difference between employment work and housework is housework’s lack of pay’ (Oakley 1974, The  Sociology of Housework, p26).

Across the twentieth century, policy makers worried about how to decide whether or not women’s work in the home should count as evidence for capacity for work when they claimed sickness benefits.

If we count housework as ‘work’, then we can understand why it might be appropriate to use evidence of capacity for housework as evidence of capacity for paid work.  Policy makers battled over this problem for the first forty years of sickness benefits.  By the 1950s they came to a more considered view.  A legal test case in 1951 said that that  a woman’s housework should only be considered as evidence of capacity for work if it was reasonable to assume that she could be paid to do similar work for an employer, for example as a cleaner or cook:

Thus for example if a woman is capable of doing the domestic work of a normal household that would be evidence to support the view that she was capable of remunerative work because by doing for an employer what she does for her family she could reasonably be expected to obtain remuneration. [Commissioners Decision R(S)11/51, para 6]

But what about men?  The legal case did not discuss the position of men but the civil servants at the time thought about it.  They were discussing how to crack down on married women who were capable of doing housework and pondered how to treat single women.  They thought that they should be treated in the same way as married women:

I agree that the spinster or widow running a home for her sisters (or brothers) should be covered as well as the married woman

Handwritten note, October 1951 in TNA PIN 35/41

But not men:

but I think we should not be too avid in our search for the mere male who is doing his best with the housework while his wife goes out to maintain the home.

So men doing housework were just ‘helping out’ and were not to be policed in the same way as the women.

That is not to say that men were left off the hook. Gendered assumptions about men and work could also mean that men were refused benefit if they did not fit expectations of masculinities and work.

And of course the whole housework question reappeared in the 1970s when they invented Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension which I’ve discussed before here.

belated Happy International Women’s Day

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