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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