Can you imagine a world where married women had to prove that they were unable to do housework before they qualified for benefits? This was the UK in the 1970s. Yes, you read that correctly. Not the 1920s or even the 1950s. In 1975, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act, legislators in the UK came up with a social security benefit which made specific rules barring married women from claiming unless they could prove that they could not do the housework. This was Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP). To be fair on the legislators, the idea was to make a benefit available to women who had been unable to collect enough national insurance contributions to qualify for Invalidity Benefit because they had been out of the labour market. But the main benefit Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (NCIP) was only available to men and single women. Married women had to pass the extra ‘housework’ test. The thinking was that married women did not expect to work outside the home, that they would be financially dependent on their husbands and that they should only qualify for a state benefit if they were unable to do their ‘normal work in the home’.
So what did these housewives have to do to show that they couldn’t do their housework? The claiming process was the same as for everyone else trying to get an invalidity benefit: they needed a certificate of ‘incapacity for work’ from their doctor but then they also needed to fill out a lengthy claim form. This form included questions about ability to dust, iron, stand in a queue, keep the home clean and tidy and other such ‘normal household duties. It also asked whether the claimant need to use any ‘special appliances’ to carry out such duties. Critics of the scheme pointed out that it was not clear at all what a ‘special appliance’ meant and whether or not it included such things as hoovers and automatic washing machines.
Disability campaigners and feminists at the time recognised the discrimination in this system and published detailed criticisms of it*. Eventually, as a result of campaigning by various organisations, the practical difficulties identified by the policy makers and increasing pressure from equal opportunities policies, HNCIP was abolished and replaced by a non-contributory benefit which the same for all men and women: Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) in 1984. This benefit had its own problems which I’ll write about another time.
All mod cons or living in a slum
While HNCIP still existed, policy makers took the whole problem of assessing capacity for housework seriously and conducted inquiries and reports into whether it was possible to make the household duties test work better. In one of these reports the authors pointed out that questions about the ability to carry out ‘normal household duties’ depended very much on the social circumstances of the claimant:
‘In the matter of shopping, a definition would have to cover the different requirements of a housewife with a car and a telephone on the one hand and on the other hand of another housewife living in a tower block half a mile from a bus stop with neither car nor telephone. Similarly a definition of cleaning duties would have to embrace the cleaning required not only in a modern purpose built bungalow full of mechanical aids but also in a slum tenement with neither hot water nor inside toilet facilities’
National Insurance Advisory Committee (1980) Report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee on a question relating to the household duties test for non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: HMSO. p10
This may seem very dated to us today but illustrates very well how the social model of disability is better able to describe the challenges that disabled people have than a purely medical one. It is obvious that someone living in a bungalow with ‘all mod cons’ will be more able to keep their house clean than someone living in a slum and that a woman with a car and a phone can more easily do the shopping than another woman living in a high rise flat without these. If only policy makers could see that the same issues apply to assessing people’s ability to do paid work.
*For example, Lister, R. and Loach, I. (1978) Second Class Disabled – a report on the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign.