Yes, there is one great contribution humen can attain to feminism: pick up a mop | Helen Lewis

Our society and capitalism at large depends on the unpaid labour of women. But theres evidence that our gendered assumptions are hurting humen too

Last week, I got a cleaner in. Now I know what youre guessing. Ooh, get her, Lady Muck! Or perhaps: Typical middle-class feminist, offloading work on to an immigrant girl. Thats because youre sexist. But heres the thing. When the cleaner arrived he well, he was a he. A bloke. I was slightly freaked out. And thats because Im sexist too.

Our association of domestic labour with women is so ingrained that its hard to see its a social building rather than an immutable natural phenomenon. In her new movie Joy, Jennifer Lawrences character has her big idea a self-squeezing mop while cleaning up someone elses glass of spilled red wine. The responsibility doesnt fall on her ex-husband, who bought the liquor( to violations of strict instructions to stick to white) or the person who spilled it. It falls on the nearest available mother.

Of course, it is possible to make a class-based argument against having a cleaner that theres something alienating or repulsive about offloading inconvenient tasks to those lower down the income chain. But if thats the standard, we are wildly inconsistent about applying it.


Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in Joy. Jennifer Lawrences character has her big idea a self-squeezing mop while cleaning up someone elses glass of spilled red wine. Photo: Allstar/ 20 th Century Fox

Im guessing, for example, that you might have bought a cup of coffee recently from Pret or Greggs, rather than voyaged to the Amazon basin to harvest your own beans. If youre having fish for dinner, “youre supposed to” didnt spend this morning in waders, catching the slippery bugger. Most of us dont wire our own homes or service our own boilers, or construct our smartphones from scratch. And yet theres a deep resentment of working women who offload their domestic chores on to someone else, even as we tacitly had recognized that thats what working humen have done for decades.

For the last few years Ive been trying an experiment. I speak at a lot of feminist events, and often these involve an all-female panel. Often, a human pops up in the Q& A, or buttonholes me afterwards to ask why feminism has to build humen feel so unwelcome. Arent humen contributions valuable? Utterly, I cry with all the fake enthusiasm I can muster and there is one, huge contribution that humen can build to feminism: the washing up. Or the laundry, Im easy. Or running part-time while the kids are small.

At this point, the lighting in their eyes tends to die. It turns out that when they said they wanted humen to be involved in feminism, what they actually meant was have someone listen to their ideas about what feminists are currently doing incorrect. Not do a load of boring unpaid work in return for absolutely zero kudo. But as a 2012 report for the IPPR set it: On most key issues, the route to modern feminist objectives must pass through parents. Men should work more flexibly, take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes, and have the right to reserved parental leave.

I dont blame humen for taking one look at this proposition and thinking thanks, but no thanks. Over the last 50 years female participation in the workforce has increased tremendously, and the benefits to women are clear: more economic power, and more of the freedom of the media that brings. You might even call it empowering, if that word didnt build me want to beat myself to death with a Spice Girls CD. No such incentives apply to the idea of doing more unpaid labor in the home.

And so we are left with a series of bodged compromises, of which middle-class girls applying cleansers is simply the most obvious. I suspect robot butlers as per Mark Zuckerbergs scheme to spend 2016 house himself an artificial intelligence that can help around the house might be the next. Perhaps we can merely skip the bit where the burden transfers from girls to men and pass it straight off to laundry-folding robots?


A robot at a nurse residence in Florence, Italy. I suspect robot butlers as per Mark Zuckerbergs plan to spend 2016 house himself an artificial intelligence that can help around the house might be the next bodged compromise. Photo: Laura Lezza/ Getty Images

These fudges cover up the basic, inescapable fact that our society is dependent on unpaid labor, without which capitalism could not survive. In 2013, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that girls report spending an average of 13 hours on housework and 23 hours on caring for family members each week; the equivalent figures for men are 8 hours and 10 hours. We need to make this invisible labour visible.

In the 1970 s Selma James and her fellow activists demanded Wages for Housework; more recently, James criticised feminists who permitted the Blair government to decry workless mothers, when those women were often doing more than an eight-hour shift of caring labor. Iain Duncan Smiths welfare reforms have taken this idea to its logical conclusion: from 2017, single mothers( largely mothers) will be penalised by the benefit system for not working as soon as their children turn three. Yes, there will be some free childcare available, but not sufficient. This is outrageous, and had recently happened because we dont regard housework and childcare as real work.

The unfairness of our current positions was tackled in one of last years most thought-provoking volumes, Katrine Marcals Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner ?. The answer to the titles question, it turns out, is Adam Smiths mum. Widowed in her 20 s she depended on him financially, and he depended on her to have his tea ready after a hard days bashing out Big Supposes about economics. It is not from the kindnes of the butcher, the brewer, or the banker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest, wrote Smith, unaccountably failing to add: Oh, and from my mum, who feeds me in return for not starving herself.

Mrs Smith was, of course, a rational economic performer: she got something out of the bargain too. But todays working women dont “re going to have to” clean dishes to keep a roof over their heads. And so a whole social apparatus has formed to convince them to perpetuate the status quo: the cult of the domestic goddess; rhetoric about whether girls choose to have children or not, elbowing out any consideration of child-rearing as a social good; even the current bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, wherein Japanese folding guru Marie Kondo talks unselfconsciously about her seminars for housewives and mothers.

So can anything persuade humen that the domestic onu should be more somewhat distributed? I doubt it, but there is now, at the least, evidence that our gendered assumptions about labor are hurting humen too. Manufacturing, traditionally a male-dominated sector, is in long-term deterioration; at the same hour recent waves of migration to Britain have been majority female( 54% of the foreign-born population are females, according to Oxford Universitys Migration Observatory) because many of the jobs available are in the service sector. Men are now being disadvantaged by our racisms about women work, which hemorrhage out from housework into the idea that serving or caring for another human is demeaning to a mans dignity.

By the style, my male cleaner was brilliant. He mopped my floor so that I could generate an income from my work you know, the same thing girls have done for men for decades.

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