Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview
by Ian Sinclair
15 May 2020
A London-based journalist specialising in gender, human rights and social trends, in March Sally Howard published The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes.
A brilliant and inspiring book that attempts to “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Ian Sinclair asked Howard who does the dishes today, the impact of key life events and how coronavirus might change things.
Ian Sinclair: Many people may think there is broad equality in the UK in terms of housework today – certainly compared to the past. Can you summarise what the evidence tells us about domestic labour today?
Sally Howard: There’s a common misconception, fuelled by our onus on women’s gains in the public sphere (closing the Gender Pay Gap, for example, and equalising women’s representation in politics), that the feminist revolution on the home front has been fully achieved. And yes British males today contribute much more in terms of domestic effort than their 1970s counterparts: 18 hours a week compared to the one hour 20 minute contribution of 1971 man. However, British women still put in 60 percent more effort into these often mundane and repetitive tasks – 26 hours a week of cooking and cleaning, not to mention the invisible domestic administration we now refer to as ‘the mental load’. More troublingly, male efforts appear to have gone into reverse since the 1990s, with today’s male contributing an hour less to these tasks, each week, than his 1998 counterpart.
IS: I was particularly interested in your assertion that key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Can you explain more?
SH: Yes, there’s a phenomenon I call ‘the Parent Labour Trap’ – the fact that no matter how egalitarian a heterosexual couple are before the arrival of children, multiple factors conspire, once children are on the scene, to ‘discipline’ men and women into traditional breadwinning and housekeeping roles. First amongst these is the Gender Pay Gap, which often means it makes sense for a woman to put her career on the backburner to prioritise a higher income. Then there is the persistent stigma against male early-years primary caring that leads to our poor uptake of Shared Parental Leave (only two percent of eligible British males exercise their right to share leave). As I argue in the book, hands-on male primary parenting is the foundation of establishing egalitarian domestic arrangements in a family household (as seen in the Swedish model, where state-funded ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave quotas lead to a much higher uptake of male parenting leave and a consequent fairer division of domestic labour). There’s also a surprising societal resistance to non-traditional domestic roles in childed families, with 72 percent of respondents to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey saying mothers of pre-school children should stay at home or only work part time. Add the fact that men with children tend to be promoted more readily, and it’s very easy for even the most progressive couples to slide into traditional domestic arrangements. My book finds that the arrival of a child increases the domestic labour load by around three hours a day – all of that wiping up and toy- tidying – and that two hours and 40 minutes of these extra labours fall to women.
IS: You note the politics of housework was a central concern of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, but has fallen off the feminist agenda since then. Why do you think this happened?
SH: Yes domestic labour – in fabulous activist movements such as Wages for Housework – was a central plank of the Second Wave feminism. Partly this was down to the fact that these feminisms were an outgrowth of the socialist left. Wages for Housework, for example, was inspired in the workerist movements that took root in Italy in the 1960s. By the 1980s mainstream feminism had, following theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon, turned its attention to gains in women’s legal rights and in the public sphere. On one hand the dirty business of housework became unsexy, associated with the housewives working feminists no longer wanted to be. On the other a lazy compact was made, with some middle-class women passing domestic labour to other subordinate women, often along race and class lines. In the 1980s we saw a huge rise in low-paid childcare and per-hour domestic cleaning as many women paid other women to account for the fact men aren’t pitching in more. Of course this offloading of ‘women’s work’ along race and class lines was a breathtaking failure of feminist solidarity.
IS: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities seeking to address the issue. Can you talk about your favourite?
SH: One of my favourites actually isn’t included in the book. The House of Nobodies in La Paz is a progressive all-gender feminist community where housework, undertaken by all members, is degendered, allocated by lottery and paid for out of a central pot. It’s a modern take on the ideas expounded by Wages for Housework: that attributing fiscal value to these tasks clearly designates them as ‘work’, rather than the natural-born gifts of woman’s love. I also love built community fixes to uneven division of labour, however, such as the utopian socialist society designed by self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin in the 1910s, in which ‘kitchenless homes’ were connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. These utopian ideas might seem fanciful, but in fact we can no longer afford our inefficient nuclear family dwellings on environmental as well as social justice grounds. I argue for radical new ideas around post-fossil fuel communalism.
IS: You mention Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein’s belief that transformative change is most likely to occur during and after societal crises. Do you think the coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented impacts it is having on society could be one such crisis?
SH: Absolutely. On one hand we’re seeing worrying signs in terms of the impact of the crisis on gendered care work – as childcare and the cooking of three meals a day are abruptly shifted from the paid to the unpaid economy it’s women who are, in many cases, picking up the slack (a sharp rise in women’s unemployment in the US is likely to be matched by UK figures). On the other hand, this crisis is a brutal reminder that the care labour we all rely on to survive is not work that ‘just gets done’. Despite the blip of the 1950s, with its myth of the Perfect Housewife in her Ideal Home, the two world wars were huge system shocks that ushered in radical changes in social roles and set the ground for Second Wave feminism. I hope that this will be the case for the Covid-19 crisis, not least in terms of our increased appreciation for the ‘pink collar workers’ – the cleaners, nurses and carers – who are at the frontline of the Coronavirus battle and whose poorly remunerated labour is part of the broader picture of our social devaluation of ‘women’s work’.
The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.