Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. Below, Michelle Chen responds to an exchange about a radical new campaign for “Wages for Wives” that ran in The Nation in 1926. Learn more about our 150th anniversary events and special content here.
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Amidst exploding stock markets and hedonic speakeasies, the middle-class homemaker of the Roaring Twenties wrestled with the question of power. In 1920, women had won the right to vote, but the fight for sexual and economic emancipation was just shifting into high gear. In the workplace, women achieved visibility as secretaries, shopkeepers and machinists; in dancehalls and boardwalks, ladies emerged as embodiments of leisure. Inside the home, the “New Woman” was redefining herself as a modern economic citizen, no longer only an assembly-line maven or a freewheeling flapper. In 1926, long before Wages for Housework emerged as a second-wave feminist slogan, The Nation debated “Wages for Wives,” and then like now, this absurdly reasonable concept titillated and threatened.
Arthur Garfield Hays, a leading civil libertarian lawyer, savaged the idea, presenting a dystopian scenario in which an idealistic couple tried to achieve equality by calculating a decent wage for the wife’s labor. Their naive quest entangles them in fiscal projections of every batch of laundry washed, each hour of childrearing, and even the theoretical opportunity cost of the woman having forgone another choice of husband. This wretched coupledom, not surprisingly, deteriorates into bitter anxiety, each partner so fixated on business matters, that they came to prefer the company of others for “off hours” leisure.
Eventually, the loving wife calcifies into an automaton, while the husband does little more than sign the checks, their vows reduced to a sound financial transaction. Even after their romance evaporates and the man moves into a hotel, he remains contractually obligated to pay for “services rendered.” The ousted master of the household wistfully contemplated, Hays wrote, “whether his wife still thought she should receive merely what she earned. He remembered that the biggest item paid to her was his sweetheart.” Hays (a recent divorcée) sounded an alarm to couples—or rather, to aggressively modern women—not to let the norms and practices of the workplace run roughshod over the domestic sphere.
In her rebuttal, Doris Stevens offers a new paradigm for the labor of love. Having worked as a teacher, social worker and organizer with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she proposed a rebranding of the home as a “joint stock company,” appealing defiantly to market logic: Women’s work was labor, caregiving was an indispensable economic contribution—ergo, fair wages were long overdue.