The Women of Wages for Housework

The Factory in the Family

The radical vision of Wages for Housework.


In 1975, women in Iceland went on strike, from their domestic responsibilities as well as their day jobs. The strike, organized by women’s councils across the country after the United Nations declared 1975 as International Women’s Year, saw some 25,000 women in the streets of Reykjavík alone. In the strike’s aftermath, Iceland elected Europe’s first female president, and the country formally outlawed gender discrimination in 1976. Iceland’s gaps in pay and education became among the world’s smallest.

To the women of the Wages for Housework movement, the Icelandic strike was a salutary example of their politics in action. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, and feminist, the movement argued that by focusing on women’s unpaid labor inside the home—child care, cleaning, emotional support, even sex—activists could highlight more fundamental inequalities based on gender. And the best way to do so was to refuse to do that kind of work. As the International Feminist Collective (IFC), which launched the Wages for Housework campaign, wrote in a press release: “We don’t want just to demonstrate our strength but to use it and increase it to get what we want…. We are tired of our work and of not having any time of our own.”

That press release is just one of the trove of documents collected in the new book Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972–1977: History, Theory, Documents. Published by Autonomedia and edited by Silvia Federici, one of the core members of that committee, and artist and scholar Arlen Austin, Wages for Housework is one of those rare books that takes the reader inside the theory and practice of a radical movement, reproducing posters and flyers, photographs, internal strategy papers, and media clips along with previously published articles.

Wages for Housework helps to recover a movement that had modest origins but spread around the world within several years. From the gathering in Padua, Italy, that launched the international campaign in 1972 to the spin-off groups like the New York Committee, the women of Wages for Housework made arguments and demands that were well ahead of their time, helping to fill in the gaps overlooked by the mostly male left and the mostly liberal mainstream feminist movement, both of which have long excluded the home and the processes of social reproduction from their activism and thinking.

As the IFC’s launch statement (which served as a founding document for the New York Committee) put it:

We identify ourselves as Marxist feminists, and take this to mean a new definition of class, the old definition of which has limited the scope and effectiveness of the activity of both the traditional left and the new left. This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity, i.e., the exploitation, of the labor of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it. Such an analysis of class presupposes a new area of struggle, the subversion not only of the factory and office but of the community.

To demand wages was to acknowledge that housework—i.e., the unwaged labor done by women in the home—was work. But it was also a demand, as Federici and others repeatedly stressed, to end the essentialized notions of gender that underlay why women did housework in the first place, and thus amounted to nothing less than a way to subvert capitalism itself. By refusing this work, the Wages for Housework activists argued, women could help see to “the destruction of every class relation, with the end of bosses, with the end of the workers, of the home and of the factory and thus the end of male workers too.”

In a moment when women’s protests and talk of class struggle are both resurgent, the intersectional analysis that Wages for Housework put forth (years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term) is more relevant than ever. It noted that to ignore women’s wageless work is also to ignore that of so many others, from the slaves who built the United States to those who still labor basically unwaged in prisons: “In capitalism,” as the Wages for Housework committee members wrote in 1974, “white supremacy and patriarchy are the supremacy and patriarchy of the wage.”

But Wages for Housework also sought to improve women’s lives in more immediate ways, through struggles around health care and reproductive rights, Social Security, and the criminalization of sex workers, and it showed the possibilities of radical action even in the most conservative of eras.

Wages for Housework was critical of the understanding of work both on the socialist left and in mainstream feminism. It criticized liberal feminists for embracing work as liberation, for turning away from reproduction as an issue or viewing it narrowly through the lens of abortion rights, and it criticized socialists for overlooking the work that occurred off the factory floor. In the 1980s, members of the New York Committee, which had disbanded in 1977, put out Tap Dance, a journal reproduced in this volume and strikingly similar to the zines that were published only a few years later during the Riot Grrrl movement, which criticized feminism that had turned too polite and directed too much of its energy toward lobbying, petitioning, letter-writing, and legislating at the federal level. “This is like facing the rising flood water with a tea cup,” the group wrote, a sentiment hard not to sympathize with today.

There are plenty of collections by the women of Wages for Housework—Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero and Selma James’s Sex, Race and Class are great entry points—but the gift that this one gives is a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of an activist movement. Drawing inspiration from Italian workerism and Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Wages for Housework understood the nuclear family not as “natural” but as a hierarchical structure particular to a certain period of capitalism. As men’s wages continued to rise and, in the second half of the 20th century, more married working-class women made homemaking their job, their husbands effectively became their bosses and their work a supposed labor of love. Moreover, that ideological conception shaped the wages that women were paid if they did take jobs outside the home.

In order to challenge these artificial divisions of life into work and home or work and love, the women of the New York Committee organized in the places where rank-and-file workers (homemakers) had strategic power. This could be particularly tricky, since housework was necessarily isolated. But they developed a new set of tactics, including strategic outreach to the media, gaining coverage in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Life magazine, and more, as well as creating their own pamphlets and leaflets, designed to be accessible to everyone they reached (materials in Spanish, materials targeted at particular groups, etc.). The New York Committee opened a Brooklyn storefront where meetings could be held and where women from the community could drop in; the committee also set up promotional tables at local events like the Atlantic Antic, selling Wages for Housework–themed pot holders and distributing information. Its members also frequented supermarkets, laundromats, and other “places where housework has to some degree already been socialized,” treating them as the rare shop floors for workers mostly isolated in the home. They wrote of marches and demonstrations as measures of their strength, what Jane McAlevey and other labor organizers call “structure tests.” They helped to organize four international conferences to bring the network together.

In the documents, one finds tension as well as collaboration among the Wages for Housework activists, especially concerning questions related to the group’s structure and leadership. The group’s members believed in organizing autonomously; while they would join other struggles in solidarity, they would do so only on their own terms. They also struggled to find a model for organization that agreed with their ideals; they rejected hierarchical structures and vanguard parties, but they also tried to avoid fetishizing “spontaneity,” and they pointed out the problems with consensus-based decision-making. Federici writes of the tension “between reformism and radicalism, between the wage as compensation for housework and the wage as subversion of this work…. But it was in learning to balance these contradictory sides of the wage that our group was formed” (emphasis hers).

In keeping with the idea that Wages for Housework’s perspective could be brought to bear on various struggles rather than a single specific one, the New York Committee became involved with labor campaigns at waged workplaces like the Maimonides Community Mental Health Center, where some of the group’s members were employed as unionized workers. They demanded improvements for all women in the facility—including the women patients. In this struggle, as in others, they wrote of resisting the “blackmail” that told them they should work out of love—a counterpart to the blackmail they faced at home.

Wages for Housework organizers also became involved in the struggle around welfare, in solidarity with welfare-rights organizations and the black women who often headed them. The framework that sprang from these efforts was a precursor to what is today called reproductive justice: an analysis created by black women organizers that, as the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts writes, “includes not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.”

This broader definition of reproductive freedom was based on an understanding that biology should not be destiny—a key idea in much of Wages for Housework’s activism. To refuse women’s role in the home was to challenge the very idea of gender binaries. While mainstream feminists turned away from reproduction in these years to focus on the workplace, Wages for Housework activists insisted that the issues were linked. “We refuse work as a labor of love and the identity (‘femininity’) that capital has imposed on us,” the group’s 1974 Theses on Wages for Housework insisted. Femininity, like housework itself, is a skill learned by women, not a natural part of their being. And devaluing women’s skills has served to maintain capitalism.

The attacks on women who received Aid to Families With Dependent Children gave Wages for Housework an opportunity to test this argument—welfare was, after all, a form of state payment for child-rearing, and an attack on women who made use of it was thus an attack on all women who were forced to bear the burden of reproductive work without pay. The National Welfare Rights Organization and other groups that fought to broaden the AFDC program inspired their organizing and prompted the founding of Black Women for Wages for Housework in 1976. The recognition of this area of struggle by mainstream feminism would have helped to make it more accessible to working-class women, in particular black women, as well as some women otherwise drawn to the anti-abortion right.

The insistence that welfare was a burden on the working class rather than a wage for essential caring labor produced by women in the home relied on the stigma attached to people who had long been wageless, an idea that, Federici argued in a 1975 document, was “an essential aspect of racism and sexism and a reinforcement to both…” (emphasis hers).

Inspired by welfare-rights activists, the Wages for Housework organizers took up a series of other reproductive issues related to poor women, including forced sterilization. Real reproductive freedom, they argued, was more than abortion rights; rather, it was, as a 1975 pamphlet noted, “The power to decide whether or not we want to have children, when, how many, and under what conditions.”

One of the most controversial elements of the campaign, and the one that the press often seized on for prurient interest, was the idea that sex is part of the housewife’s work, the most intimate duty expected of her in order to keep her man satisfied and ready to go to his day job. If there’s one thing that middle-class women want to be called less than “housewife,” it’s “prostitute”—and yet the Wages for Housework campaign emphasized that sex, in a system where women were economically dependent on men, could never be entirely freely chosen. It’s worth remembering, in the service of this argument, that before 1979 most definitions of rape in the United States explicitly excluded spouses. Beyond that, as Lily Rothman noted not long ago in Time, “saying ‘no’ to one’s husband was usually grounds for him to get a divorce”—or, in Wages for Housework’s terms, to fire his recalcitrant employee.

Of course, for many if not most people, sex is the ultimate thing that should be done for love, not money. In challenging this idea, Wages for Housework struck at a deep-seated taboo. As Federici wrote, “To admit that sexuality is work is difficult for women, because if this too is work then nothing is left and we seem to be condemned to a profound loneliness.” But this was an important point for the group; it added to the debates of the time about heterosexuality’s compulsory nature and how power shapes sexual relations. “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known,” Federici declared in “Wages Against Housework.” It also brought Wages for Housework activists into solidarity with sex workers, in campaigns that ranged from Californian legislative battles to the occupation of an Anglican church by the English Collective of Prostitutes.

The New York Committee also had a ringside seat for the onset of austerity politics in the United States during the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s, including cuts to social services and an increased disciplining of the public-sector workforce that often hit women the hardest, since they both used social services and staffed the public-sector workforce disproportionately (not to mention also dealt with the emotional fallout of the crisis at home). The “labor of love” framework was a useful tool in that moment, to demand that public-sector workers do more with less out of a love for their jobs, their clients, their families. At the same time, as more women entered the waged workplace, they took the “labor of love” framework with them—a feminism that anticipated Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and assumed that women’s new labors of love would be in climbing corporate ladders and finding fulfillment on the job.

In these moments, Wages for Housework argued, mainstream feminist desires to crack the glass ceiling wound up just piling more work on women’s shoulders. In Tap Dance, composed at the height of the Reagan era, some members of the now-defunct New York Committee acidly noted that, contrary to the dreams of both left and right, Americans were going to face not reindustrialization but rather a downward spiral of layoffs and cuts to public-sector programs, as well as less demand, less production, and, importantly, less “socialized reproduction.” Women would have to bear the brunt of this, entering into the waged workforce while, as the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild noted, doing a second shift of housework. Instead of collective liberation, this meant that everyone was now subject to even more work.

Domestic-worker organizer Ai-jen Poo has noted that the challenges workers face in the 21st century are increasingly those that paid domestic workers faced all along: isolation, irregular hours, exclusion from labor laws. One might add that they are also the challenges that women have faced all along. As Federici and Nicole Cox, another Wages for Housework activist, pointed out in 1975, the “self-management” and “workers’ control” touted by managers attempting to soothe restive workers and cut workspace costs had “always existed in the home.” Even if work was privatized, individualized, and personalized, that didn’t make it less work; it just meant “a bit more of the factory in the family (higher efficiency and productivity of housework) and a bit more of the family in the factory (more individual concern, responsibility, identification with work).”

The logic of temporary labor has always been gendered. The very first temp agencies were designed around women earning “pin money” with a part-time gig, the so-called “Kelly Girl” who was convenient for a boss to hire (and fire) when needed and who would still be home in time to cook dinner for her husband. In this way, while the labor of poor women was devalued with the stigma of the lazy welfare mother, the labor of middle-class women was devalued as a hobby for their entertainment. Kelly Services still exists, though its marketing is no longer gendered and the company now provides plenty of workers to assembly lines as well as secretarial desks. Even more notably, its ideology has been adopted via a thousand apps through which people can hire a temporary worker to clean their house, bring them dinner, or drive them home. The gig economy has even been called “the Internet of stuff your mom won’t do for you anymore,” making the housework connection crystal clear.

Federici and Cox seemed to anticipate this too when they wrote that the wage was used to obscure the length of the working day and to artificially compartmentalize “work” as the time spent on the shop floor or in the office instead of also in the home. These days, as more and more people work from home and carry a smartphone wherever they go, the lines have become increasingly blurred. “The time we consume in the social factory, preparing ourselves for work, or going to work, restoring our ‘muscles, nerves, bones, and brains’ with quick snacks, quick sex, movies, etc., all this appears as leisure, free time, individual choice,” they wrote, and it is easy to add “quick tweets, quick Instagrams” to that list.

In a collection like this, it’s certainly possible that the editors have simply left out all the less prescient-seeming documents, but to read Wages for Housework in 2018 is to wish that the movement’s arguments had won the intra-left and intra-feminist debates decades ago, especially since they’re the very same debates we’re still embroiled in today. The results of the 40-year experiment in labor discipline that has marked the neoliberal era are clear, but it is shocking how many of them were visible from a Brooklyn storefront in 1975. And reading Wages for Housework in the midst of the #MeToo moment, one understands afresh what it means to say that our conditions in the home, the expectation that we “naturally” like the way we’re treated, have slipped into the waged workplace. The poster on the cover of this collection proclaims: “We want wages for every dirty toilet, every indecent assault, every painful childbirth, every cup of coffee, and every smile, and if we don’t get what we want we will simply refuse to work any longer!” As the journalist Kristen Gwynne recently noted concerning her own #MeToo moment, “Even if the people who did target me were punished, I still feel like I deserve some sort of compensation. I don’t want them to release a public apology—I want them to send me a check.”

What would the compensation be for every indecent assault reported in the past few months? At a conference last year at which Federici, Austin, James, and many others spoke, Sara Clarke Kaplan—a noted scholar of slavery—silenced the room when she turned the frame of Wages for Housework over and called it a reparations demand. What would reparations look like for all of this? When you begin to add up the bill, you understand why the organizers of the Wages for Housework campaign considered their demand a revolutionary one.

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