Thursday, April 19, 2012

Does housework count as real work?

Some time in the foreseeable past, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney described his wife, Ann, as his primary advisor on women's issues. His wife told him that women didn't care about feminism, they cared about the economy.

Democratic campaign consultant called Hilary Rosen set off a kerfuffle when she said that Ann Romney knew nothing about economics because she hadn't worked a day in her life. Staying home to raise five sons counted as working, Ann Romney said. This ignited a silly media row that I did my best to ignore. However, a couple of interesting items showed up on the Web as a result of this silly row.

One such item was Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's commentary. I think he's supposed to be a liberal. I found his post on the Truthdig Web site. Mr. Dionne basically agrees with the Romneys when he says
For millions of American moms and dads, debates about “feminism” or “social conservatism” are irrelevant. It’s about money.
He goes on to chastise Republicans and conservatives for undermining the economic foundation of most families that would allow one parent to choose to stay home.
This points to a contradiction that few conservatives want to confront. When trying to win votes from religious and social traditionalists, conservatives speak as if they want to restore what they see as the glory days of the 1950s family. But they are reluctant to acknowledge that it was the high wages of (often unionized) workers that underwrote these arrangements.

Yet on the right, economic conservatism almost always trumps social conservatism, and market imperatives almost always get priority over family imperatives. As a result, the United States has the weakest family-leave laws in the industrialized world. We have done far less than other well-off countries to accommodate the difficult work-family dilemmas that most moms and dads deal with in the new economy.
There's much in that second quote to agree with, but I'm left with the strong impression that Dionne considers women's freedom and women's lives irrelevant, unless these are considered as part of a family economy that affects men.

A much more interesting conversation about the topic of women and housework took place on Democracy Now!, where host Amy Goodman interviewed long-time activist and theorist Selma James. Back in 1952, James wrote a brilliant pamphlet called "A Woman's Place," and now James has published a book called Sex, Race, and Class, a collection of her essays.

James argues that the work of stay-at-home mothers is crucial to the operation of capitalism, because mothers reproduce labor. The housewife becomes the servant of the working husband, who relates to her in the same way the capitalist relates to him. That is, he pays her just enough to live on, while capturing goods and services with a value far beyond that.

Selma James says it better than I do. Here is the interview as it aired on Democracy Now! on April 16:

On the Democracy Now! Web site, you can view a longer version of the interview, complete with written transcript.

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