Domesticity Is Not Slavery

The New York Times recently ran a piece titled “Women’s Unpaid Labor is Worth $10,900,000,000,000.” It was exactly as cynical and one-sided as one might expect.

Though the piece masqueraded as a simple survey of women’s often-unseen contributions to society (in honor of International Women’s Day), the piece slipped into the quasi-Marxist commercialist drivel that has come to dominate our society. In so doing, it exposed a misconception at the heart of American thought about labor, money, and society, namely, that things are worthless unless they have a dollar value attached to them—and that people who do something without getting paid for it must be getting exploited.

As G. K. Chesterton put it, “[Feminism] is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands.” The feminist way of thinking in The New York Times article is viciously reductionistic, and completely ignores the intangible benefits that come from women’s so-called “unpaid labor”—benefits to society, families, and men, certainly, but, even more, benefits to women.

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Now a few caveats: 1) If someone fairly expects to get paid for a task and then is not, that is exploitation and should not be tolerated. 2) Women have been unjustly barred from participating fully in society throughout history, an injustice that continues in certain societies today and should be called out. 3) Women who do choose to enter the marketplace as employees ought to be compensated equally with their male counterparts. None of that, however, is at stake in The New York Times piece.

The piece could be a celebration of how much women contribute to society and how much more beauty and joy there is in the world because of their selfless labor, but it isn’t. It is not even an exposé claiming to shine light on differences in pay between employed women and men. Instead, it documents a massive contribution that women make to society and implies that the fact that they aren’t getting paid for the contribution is an injustice.

Consider the opening sentence: “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year.” The sentence does not note how many households benefited from women’s attention, or how many elderly people received care from women in their lives. Rather, it reduces these humane acts to a dollar amount, and then implies that there is something unfair about the fact that women were not paid for doing these acts of charity.

This is a key point: these are acts of charity that women are engaged in, and that on a massive scale. And while it’s certainly possible that they would rather not be doing some of these things (I will admit, I am sometimes quite tired of washing dishes and tidying the house), the piece completely ignores another possibility, i.e., that they are doing these tasks out of love.

Everybody who has ever done something out of love knows that such tasks are their own reward. What some people don’t know is that converting one’s work-of-love into a work-of-earning-money truly does change the nature of the work. Artists certainly experience this when they transition to being professionals; suddenly the task of art takes on the nature of labor. The demands of the market begin to weigh heavily. And even in the midst of the thrill of being compensated for one’s creative work, many artists feel a sense of loss.

This shows in our very language: people who practice a craft, an art, a sport, or a work without an eye to monetary gain are called amateurs, which comes from the Latin work for lover. People who do things without worrying about whether or not they are getting paid for it are lovers. Professional, on the other hand, means one who does something for a living. While there is certainly nothing wrong with moving from being an amateur to being a professional, there is a profound spiritual difference between being a lover of a task and being a person who does a task for a living.

The article makes reference to a day in Iceland in 1975 when almost all women in the country refused to “cook, clean, or look after children.” The New York Times lauds this as a courageous moment in which Iceland’s women took control of their own lives by showing lazy and unthankful men just how much society owed to women. In reality, this childish stunt looks more like an abandonment of common decency. Imagine for a moment that the situation had gone the other way: for a day, all men in the country refused to go to work, regardless of the consequences for their professional futures, or do anything else to support their families. This boycott would quickly be seen and condemned for the immature attention-seeking that it was. It is difficult to think well of a mother who, for the sake of making a political statement, refuses to cook and care for her own children. In refusing to participate in these actions, the women of Iceland unwittingly revealed the secret about much of what we think of as “women’s work”: it has its roots in love and selflessness.

The article celebrates the Iceland boycott as a triumph and notes that, “Today, women there have one of the highest rates of labor force participation in the world.” The unspoken assumption is that, in an ideal society, as many women as possible would be in the labor force.

This, of course, leaves several huge unanswered questions. If, like men, all women must participate in the labor force in order for a family to simply survive, who will take on those acts of charity—the raising of children, the caring for the elderly, and the making of a beautiful home? Will the government step in? Will this work somehow be split between men and women? Who will manage or mandate the division of labor? And, on a less tangible level, what effect will this systemization of what is supposed to be act of love have on the quality of our lives?

Finally, what about the reality that, for many women, being at home and participating in these small acts of charity is far preferable to being involved in the so-called “labor force”? Today I took our son to the park, stopping at a coffee shop on the way home for pastries to help support this small business during coronavirus. I tidied up the house, took my toddler outside to throw rocks in the pond, made my husband’s lunch, and made dinner. During my son’s nap, I did a few hours of work that I will be compensated for, but the rest of my day falls into this “unpaid labor” category that The New York Times article bemoans.

But then I compare my day with my husband’s day: he spent nine hours in the home office, the smallest room in the house, with his headset on, taking calls for work. He’s working remotely right now; normally, he would have left the house at 6:30 a.m. and not gotten home until 5:30 p.m. (at the earliest).

His job isn’t bad. It’s salaried and has benefits. For all that, I would not trade my unpaid day for his paid day. And I am not alone; many women delight in their capacity to create a beautiful home for their husband and their kids. We feel that our husbands’ commitment to going to work each day so that we can stay home—outside the hyper-commercialized materialistic vortex that makes up so much of American society—is a sacrifice on their part and a blessing to us.

G.K. Chesterton observes in his essay “The Emancipation of Domesticity” that might make feminists cringe, but it should not. He writes,

Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school-mistress, but not a competitive school-mistress; a house decorator, but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker…. She, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests…. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful.

Here, Chesterton is celebrating the woman’s wonderful capacity to live as an “amateur,” a lover who lives her life in devotion to what she loves because she loves it, not because it might benefit her financially. Women in this sphere are, according to Chesterton, truly free in a way that men employed in the labor force cannot be.

The New York Times may be correct: perhaps women’s unpaid labor really is “worth” some obscene sum of money. But there are other things besides money. There is freedom from the demands of the market. There is beauty in making a home as well as spontaneity and fun in playing with children. There is love in caring for elderly neighbors or family members. And none of those things has a price tag.

Image: One of the Family by Frederick George Cotman


  • Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a senior contributor at Crisis. Her work has previously appeared in National Review, The American Conservative, and The Intercollegiate Review.

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