The word ‘housewife’ is the product of the marriage (pun intended) between capitalism and patriarchy, where breaking the word up yields two of the factors from each ideology which ultimately determine a woman’s social location. ‘House’ indicates the site of labour – the private sphere, and with ‘wife’ being an ascribed status in relation to a man legally bound as a husband through the marriage contract. Put together, the words naturalises the role of a married woman as the one to perform unpaid domestic labour in the home.
In other words, being a wife and performing unpaid labour become synonymous with each other. Housewife as a word is complicit in the erasure of agency of married women by defining them in terms of their relationships and the domestic obligations that correspond. Recognition of the word’s implications for nullifying self determination and agency renders it incompatible with a feminist politics which works to dismantle structural conditions of oppression, with language playing a key role in the same.
Work ascribed to women is not only valued less but also cheapened with the help of patriarchy which privileges masculinity over femininity.
In order to unpack why ‘housewife’ is a problematic word, the idea of ‘work’ must be problematised. One of the key ideas that capitalism tries to sell is the equation of financial capital with agency. What is left unquestioned is the kind of work which is monetarily valued under capitalism and the kind which is not. Most often, work ascribed to women according to traditional gender roles are not only valued less, it is also cheapened with the help of the patriarchy which privileges masculinity over femininity. As a result, the work which women do, or are associated with doing, is valued less and feminine labour such as care-work and domestic chores become relegated to the unpaid or lesser paid end of the work spectrum.
Traditionally, masculine jobs are paid for and have hence been defined over time as ‘work’ as per a capitalist definition which incorporates income and profit into its logics. To then use the word housewife for women who don’t “work”, therefore, is to not only leave the idea of work unproblematised, it is also actively playing into a capitalist patriarchal ideology which requires a whole section of people’s work to be undervalued and therefore unpaid in order to sustain the machinery of production and profit.
If a wife’s duty, according to gender norms, is to sustain the family, the work which she does in the house in order to do so is her natural role and must therefore not be paid for.
The word also serves the essential function of devaluing domestic labour itself; by setting it up as oppositional to ‘actual work’, it implicitly negates the use value of work performed at home in order to make it sound logical to not have this work be paid for. If a wife’s duty, according to gender norms, is to sustain the family, the work which she does in the house in order to do so is her natural role and must therefore not be paid for. The naturalisation of this work also allows for it to be viewed as unskilled work, and further contributes to the devaluation of the same.
Ultimately, the word comes with all of these implications in order to justify not paying for or recognising domestic labour as real work. Additionally, the word allows for the privatisation of care and domestic labour due to the fact that reinforcing the easy congruity between housework and being a wife enables the state or governing entity to relegate this to the private sphere and not view it as worthy of public investment.
The implications of the word in lieu of all of these hidden meaning, therefore, are many. It reinforces the public/private divide which is often cited by many feminist scholars as a distinction that excludes women from integrating into civil society by confining them to their traditional gender roles within the private sphere.
It is also not gender neutral, as unpaid labour in the home as the domain of the work that housewives do is specific to women; with its association with femininity, men escape the devaluation and therefore do not have a commonly used counterpart to the word housewife. The word when used for women ties in capitalist exploitation with patriarchal subordination to create an identity which does not allow for thinking about these women as having agency of their own.
When being a ‘housewife’ is associated with “not working,” the importance of domestic labour in sustaining capitalism is swept aside and women are made to feel devalued as subjects themselves.
While unpaid domestic work must be challenged for its devaluation, the power dynamics within an employer-employee relationship under capitalism may have the harmful potential to exacerbate women’s subordination in their roles as wives. It must be noted that the function which unpaid labour performs for capitalist patriarchy is reproduction of labour power, or work which allows for someone else to re-enter the workforce to engage in paid labour everyday. When being a ‘housewife’ is associated with ‘not working’, the importance of domestic labour in sustaining capitalism is swept aside and women are made to feel devalued as subjects themselves.
There is therefore a need for a new word which recognises these inconsistencies with respect to feminist practice, which would then interrogate the conditions leading to devaluation of work instead of allowing the same to sustain themselves through the word. While ‘homemaker’ is one such alternative that has gained mainstream traction and does away with the ‘wife’ suffix, it still does not address the fact that capitalism relies on the devaluation of this work and of the people who do it in order to perpetuate itself, and once again leaves the oppressive origins of such work unproblematised.
A new word for unpaid domestic labour can be conceptualised once the question of work itself is deconstructed, which may then address the question of ascribing value to different kinds of work according to gender norms and stereotype.
Featured Image Credit: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India