Wages for Housework by Louise Toupin
Published by Pluto Press, rrp £19.99

Review by Jane Sarre

This is the strangest book review I’ve offered since that one about the book I refused to read. In this case, I didn’t want to read Wages for Housework and I suspect you don’t want to read it either but I read it, and I think you should.

Unpaid household work, such as looking after children, doing laundry and cooking, is worth £1.24 trillion per year – more than the value of the UK’s retail and manufacturing output combined, according to ONS (Office for National Statistics) figures from 2016.

Women’s Work?
I’m not sure I’m happy with the current trend for giving everything a monetary value but, that aside, I’ll leave it to you to guess who in particular does this trillion-and-a-quarter’s worth of slog. This book is a record of feminism from the time when Wages for Housework was a big feminist line. You could say it won’t work as an idea now, because in most of the households where there is a male-female partnership, they mostly both work, and mostly both fret about housework rather than getting much done.

Nevertheless, it is still mostly the women who somehow manage to get the kids to school more or less dressed and fed, and mostly the women who do the thinking, and feel bad about the housework that isn’t being done. According to this book, there are still a heck of a lot more women than men doing a ‘double day’. Nevertheless again, I can see reasons why claiming wages for housework would be a really bad idea – but look, those reasons are listed on page 4. Read on, and find out how the (unsuccessful) WFH campaign was nevertheless fascinating in its attempt to bring together women from across the world, to make a serious attempt to include all classes, to include “whores, wives and dykes”, and to shine a light on, and thus politicise, the gendered assumptions around marriage, waged society and prostitution – ah yes…

Sex Work?
I was somewhat confused when a rep for sex workers gave a speech at an LRC event (the Labour Representation Committee) I went to in Brighton. On the one hand, it was interesting, and relevant to our anti-austerity drive because she told us that a large proportion of women who go into sex work do so out of financial hardship. We need to understand that in order to deal with it. The situations she mentioned ranged from benefit sanctions plus hungry kids through desperation to fund drug habits (the women’s own or their partners’) to out and out slavery in the form of sex-trafficking.

She went on to say ‘we are not ashamed of what we do’ and that the women would be safer if brothels and pimping were legal. I have to say that she seemed a bit uncomfortable in her repetitions of ‘we are not ashamed of what we do’ – it makes sense in one context – you do what you have to when desperation strikes – but is running a well-managed brothel really the best we can do for these women?

So looking back to the ‘70s ‘permissive’ attitude to all this, I just want to drop the book and yell ‘Nordic Model now!’ Sure, legalise what those women do, same as legalising individual drug use, it can help them to escape the trap but in our day a ‘permissive’ attitude is playing out around us as university students’ unions pile pornography and offers of sex work on their freshers, whilst the NHS has developed some startlingly informative pages about how to do sex work.

But nevertheless again, the determination of those women of the ‘70s to include sex workers caused a heck of a lot of meetings and conversations and there is much to be learned.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the update, given in the form of interviews with Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici about how their thought-journeys have progressed, and what feminism has been doing since.

Nowadays, we know the monetary value of everything, and professional women pay less privileged women a portion of their wages to do their housework for them, whilst UN-sanctioned feminists keep the discussion within the frames of captalism by arguing endlessly for equality between men and women within the system, whilst these women from the 1970s campaign have been off looking at the relationship of women to land and food, and fighting the progress of globalisation that degrades all those things.

The updates bring us well into this century, but there is no mention of the current battle by some women to hang on to the very definition of women – You may see that as a case for applause or regret but, as those respectable feminists are telling us, feminism is no longer the exclusive business of the reproductive class known as ‘female’, it’s a good time to look at how feminism got from there to here.

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