Labour Relations

Four days after the city where I live flooded, I cleaned my house. I swept floors, took out the rubbish, tidied the living room. I emptied the compost and cleaned the kitchen. Even though I live on a hill, beyond the reach of floodwaters, my body hurt with anxiety and dread. Cleaning my home, and moving about its spaces, helped ground me.

There is plenty of research that supports what I and many other women know anecdotally: in many parts of the world, including Australia, women typically do most of the unpaid domestic and care work in a household, even when both partners in a heterosexual couple work the same number of hours in paid labour. We also know that, because this reproductive work (like cleaning, cooking and caring) overwhelmingly falls to women, and because it is unpaid, women are socially and economically disadvantaged in our monetary society; we retire with far less superannuation than men and are increasingly at risk of homelessness later in life. It can be helpful to know this: that a personal struggle with the drudgery of housework, time poverty and the mental and emotional load is not one’s personal failing, but part of a systemic pattern.

My relationship with housework is somewhat complicated by the fact that I, honestly, enjoy it. Not when the load is oppressive, not when what I do is unnoticed and unappreciated, not when I’m cleaning up after others – but, when the conditions are okay, I find something deeply meaningful in the repetitive, cyclical and embodied practices of tending to my home.

THE LATE PHILOSOPHER Iris Marion Young recognised that the home has ambiguous meaning for women. In her 2005 essay, House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme, Young furthers feminist criticism of women’s oppressed position within the home – where women ‘serve, nurture, and maintain so that the bodies and souls of men and children gain confidence and expansive subjectivity to make their mark on the world’. This role often leaves women, and especially mothers, largely confined to the home and, as Young points out, usually deprived of ‘support for their own identity and projects’.

home is both container and anchor, critical to our sense of identity and selfhood.

Noting this, she says she is not ready to ‘toss the idea of home out of the larder of feminist values’, suggesting that as well as acknowledging the negative value that the home represents for women and feminism, we can also recognise the positive values that can be found in the home as a place of potential pleasure, meaning, nurturance and safety.

Young is particularly interested in homemaking and the value in cultivating and preserving house and home. As she explains in her essay, a home is different to, say, a hotel room because it contains the objects that bring meaning – whether mundane or profound – to our lives. Homes, but not hotel rooms, also take the shape of the well-worn paths of our daily habits and therefore (if we have access to a safe and stable home) provide a comfortable space in which to become ourselves.

In this sense, home is both container and anchor, critical to our sense of identity and selfhood. It is women, according to Young, who do the work of turning house into home. The practice of homemaking is a meaningful human project because, Young says, of the ‘preservation’ work that it involves: in preserving space, place and memory. Both family mementos and everyday objects are kept, maintained and remembered. Through the daily activities that sustain the bodies that dwell within a home, objects and spaces are imbued with meaning.

I agree, but Young makes a troubling distinction between homemaking and housework. The individuality involved in homemaking distinguishes it, she says, from the drudgery of housework (the ‘anonymous and general’ tasks of cleaning grime, washing clothes and sweeping floors). I think it is a mistake to deny any meaningful human value in the – yes, repetitive; yes, often dirty – work involved in keeping a household running and in facilitating the care of self and (human, plant, animal) others.

As feminists and advocates for the recognition of women’s reproductive work and care have long pointed out, women’s work in and around the home is often invisible (and unvalued) precisely because it is repetitive. A clean house becomes dirty again, becomes clean, becomes dirty, becomes clean, becomes dirty. In this sense, housework doesn’t usually produce anything – a finished ‘product’ or completed artefact – and it often gets done without others noticing that anything needed doing in the first place. But this is where the value in housework might actually lie: rather than producing a completed artefact, housework requires a continual and never-ending relation to place, where the artefact or ‘product’ is always in-process, never finished.

WHAT I ENJOY about housework has much to do with what I enjoy about gardening. In my garden I find pleasure in the slow and regular tasks of pulling out weeds, fixing up garden netting, watering plants, sweeping – tasks that, like housework, only become visible if they aren’t done.

Both house and garden require a continual returning to place with a cyclical kind of regularity to keep things running and thriving. It’s this continual returning – what I think of as tending – that I think holds meaningful human value. Where Young’s ‘preservation’ implies something almost static (an object, once created, is preserved), tending calls on us each day to observe, notice, and respond over and over and over again.

Today, feminised work is often ‘backgrounded’: a term the late Australian ecofeminist and philosopher Val Plumwood used to describe the ways that women, as well as ‘the environment’, serve as resources to be drawn from to facilitate ‘more meaningful’ human endeavours.

The practices involved in tending, then, position women – who this work typically falls to – in a particular relation to the world. Through the daily work involved in reproducing and sustaining life in relationship with the cycles of life, death, decay and renewal, women notice and come to know things that others don’t. The practices of tending bring us into closer relationship with an object or place the longer we do it. The more we return to a kitchen bench or a patch of earth, the more we notice and the more we come to know.

In patriarchal capitalist contexts, the essential and important practices involved in reproductive work and care are devalued, both in monetary and cultural terms. Housework is deemed non-work, and caring professions – those that deal with sustaining life – are usually poorly paid and poorly respected. But the way of being in the world that tending and care facilitate holds immense value – ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva and Ariel Salleh argue it should be looked to as an ethical model of being in the world amid a culture of colonial, ecologically destructive, neoliberal capitalism.

Ecofeminism draws links between the oppression of women and the destruction of ecological systems. Today, feminised work is often ‘backgrounded’: a term the late Australian ecofeminist and philosopher Val Plumwood used to describe the ways that women, as well as ‘the environment’, serve as resources to be drawn from to facilitate ‘more meaningful’ human endeavours. Women, Plumwood claims, are socially positioned to ‘provide the environment and conditions against which male “achievement” takes place’. In this context, what women do – in the home or elsewhere – ‘is not itself considered as achievement’. Cooking meals, watering plants, cleaning toilets, making beds, washing towels, sweeping paths. These necessary activities help sustain life, yes, but could also be considered worthy endeavours in and of themselves if we adopt an ethic of life and care.

RETURNING TO YOUNG’S ESSAY on feminism and the home, valuing homemaking but not housework seems to me to run the risk of perpetuating what Plumwood criticised as the nature/culture dualism of Western thought, where one is defined by the exclusion of the other. So, too, are the values that are mapped onto these categories: man/woman, masculine/feminine, public/private, mind/body, heaven/earth, spirit/matter. In each case, one term is privileged over the other – and it’s typically the earthier, more bodily term that is denigrated. What about homemaking/housework, or preservation/tending?

I wonder if these hierarchical dichotomies exist in the garden, too, and whether the necessary but invisible practices of tending in the garden also fall mostly to women. I think so – in the ways that designing and constructing are venerated but the everyday practices of tending and keeping a garden growing and thriving are often rendered invisible. To recognise reproductive work and care in the home and garden as both necessary and meaningful is to pull them into the foreground. To me, this isn’t only about raising them up to become a fine art (like homemaking); it’s also about jamming the logic that tells us that life-making work – and handling the grime and decay of living – isn’t meaningful. It is to recognise the value in tending, growing and caring.