A woman's work is never done


“At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in the blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (Herman Melville – “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” 184?)

A woman’s work is never done

In this talk I am going to look generally at the issue of woman’s work. Initially a very quick survey of the global position – then some more specific stuff on wage differentials, house work, work conditions, child care in Europe and Ireland with some possible suggestions for some points for our new program maybe to be incorporated into a general section on work.

Finally I’m going to throw out a few points on prostitution to, at least, start debate which has been fairly lacking in the anarchist movement in general.

The Global picture

The following statistic is thrown up again and again on sites of unions, women’s groups, the global women’s strike and many others:

Women and Girls do 2/3 of the worlds work for 5% of the income (see for example COSATU 2000)

This statistic is referenced vaguely to the UN but unfortunately when you investigate the labarintine stats pages of the UN – no such figure exists. Obviously it was compiled from various sources by some one – but there’s no specific reference as to who or how – the sort of thing I for one find very frustrating.

That said other referenced stats do seem to indicate that this figure is in the right ball park if nothing else. For example the UN Department of Public Information threw up some summary statistics 10 years ago in 1997 which make for alarming reading.

These tell us amongst other things

Women have not achieved equality with men in any country in the world

Of the world’s 1.3 billion poor – 70% are women

75-80% of refugees are women and children

Women hold 11.7% of seats in parliament world wide
(in Ireland their representation dropped from 22 last time to 19 in the Dail just elected)

Two thirds of illiterate adults are women and two thirds of non-school going children are girls.

The value of women’s unpaid household and community work amounted to an estimated 11 trillion dollars in 1993.

An estimated 20 million unsafe abortions are performed world wide every year resulting in the death of 70,000 women.

World wide 20 to 50% of women are estimated to experience some form of domestic violence in marriage.

Here’s a few more statistics from the South African Union COSATU in 2000

1/3 of the world’s population depends on firewood for fuel all collected by women and children. In Asia many women and girls spend 5 hours a day gathering firewood. In Africa women and girls grow up to 80% of the food consumed there
It is clear that nothing short of a revolution is going to change this situation any time soon.

What about the prosperous capitalist west, Europe and Ireland in the age of the Celtic tiger.

– Pay inequality

Here we still see quite surprisingly large in-equalities.

The European Commission only this July launched a new action plan to address the European Gender Pay Gap which according to commissioner Vladimir Spidla shows no sign of closing (Irish Times July 19th 2007) One average women earn 15% less than men despite performing better educationally across the EU.
Even more alarmingly this gap is up to 25% in the private sector

Another EU report from 2006
(The Gender Pay Gap – Origans and policy responses)
The authors report that :

“the current trend towards a more decentralized and individualized system should in this respect be accessed as a rather worrying development. As wages are increasingly set at local or company level, inter firm and inter industry wage differences may increase thereby potentially increasing the gender pay gap”

So despite better education
(An Irish Times article from July 27th points out that the gender gap in performance between girls and boys at leaving cert level has increased from between 4-9% in the 1980s to 14% in Irish and English in recent years)
and more women in the workforce – the increased reliance negotiation of individual contracts is maintaining or even increasing the gap in the private sector.

The report claimed that the gap is only 9% in Ireland but ICTU pointed out that the Irish governments National Women’s Strategy report puts it at 14% and that the E U Commission report did not include people working for less than 15 hours a week – most of whom, of course, are women.

There are huge arguments on all these statistics – even comparing what appear to be similar occupations can be a nightmare with the 2006 EU report says that job evaluation systems themselves may be biased against women and that gender neutral job evaluation systems need to be considered. The only thing for sure is that across the board there is no country awarding equal pay for equal work – and that’s before we even consider the additional hours women put in at home and in volunteer and community work.

This brings us to the vexed issue of house work.


In the same July report the commission reckoned that working men (part or fulltime) contributed seven hours a week of unpaid house work – women contributed thirty five hours if they were part-time workers and twenty four hours if working fulltime.

Needless to say if we look at non workers this disparity increases further.
It’s very hard to get statistics for the proportion of house work down by males and females. Web searches just bring up articles on paid work from the home – this in itself says something about how this work is valued. According to a 1993 article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family on housework (based on 2031 America adults)

73.8% non-employed women are primarily engaged in housework and family care at home compared with 27.2% of the non-employed men. Certainly it seems clear that a massively disproportionate amount of housework is performed by women world wide. There is a small but growing population of house husbands but it is still very small I would reckon
(though an article I discovered from the Shangai Academy of Social Science reported in the Shangai Daily reported a massive 42.5% of stay at home male parent. Shangai Daily April 16 2007 – http://www.china.org.cn/english/China/207282.htm)

So women as well as being paid less and concentrated in part time precarious employment ALSO find themselves engaged in the bulk of work in the home.
Obviously this is unpaid and as the 1993 article put it (in fabulous sociology speak) is also:
 “more routine, provides less intrinsic gratification, fewer extrinsic symbol rewards concerning the quality and value of the work”

In the 1970s a group of Italian Socialist Feminists raised the demand of wages for housework and a campaign exists to this day co-ordinated by Selma James who is also involved in the Global Womens Strike Campaign.

This has been the subject of a wee bit of debate amongst WSM members and other libertarians. I think that the demand for wages for house work is probably a good tactical slogan however its practical realization seems to point to potential weaknesses in it.

 Who decides what the work is worth and pays it – obviously it would have to be assessed and paid through the state.
Inherently it seems to recognize the standard bourgeoisie family and maybe even marriage with the housework carried out by the woman – how else could the assessment and payment be made.
Does it not potentially confine struggle to isolated family units – what would be the mechanism for house workers to fight and organize collectively?
Does it encourage men to take up their share and end the blatant sex division of housework?
If the work was truly valued for what it was worth – could it actually be conceded by capitalism or is it more like a Trotskyist transitional demand?

For this reason I think it might be worth us looking at and adopting a more recent set of slogans/demands put forward by Selma James in her work Women, the Unions and Work (see the excellent article in http://nbjournal.org/2007/07/selma-james-and-the-wages-...paign)

(Just taking the demands relating to work here)

1. We demand the right to work less
2. We demand a guaranteed income for women and for men, working or not working, married or not
(This idea of a basic guaranteed income was actually once a demand of the Green Party – fado fado)
3. We demand equal pay for all
4. We demand an end to price rises
5. We demand free community controlled nurseries and childcare

Number 2 here is a better formulation than just wages for house work I think as it means no state intervention/definition of what is a family, what different grades of housework are etc etc and it potentially units men and women. Of course there is still no direct incentive for men to stay at home. But I think (possibly I’m being utopian) that in the context of a guaranteed income for all – quite a few men would actually like to be more involved especially in raising their own children.
Perhaps both carrot and stick are needed for the fellas.

As Selma James put it in a 2004 guardian interview with regards to England
(but probably nearly equally true for Celtic tiger Ireland – see Home truths for feminists – Selma James in dialogue with Melissa Benn - Guardian Februay 21st 2004)

“Men in Britain have the longest working week in Europe. This is no basis for father’s liberation. We’ve got to stop glorifying the work men do and invite them to take part in caring for other life. If we’re not segregated, demeaned, discriminated and impoverished by it, as is true with women now, its the most civilizing work of all”

(Just to note I’m not hero-worshipping Selma James especially her recent turn as a cheerleader for Chavez’s regime!
It also has to be noted that the vast bulk of house work is nothing to do with the rising of children per sae.)

The last one; childcare of course, is a massive issue for working men and women. The Celtic Tiger has seen a large increase in births with Irish fertility at an average 1.9 births/woman being the second highest in the EU (though like all other EU countries we are now below the “replacement rate” reckoned at 2.4 – so our population is falling) Childcare in Ireland is completely privitised with a measly 3% of preschool childcare provided by the state (according to Ursala Barry quoted on recruit Ireland webpage) .
The demand for free community controlled crèches is an obvious but explosive one and one on which we could possibly build a mass movement on in my view!

Prostitution/sex work

As this work is massively the task of women and, even more unfortunately, children I thought I might just throw out some views – just to get debate going if nothing else!

One I think is the rather utopian view of the International Union of Sex Workers from an interview in our own Red and Black Revolution (http://www.wsm.ie/story/2390). The major problem here is the complete lack of statistical information on this (as there is on many aspects of women’s informal work)

There are 2 positions presented by Ana Lopez from the IUSW that I think many of us would agree with and this would be the decriminalization of prostitution and the treating of sex workers as workers.
No attempt to moralise or condemn or make this trade illegal has ever had much effect on it. Ruhama the Irish charity who favour banning prostitution argue that legalization has worsened the situation in countries like Germany and Sweden and massively increased trafficking from Eastern Europe.
Maybe so.

I would say though that legalization is not simply to reduce something perceived as a problem. It should simply be thought of first and foremost as a health and safety issue. Unless legalized then it is difficult for sex workers to protect themselves and organize.
This is not to say that prostitution is of it self a good thing.
Whatever your position about selling sex for money it causes hassle for residents in areas where the trade is being plied and harassment for women from kerb crawlers etc and its often (usually?) a dangerous and unhealthy way to earn money.
But making it illegal is no sort of answer and has never worked.

Where I do take issue with Ana Lopez is the idea that prostitution can be portrayed as some sort of choice for women. This may be true for very well educated younger women in the higher echelons of the sex industry but my gut reaction is that these comprise a tiny minority. Unfortunately as I said statistics on this normally illegal or semi legal trade are impossible to come by. But I must say I find statements like the following from Ana Lopez utopian and very, very hard to credit:

“Sex workers are often the most entrepreneurial people within their company. In this industry there is always a need for new faces, so to be a successful sex worker you have to move from one place to another”

I doubt very much that this level of choice, freedom and independence is available to most sex workers. Ruhama claim that over 100,000 women are trafficked illegally in Europe. I don’t know if this is the case – but it would certainly appear that it’s a massive and growing phenomenon. Now the media make out that trafficking is some sort of embodiment of pure evil conveniently cooked up by them foreigners.
But we know that it is simply a bi-product of the fortress border policies of all Western Countries. The whole system of non-asylum with most applicants being turned down serves the bosses well in that you have a new reserve army of illegals who will tolerate the most appalling work conditions. The trafficking in humans and the return of slavery is a direct bi-product of this system – it didn’t just emerge out of nowhere.
I do agree with Lopez when she says that the media try to hype this into a moral fear/panic – as do organizations like Ruhama in my view in spite of the huge amount of good work on the ground with girls and women who have fallen victim to traffickers
But on the other hand we can’t deny trafficking as a reality and gloss over the terrible position of most in the sex industry many of whom are virtual or real slaves by some how talking about the potential empowerment of a small minority at the top of the business.
As pointed out in our position paper in general it’s often a dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy profession with completely unacceptable working conditions.
For example an Irish survey in 1996 found that clients had assaulted 1 in 5 sex workers – in any other profession (teaching for example) even one or two assaults would be seen as an outrage – sex workers seem to be fair game.
(The WSM position paper is OK as far as it goes but needs a lot more work and has nothing on trafficking http://www.wsm.ie/story/142 (section 7.1)

She makes one very good point in the interview that as long as there is a stigma attached to sex work then every woman can be so labeled and none are truly free.

I agree but I think it goes further – as long as women do most of the worlds work for a very small fraction of its pay then their dependent position then almost every relationship between man and woman or sort of carries a small stigma of the client/prostitute relation.

More info needed if anyone can help out

1. Stats on the amount of informal work (subsistence farming, gathering wood, water etc) done by women world wide
2. Stats on house work – are there many house husbands?
3. Stats on the sex industry earning, trafficking etc

Talk given to Lucy Parsons Branch of the WSM August 2007 - slightly edited