Ten times women’s unpaid care work was recognised in history
Cooking, cleaning, gathering food and water, and caring for children and the elderly are vital for families and societies. Yet this work, performed by women 75% of the time, has seldom been given the recognition it deserves, creating huge inequality around the world. Here are ten times unpaid care work has been recognised for what it is – work.
1. Virginia Woolf calls for a living wage for married women
1938: As war in Europe loomed on the horizon, British author Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, an anti-war book-length essay in which she linked the oppression of women with fascism, and argued for the financial independence of married women. In the book she calls for a wage for married women and mothers, writing: “[Wages are] the most effective way in which we can ensure that the large and very honourable class of married women shall have a mind and a will of their own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to support her husband, if bad to resist him, in any case to cease to be “his woman” and to be herself.”
2. Family allowance is implemented in the UK
1945: Eleanor Rathbone was an independent British Member of Parliament who had spent decades campaigning for women’s rights and for a family allowance to be paid directly to mothers. In the year before her death the Family Allowances Act finally passed into law. The act provided a flat rate payment of five shillings a week per family, funded by taxes. This allowance would later become Child Benefit.
3. Johnnie Tillmon leads calls for a living wage for mothers in the US
1963: Welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon founded ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous in the US, a grassroots group that would later become part of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), of which Tillmon became chairperson.
CAPITALISM WAS BUILT ON IGNORING AND MARGINALISING THE CARE WORK OF WOMEN – Madeleine Bunting
While the mainstream women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was mostly formed by white middle-class women who campaigned for the right to work, Tillmon advocated for the rights of mothers on welfare at a time when US state governments were ordering the forced sterilisation of impoverished women, often immigrants or women of colour, who they deemed “unfit to procreate”. Tillmon said:“If I were president, I would go a long way toward liberating every woman. I’d just issue a proclamation that women’s work is real work. I’d start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing – child raising and house-keeping.”
4. The Wages for Housework movement is founded
1972: Author and activist Selma James launched a campaign called Wages for Housework at a conference in Manchester, England. Rooted in Marxism, in a paper co-authored with Mariarosa Dalla Costa called The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, James explained that capitalism depends on women’s unpaid labour – that of bearing and caring for children. “Capital’s special way of robbing labour is by paying the worker a wage that is enough to live on (more or less) and to reproduce other workers,” the paper said. “But the worker must produce more in the way of commodities than what his wage is worth. The unpaid surplus labour is what the capitalist is in business to accumulate and what gives him increasing power over more and more workers…”
Wages for Housework soon became an international network, later evolving into Care Income Now which demands a living wage for all caregivers of any gender.
5. United Nations agrees resolution to recognise women’s unwaged work
1985: After pressure from the International Wages for Housework campaign, the UN agreed to recognise all women’s work, whether waged or unwaged, as work, during a conference in Kenya called Decade for Women. This included work in the land, in the home and in the community.
OUR ISSUES ARE SO IMPORTANT TO ALL WOMEN – THE RIGHT TO A LIVING WAGE FOR WOMEN’S WORK, THE RIGHT TO LIFE ITSELF – Johnnie Tillmon
6. Trinidad and Tobago passes act to measure value of housework and childcare
1996: Trinidad and Tobago implemented the Counting Unremunerated Work Act, which requires the Central Statistical Office and other government bodies to measure statistics relative to unremunerated work including housework and childcare, and record its monetary value. The Act was passed in response to the UN’s 1985 resolution to recognise the contribution of women’s unwaged work, and in doing so Trinidad and Tobago became one of the world’s first countries to measure the value of caregiving work.
7. Venezuela’s new constitution provides social security for housework
1999: Venezuela approved its first constitution to be approved by popular referendum in the country’s history. Article 88 enshrines in law women’s right to social security for housework. It says: The state recognises work at home as an economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives are entitled to social security in accordance with law.”
8. International Labour Office recognises unpaid care work as work
2013: Unpaid work was recognised as work by the International Labour Office at the week-long International Conference of Labour Statisticians held in Geneva. In a report presented at the event, it states: “In assessing and monitoring labour markets and labour absorption, total labour resources must be recognised and defined that include the important economic contribution to society of work performed inside households and of all volunteer work.”
MOTHERS, AND ALL PRIMARY CARERS, REGARDLESS OF GENDER, MUST BE ENTITLED TO A CARE INCOME – A GUARANTEED INCOME WHICH RECOGNISES OUR CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY AND ENABLES US TO DECIDE WHEN AND HOW WE CARE FOR OUR CHILDREN – Selma James
9. Peru approves law guaranteeing the rights of domestic workers
2018: Peru Congress passed a landmark law that formally recognises household work, “traditionally performed by women from low-income households and the most disadvantaged social groups.” For the first time in the country’s history the law states that domestic workers must have a written contract, a minimum wage, the right to social security, and the right to receive the same bonuses as other salaried workers.
10. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the importance of all care work
2020: The global outbreak of Covid-19 throws the importance of care work into sharp relief. The term “essential worker” becomes an everyday phrase, describing people working in the industries that are vital to society, the majority of which are in the healthcare sector. In the UK, thousands of volunteer-led mutual aid groups are formed up and down the country to provide people in isolation with food and medication, as well as helping to combat loneliness. A report finds that “many vulnerable people would simply not survive this crisis without the work that is being done – autonomously and voluntarily – by Mutual Aid groups.”
Wages for Housework has launched an international survey to find out what mothers and caregivers of different genders and backgrounds want around the world. Take part here: What do mothers and other carers want