An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Wednesday, March 03, 2004  


Seriously long post. Settle in for this one. David Mcwilliams wrote this article last week in the Sunday Business Post. I did a review of the papers on Newstalk on Tuesday and we argued the point. I wrote this and sent it to the Post in the hope that they'd publish it. Can you believe they've decided not to and ask that I send in a short letter instead. Outrageous. ;-)

Anyway, here's my article.

In his column last week David McWilliams made a radical case for welcoming immigrants. He argued that liberated women working outside the home, having to juggle office and housework, can reduce their workload and assuage their guilt by paying poor immigrant women to do what he called the ‘shit’ work; that is wiping Johnny’s nose and cleaning the loo.

His argument has all the appearance of facing practicalities and providing an unpalatable solution for mothers in a certain predicament. The real truth is that his thesis is based on a whole set of generally accepted misconceptions about feminism, equality and the working mother.

One huge assumption is that feminism as originally conceived has succeeded because women are now liberated from the drudgery of housework and are flocking to offices to do proper work. He does acknowledge that some work out of economic necessity as well as a desire for what Maslow famously described as ‘self-actualisation’. Instead of immediately skipping to the conclusion that the only solution is to outsource the menial housework to other women perhaps there are some other hard questions that should be answered.

Firstly, lets look at a woman with two children living in the suburbs. When she takes home her salary at the end of the month, where does it go? Creche fees for two children can cost between €1500 and €1800 per month. By the time you tax and insure a second car, buy nice clothes for the office, lunch every day, expensive convenience food and treats for the kids to make up for the guilt of not being around; exactly how much money does a woman need to earn just to pay the costs of having the job in the first place? There are a lot of couples who should probably sit down and figure out the actual economic cost of a dual income household. They could find that they might not be that badly off if the woman decided to stay at home and mind the children and do the housework herself.

But women will baulk at this proposition because they know that this is, as David described, the shit work and if they confine themselves to it they’ll feel like and be seen as failures. They will have neither status nor respect, because housework and childcare has neither. It’s the work that despite talk of equality, men still refuse to do. The result is that men use their weekends for sport and leisure and women use their weekends to catch up on the ironing. Cleaning the house and being at home when the children come in from school has no status in today’s world and that’s why it’s being outsourced at such little cost to poor immigrants.

Why does this essential work have so little value placed upon it? Indeed, why does all the essential work in our society have the lowest value placed upon it? Collecting rubbish is absolutely essential; without it our streets would be cesspits of filth and disease; but street sweeping is one of lowest forms of work in the economy. The world would get on very well and probably better without spin doctors, but they’re amongst the highest paid. So at a time when our children are beating each other to a pulp, has the time not come to place a value on stay at home mothers and respect that decision instead of denigrating them openly in the media?

Of course this is nothing new. The housewife is openly disrespected now, whereas in the past she was simply ignored to the point where her existence was not even acknowledged. My mother is a typical example of the country housewife who has worked extremely hard all her life enabling the education and success of five children who are all full participants in the celtic tiger economy. Yet recently when she applied for an RSI number, the state’s refusal to acknowledge her contribution to the economy is such that she had to provide for identification not just her own birth certificate but her mother’s birth certificate. This astonishing insult is evident everywhere. In David’s article last week he made reference to the EU’s Lisbon Agenda which has set targets for women’s labour force participation rates. Of course, when they say labour, they don’t mean all that labour inside the home, only outside it. Yet any economist worth his salt would recognise the value to an economy of unpaid housework.

Women themselves, seeing that society has no respect for housework, actively collude in maintaining the war on housewives. I know one professional woman who has her hair coiffured in an expensive salon every Saturday at a cost of €85 each time. She pays her au pair €65 per week. The hair gets a bigger investment than her children. This is the status we accord the job of child rearing in Ireland.

When, on the occasion of the Clintons’ first visit to Ireland, Finola Bruton dared to raise her voice in support of stay at home mothers, arguing that they should be cherished as much as career women, she was attacked hysterically. Mary Robinson had an easier time, aided possibly by her indisputable liberal credentials, when she said that “perpetuating the low status accorded to women in the home perpetuates their oppression".

The solution, therefore David, is not simply to pass on this lowly work to lowly women immigrants but to demand that housework and childcare be given the respect it deserves. For those who sigh wearily at this impossible aspiration there are other solutions.

To start with, one could actually reduce the amount of housework done. Isn’t it odd that the invention of labour saving domestic appliances didn’t save any labour at all? They just enabled the creation of more work. Washing machines and tumble driers resulted in the acquisition of more clothes which we wash more often. The consequence of having great toilet cleaner was the installation of four toilets in the house instead of one and the waging of a continual and mythical war on germs. The better the cleaning products, the more we have to clean. Isn’t it funny that men like David who, sick of listening to their wives complain about housework just suggest outsourcing the problem instead of agreeing that less housework is an option?

Finally, David warns that the problem of getting someone to do the housework is going to get worse and feminists (not men) will have to come up with a solution. This is because women are going to have to work longer and harder in the real workplace as Enterprise Ireland implements our unique strategy of moving Ireland up the value chain. He makes no mention of women being welcomed back in to the workplace when her work at home is done or doing part-time work. Is it not a more obvious solution, for all workers, men and women, to simply refuse to work long hours and demand family friendly schedules. Achieving a work-life balance should be the goal for all of us instead of accepting that we are of no worth to society unless we are full time corporate slaves. That’s a real solution.

posted by Sarah | 16:34 0 comments
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