Although my boyfriend, Tor, is generally good at housework, there is a rather large part of it — shopping, cooking, and cleaning up after cooking — that’s been a challenge for him over the last two years that we’ve lived together. For the first year and a half, I just did all of it, and he did none of it. We knew this was Not How Things Should Be. On the other hand, Tor built furniture all day, and I wrote from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. I had more time and more inclination to cook and shop.
I wasn’t that bothered by it. But Tor said, “I am not that guy who assumes his dinner is on the table every night, and you’re not the woman who makes sure that happens!” Every few weeks we would say we were going to turn over a new leaf, but unless you count Tor shopping and cooking for one day, we never did.
The cooking-shopping dilemma happened to take place during our seventh year together, a milestone which many couples meet with infidelity or tango lessons. Bucking tradition, we decided to spice things up by jointly enrolling in a graduate seminar on Marx’s Capital. When the class ended, we branched out into Marxist feminism and read Silvia Federici’s famous 1974 essay, “Wages Against Housework.” The very first line provides a good tl;dr version of her point: “They call it love, we call it unwaged work.” Federici believes that as long as people don’t get paid for doing housework, it will not be considered work. And more chillingly, in lieu of payment for housework, women have been trained to accept the emotional and societal prestige of wifedom as public and private proof of worth. “Not only has housework been imposed on women,” Federici writes. “It has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.”
Tor read this part with great interest/horror. “I feel like you think you have to cook for me because you’re a woman,” he said. “No I don’t,” I said. “That’s ridiculous.” He wasn’t forcing me to cook for him. I knew he’d be fine having a vodka soda and Planters dry roasted peanuts for dinner, but I was cooking for myself anyway, so why not for him? It was all fine. Then I admitted I was lying, or mostly lying. I did feel like I was sort of supposed to do it, and he was supposed to just let me, and if he didn’t want to accept this gesture of my devotion, perhaps he didn’t love me that much.
“Okay, wow, that is really fucked up,” Tor said.
Then he said, “How about instead of pretending I’m miraculously going to start cooking and shopping one day, we admit that you’re ‘doing work’ and not just ‘being my girlfriend,’ and I start paying you to do it.” I said, “How much?”
The Wages for Housework Movement started in 1972 and was made up of radical Marxist women, including Federici, who fought for the recognition of unpaid laborers as workers. Federici is a Marxist philosopher, not a marriage counselor, so reading “Wages Against Housework” and concluding “My boyfriend should pay me for doing housework” is like reading Moby-Dick as a how-to manual for prospective whalers. Federici’s end goal is not a happy household for little Sarah Miller but the liberation of the human race from wage slavery. Obviously, Federici didn’t invent paid housework; her point is not that housework is work, but that the home is a workplace for those who live in it.
I spent some time calculating how much work I was actually doing: shopping, cooking, putting away groceries, shopping again because I forgot one stupid thing, cleaning up, battling with our shitty oven racks, and doing specialty jobs, like extricating a few ants from a container of maple syrup or scrubbing dried mustard and ketchup out of the refrigerator door. I was astonished to discover that I was spending at least 15 hours a week on housework. Tor and I decided that for this work, he’d start paying me an hourly wage.
Before Tor started paying me, it used to embarrass me that my boyfriend made more money than I did. Sometimes he would pay a little bit more of the bills than I did, which would make me feel like a loser, or like maybe that I owed him. Now that the amount of work I did could be quantified by an actual dollar amount, it’s much easier to recognize what I do as actual work. Even though it is the way of capitalism to imagine that all the labor Tor performs comes from Tor and Tor alone, in reality, Tor shows up for work fed, with his lunch in a bag, wearing clean clothes (which I admittedly do not fold), and well-rested because of my labor; while his labor is recognized as labor, mine inarguably takes place but then disappears into the ether. As Federici writes in another famous work, Caliban and the Witch, my work is seen as “a natural resource or a personal service,” and the fact that it results in someone else’s profit is conveniently forgotten.
Some people get upset at the idea that the shit women do for the people they love is, at the end of the day, also work. “But I love cooking for my husband,” is a response I get when I bring up my arrangement with non-Marxists, or, in other words, with almost everyone. But it’s not just me and a bunch of feminists from 1974 who think that unwaged labor should be waged, and that unwaged workers are workers. In 1989, Arlie Hochschild wrote The Second Shift about unpaid labor performed at home, in addition to the paid work done “at work.” And Pacific Standard published an article last month by Melissa Petro called “My Husband Paid Me to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom,” in which she writes, “With my hormones raging, tits leaking, and sleep deprivation that left me glassy-eyed, it seemed the right choice for our family.”
Sophie Lewis, author of the book Full Surrogacy Now, further expands the definition of unpaid labor by daring to ask if pregnancy and childbirth could perhaps be removed from the family structure, placed in a communal context, and treated as labor. “One of the things I really love Federici for is illuminating the way people get triggered when you call certain things work,” says Lewis, whose writing has inspired ire in people who fear that her utopian vision is anti-mother. “People say to me that we lose something, analytically, when we call care-labor work, and I don’t contest that. Mothering (like all kinds of work) isn’t only or just work. But the work part of it is what Federici wants to make sure people understand.”
Do Tor and I still love each other, now that I am his employee? Possibly we love each other more, since we don’t have to spend time talking about this issue anymore. I do like taking care of him and I would do it for free, probably because, like most straight women, I’m merely in recovery from Stockholm syndrome, because there is no cure. After all, I do have moments where I stand at the stove and think, Ugh, this again. At least now I can say to myself, Well, of course this is annoying. It’s work.
I am under no illusion that my being paid for housework is the end of the conversation about unwaged labor, or even an appropriate part of much of it. If in any tiny way Tor paying me for housework is revolutionary, it’s only because everyone we talk to about our arrangement — from the people who think it’s interesting to the ones who think we’re annoying hippies — is forced to think about which work is paid and which is not.