Undead sexist cliche: feminists should do their own housework

So in a lengthy discussion elsewhere online, one commenter volunteered the opinion that “some white women might not be as keen on sharing that space with women of color, either (see the suffrage an earlier feminist movements), as their feminism and its gains must necessarily involve the subjugation of black and brown women. Can’t have the nanny/housekeeper/babysitter pools drying up. Can we?” I didn’t get a chance to respond before comments closed.

This is not the first time I’ve run into the argument that feminists build their careers on the backs of working-class/WOC who assume responsibility for cooking/cleaning/babycare and that this is bad. Caitlin Flanagan, for example, was complaining a couple of decades back that for career women, “Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment.” As Echidne points out, this is amazingly hypocritical from someone who by her own admission elsewhere employs a full domestic staff, never changes sheets and let her nanny attend to the kids’ diarrhea.

Flanagan also assumes that housework is by definition bad, an occupation only taken by the “poor and luckless” and therefore its inherently exploitative. Writer Sally Howard reaches a similar conclusion in an article from March: she tried paying her cleaning person well (said cleaner was very happy) but felt she was still demeaning her, implying by hiring her that she (Howard) was too good to clean the toilets herself.

I tend to see these arguments as a variation on older jokes about women who hire housekeepers even when they’re stay-at-home moms: what’s with that? As Echidne, again, says, they all hinge on the assumption that women should clean their own homes. And that finding someone else to do it “necessarily involves the subjugation of black and brown women” who are poor and desperate (one reason I’m not linking to the source is that not having had a chance to respond, I can’t be certain I’m interpreting the quote fairly). But as Howard points out, paying someone good money is an option, so finding domestic staff doesn’t require subjugation.

I admit it’s quite possible some of the cleaners wouldn’t take the jobs if they had an alternative: lots of people hate this kind of job. One of the reasons some immigrants gave for moving the American colonies that while life might be hard, it was better than going into domestic service. It’s quite possible the cleaners wouldn’t take the jobs if they had a better alternative but that’s true of many jobs such as farm work or customer service (not that all people hate customer service but I’ve known people who did feel working retail was beneath them). I’ve often wondered whether we’d see huge gaps in the economy if everyone was free to do jobs they wanted (and were qualified for) — though I’ve also heard people say they’re happy with a job that doesn’t demand anything beyond a few hours of grunt work a day. Though either way, we’re not likely to find out any time soon.

And as Echidne says (and Howard too) it’s not like this is some unique evil perpetrated by feminists alone. Men hire housekeepers. Businesses hire cleaning staff. If cleaning is inherently exploitative, then it’s a society wide issue and everyone has a vested interest in keeping the pool of help stocked. And of course, much of modern American capitalism is built around the assumption that men can work long hours because there’s a woman to take care of the cleaning, cooking and kids, only it’s the man’s wife and she’s doing it for nothing. Which is what Howard, Flanagan (quite hypocritically) and possibly the commenter seem to think is fair. The commenter doesn’t seem to see feminists getting their husband or kids to contribute is a solution; Flanagan flatly rules that out as unworkable.

I agree the system is imperfect. But arguing that feminists are hypocrites if they hire housekeepers is just a variation of the “you say you criticize capitalism but you buy things!” school of purity.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics, Undead sexist cliches

2 responses to “Undead sexist cliche: feminists should do their own housework

  1. Generally agreed. I think a lot of this argument comes as pushback to white upper-or-middle-class women framing “but I neeeeed a housekeeper” as reasons to make people violate quarantine these days, or to claim poverty/object to taxes before the Plague Times. Interestingly, those “feminists” usually take Flanagan’s stance re: getting their husband or kids to pitch in. (Side note: if you need to “get” your SO to do their fair share around the household, that person is a trashfire and you should dump them.)

    But yeah, the claim that hiring housework done is an inherently antifeminist act slash problem with feminism in specific takes valid objections (“exploiting workers does not make you a revolutionary idol,” “credit the fact that you had paid help most people don’t when claiming your accomplishments,” etc.) too far.

    • We had finally started paying a housecleaning company earlier this year but we only got one visit before the pandemic made that impractical. After seeing how well they worked I can understand the desire to break quarantine, but no, I don’t think so.

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