Historically, traditional economists have excluded the value of household economy work from economic calculations insisting that the household economy doesn’t constitute labor and can’t be quantified. However, if we consider the tasks themselves involved in “housework,” as Riane Eisler does, we can calculate that a fair-wage estimate for this work would be (at least) $134,471 annually. Others have calculated the value of household work if it were done by a third party, i.e., cooking by chefs, cleaning by maids, childcare by daycare workers, etc. The rate in Canada came to approximately $386 billion; in Switzerland, it equaled 70% of the gross domestic product; worldwide, the UN estimates it at $15 trillion (all values adjusted for inflation).
Corporations have leveraged this “hidden” economy to raise profits. As Eisler points out, back-up child care for working mothers has saved 6,900 days of absenteeism in one year. Telecommuting increased sales productivity by $40 mil- lion. Paid parental leave has generated 2.5% higher profits, higher customer satisfaction ratings, and a 3 to 11% market value increase. Measures like these have decreased absenteeism and employee turnover, and increased concentration, productivity, job retention, and company loyalty.
Similarly, government investments into the household economy have been shown to markedly increase childhood quality of life, but sexism moderates these effects. Mothers are shown to spend more money than fathers on goods that benefit their children. While this may not seem surprising, the degree of difference is dramatic. In Brazil, one dollar in a mother’s hand goes as far as $18 in the father’s; paying $11.40 more per month to a Guatemalan mother is equivalent to paying a father $166 more. This difference results largely from fathers’ spending on alcohol, gambling, cigarettes, and prostitution. Getting money to mothers is a better idea.
Looking at this another way, mothers give away (in the form of their unpaid labor) more than the total GDP of the US ($15 trillion) every year. Imagine the level of protest and strife that would result if workers in the “public sphere” were expected to do the same. If this were any other industry, we’d probably be witnessing strikes. I say mothers should strike and refuse to return to work until things have been settled at a bargaining table.
Striking doesn’t mean abandoning their children; union strikers don’t abandon their children, they organize to ensure participants’ families needs are addressed. Women who are not mothers share in the inequalities of the current system and could join with mothers to strengthen their efforts. Threats of arrest for child neglect could be countered by the pointing out that it would be the arresting forces that created the neglect by removing women from their families. Furthermore, mass action by women would draw upon the strength of numbers; the unity of mass arrest has consistently served those who fight for civil rights. The outcry against striking mothers will be considerable, no doubt. But that outcry would be telling. Claims of neglect and abandonment aimed at mothers would highlight the unequal expectations held for women and men. Is she alone responsible for the home and child? Would fathers be justified in standing by and letting children suffer and homes fall apart?
I want to emphasize this point. Whatever the practical feasibility of mothers going on strike—one can ask, go on strike for what or from whom—the notion of mothers striking often meets the immediate (perhaps knee-jerk) argument that children will die if the mothers don’t take care of them. This rings like an indictment loudly and clearly-it perpetuates the idea that only mothers are responsible for children or that we cannot expect men to take up the task.
Others argue that strikes would not be legitimate actions for mothers because what they do isn’t work—as if cooking, cleaning, and daycare are not professions. Others would argue that mothers voluntarily choose to take on these tasks—but when up to 81% of women “volunteer” for housework compared to 1.3% of men, it stops seeming voluntary. The argument that since some males help with household work so there is now some semblance of equality fails therefore women should not be paid, falls short as well; all labor should be recognized.
Some argue that the work women do, if only with respect to raising children, and the kind of work for which striking is deemed acceptable (like police work), are not equal. When sanitation workers strike, a sector of the society panics; if mothers strike, indignation rather than panic would be the likely result. That’s more a problem with the arrangement of society than an indictment of the notion of mother’s striking. It is worthwhile to consider the idea of a Mothers’ strike, even if they would not actually chose to do so. Thinking about a strike could serve as a prod to address the inequities of a system in which women are still paid 75¢ to the dollar men make for equivalent jobs.
From the beginning, capitalism has been imperialism writ small, colonizing the domestic sphere to externalize its labor costs, while ultimately assuring that men could not support their families (hence, the need for two-income households now). Ironically, one result of women’s liberation, was that it freed women to could participate more fully in their own oppression (if they had children or aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle).
If a strike seems farfetched, then at least the notion of some kind of collective action on the part of women need not be. Collectively organized, women (and men who support them) would be able to seek out leverage points toward equity; these include the obvious economic inequalities, and the more subtle challenges involving the cultural norms of patriarchy.
In a few decades, the world’s population may reach 9.1 billion. Imagine the work involved in diapering alone! As Cindy L’Hirondelle notes, “Women who provide all this free labor in a capitalist system in which nothing else is free must stop being so nice.”