The domestic division of labour

The Women’s Liberation Movement campaigned to achieve fundamental shifts in the attitudes towards housework. Find out more about the image of the 1950s ‘happy’ housewife and the campaigns and lifestyle changes that sought to update traditional perceptions of domestic responsibility.

The responsibilities for domestic work and childcare have traditionally fallen to women while men go out to work. Feminists have continually challenged the role of women in the home along two lines: firstly, that domestic work is not the natural or exclusive domain of women; and, secondly, that women and men should have equal employment rights. Although pre-1970s society dictated that a woman’s place was in the home, in reality women (particularly those from migrant and poor communities) were often breadwinners too.

A Time Use Survey carried out by the University of Oxford in 2005 found that women were still carrying out two-thirds of domestic tasks compared with men. Also, women spent longer on domestic work than men: women working full-time spent on average 151 minutes per day compared with 113 by men who worked full-time.

This clip considers the division of domestic labour, especially childcare, between men and women

This animated clip considers the division of domestic labour, especially childcare, between men and women. © Leeds Animation Workshop

What is the domestic division of labour?

The division of labour refers to who does what work in different spheres. Traditionally it has always been women who work in the domestic sphere.

One of the most passionately debated issues by feminist intellectuals from the 1960s onwards was the so-called domestic labour debate. It arose in the 1960s as an attempt by Marxist feminists to give an account of the oppression of women in capitalist societies. When addressing the economics of childcare and housework it became clear that this was inseparable from production. Traditional economics, including Marxist theories, had focused almost exclusively on labour out of the home; domestic labour was ignored, despite the fact that it is essential to production, not least in the role it plays in reproducing the labour force. Juliet Mitchell’s Women: The Longest Revolution (New Left Review, 1966) was an early text that explored this, as did the later important work The Politics of Housework (London: Allison and Busby, 1980) edited by Ellen Malos.

Jenni Murray reflects on her husband returning to work

The ‘happy’ housewife

The image of the happy housewife in the 1950s and ‘60s was very problematic. It ignored issues of race and class, and the fact that many women could not afford to be out of employment. Women who had to work were therefore further subjugated, with feelings of shame and inadequacy heaped upon them for not being able to live up to the ideal. At the same time, the concept of a ‘happy’ housewife was a false promise for those women who could dedicate themselves to the domestic sphere: they often found themselves isolated from society, with no support to help them become independent and no idea of how to change their situation.

Zoe Fairbairns talks about her mother's life and work at home

Wages for Housework

The Wages for Housework campaign proposed, provocatively, that the state would value domestic work if it had to pay for it. Established in 1972 by American socialist Selma James and Italian feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa, the campaign proposed a number of radical ideas, such as subsidies for the ‘work’ of sex and love, and payment from the state for all domestic work. This second idea had a mixed reception among feminists: some felt that it would help recognise the importance of domestic work; others felt that it would reinforce the idea that domestic labour was ‘women’s work’ rather than men’s. For this latter reason, the demand was rejected at several national conferences.

Ellen Malos talks about the Wages for Housework campaign

Family allowance and child benefit

The suffragettes had campaigned for the introduction of a family allowance based on the number of children in a family under the age of 18. Family allowance was introduced in 1946 at the rate of 5s (25 pence) per week per child for all but the eldest child in the family. Since then these allowances have taken many forms, but in 2012 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government removed child benefit for those earning more than £50,000, thus abandoning the principle of ‘universalism’ which had underpinned the welfare state.

In addition to child benefit, both parents can now sign up to the Childcare Voucher Scheme to allow some of their salary to be paid in childcare vouchers before it is taxed. This can save each parent up to £1000 per year in tax and National Insurance. Unfortunately, self-employed people are not eligible for the scheme, meaning that freelance work, which can be a flexible solution for parents with childcare issues, is not recognised or supported by it.

Jenny Lynn discusses the importance of family allowance

Communal living and separatism

Many liberal left-wing couples in the 1960s and ‘70s wanted to reconfigure the division of labour. One creative solution was communal living, in which several families lived together and domestic duties, including childcare, were shared between everyone.

Some members of the Women’s Liberation Movement advocated ‘separatism’ (a form of gender separation) as a way of life. This involved women prioritising relationships with other women, in partnerships, communities and businesses. Writing in 1983, feminist theorist Marilyn Frye described separatist feminism as:

separation of various sorts or modes from men and from institutions, relationships, roles and activities that are male-defined, male-dominated, and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege – this separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women.

Separatist feminism is often linked to radical feminism and is logically easier to practice for lesbian rather than heterosexual women. Instead of continuing to struggle against men, separatists saw separation from men and all forms of patriarchy as the fastest and most creative route to emancipation. In Barbara Jones’ oral history recording she talks about her experience of separatism; you can also hear Sue O’Sullivan discussing the pros and cons of organising separately from men in Who We Were, Who We Are.

Lynne Segal reflects on the challenges of communal living

What did the Women’s Liberation Movement want?

The Women’s Liberation Movement wanted to achieve fundamental shifts in the attitudes towards the division of labour. Attitudes and mechanisms to support both parents working (as well as those to support single parents) also needed to change:

  • Better, more widely available and more affordable childcare solutions were required
  • Maternity and paternity leave allowances needed to be more understanding
  • Equal rights needed to be given to same-sex couples bringing up children
  • Black and Asian feminists also wanted fairer immigration laws that would recognise the rights of families divided by migration or asylum-seeking, and a de-pathologisation of black and minority ethnic families who were often the recipients of particular stereotyping and stigmatisation.

Banner credit: 'Strike! While the iron is hot!' Wages for Housework poster © Betsy Warrior

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.