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Thinking about Wages for Housework and thinking anew in the arts

Part Gillie Kleiman’s WebRes ‘Not Working.’ Find out more here.

Every day – every day – I am in conversation about the future of the arts. There is a constant pulling and pushing, to-ing and fro-ing. There is so much difficulty; I feel the tenderness and fear and sadness. There is so much heart

It’s not only that it is tough to work in the arts. Yes, there are total joys, and that’s part of why anyone works in the arts, but it is hard and we all misunderstand each other a lot, I think. Even in performance – the wild wet wash of that word meaning everything from the Royal Ballet to rural touring to commercial comedy to experimental performance art – we nudge against one another uncomfortably. I get the impression that everyone feels that they are speaking out of turn all the time, and that everyone else is, and it’s all a painful jumble based on care. Right now it is even more difficult, because the normal power relations are even more visible and somehow crumbling at the same time, with the divide between those who can and have and those who cannot and have not both being fought for and falling apart simultaneously.

I have been thinking about the ways in which the Wages for Housework Campaign of around 1972-7 can help us structure our thinking to find different ways to understand one another. Big note: I’m not a feminist scholar, in that I’m not a scholar of feminism, so my interest in thinking through this can and should be understood from my point of view as a freelance artist trying to figure out how to do things differently, with others. Here goes.

Wages for Housework was a campaign by feminists in the US, Italy and beyond, which was created and communicated by groups of women working through self-published pamphlets, leaflets and other publications, as well as public demonstrations and other forms of activism. It sat alongside and intertwined with other organising happening at the time.

The demand seems straightforward: wages for housework. Women do housework; they clean and they cook and they raise children and they shop and they take care of the home and of the people who live in it. This is work, the activists argued, and it should be compensated with monetary remuneration. It is socially productive labour without which no value can be created by the men who go out to be ‘economically active’. Housework should be exchanged for wages, just as any other work might be.

But, as Kathi Weeks writes in The Problem with Work: ‘There is an interesting ambiguity in much of the wages for housework literature: Should the demand for wages be read literally or figuratively? Was it presented as a concrete policy objective or a critical ploy? Was it intended to be an end in itself or a means to other ends?’ (2011:128). I think we could place some of the same questions around some of the demands I am seeing discussed, published and both celebrated and trashed in the Zoom meetings and Twittersphere of which I am part. I am seeing calls for, variously, National Portfolio Artists, workers’ coops, local arts boards with only artists on them, the evacuation of venues of all paid workers in favour of DIY cultural production, state-funded salaries for an artist per ward, funders dictating the constitution of arts charities’ boards, salary caps, and so many, many other possibilities for bettering the way we organise ourselves in the subsidised arts. I am advocating for some of these and not others; I am interested in them all. But that’s not the point. I want to consider how these suggestions, often communicated as demands, might help provide a picture of what is happening and what is not happening in the experience of freelancers and others who are making these suggestions.

In calling for wages for housework, women were ‘taking an opportunity to make visible, and encourage critical reflection on, the position of women in the work society…Toward this end, [the demand’s] promoters suggested that wages for housework could function as a force of demystification, an instrument of denaturalization, and a tool of cognitive mapping’ (Weeks 2011:129). I feel freelancers in my field doing this now, this act of demanding in order to map concerns. The sheer volume and variety of working groups, and the resultant collective ambivalence about whether to join forces, overlap, or back off, suggests that in making these demands we are learning about where soft and hard points of working in the arts – in whatever role and for whatever form of return – exist and perpetuate and progress and mould and fester and bloom and spread. We are learning how to make new forms of allyship which can fortify previously impossible vectors of communication between creative practitioners with different foci in mapping out our concerns and acting in solidarity as well as becoming clearer about who has a totally different understanding of what is at stake and how to go about making things better for everyone.

I am fascinated mostly by this process of denaturalization that is currently available. As I feel I often want to state: I am so sad and angry about what is happening in terms of public health, governmental mismanagement, and blatant corruption, and the consequent effects on the material practices, processes and livelihoods within my working world. Nonetheless I am interested in and invigorated by the novel possibility of making alien the ways in which we work – mostly how power, agency and resource move around – in order that they become impossibly strange. This pointing at the problems and noticing the frankly weird ways in which the sector and its powerpoints are built allows us to think completely anew and allows us to step out of the annoying and unhelpful tinkering at the edges. It is by making these demands that seem horrifyingly impossible that we can see how odd and unnecessary some of our ways of being and doing are and enable us to refresh our imaginations. We can begin to attempt to defog our visions – fogged up by habit, teaching, and the belief that everyone has everyone else’s best interests at heart – and really name and tackle the places where that is no longer really the case.

For me, Wages for Housework remains interesting in its imaginative potentials; I like that it produces more questions than it solves. It shatters a dominating assumption and set of lived practices based thereon in such a way that multiple worlds and forms of life become imaginable. If we – societally, somehow – pay wages for housework, does that mean we can do the same for child-rearing? What would that do for the nuclear family? Would men start to choose that work instead? What does that mean for our understanding of gender? How do we organise who pays? What impact does that have for our conceptions of social value, of privacy, of even the idea of the public realm? How do we begin to describe creativity when more people or different people take on this work – or drop it? What is the role of the state, or of industry? What is retirement? There are many more questions, many more answers, many more worlds. I would like us to think this multiply and this openly about how we do artistic activities and see what we can collectively realise as a consequence of being as creative and practical as we have been trained to be, to attenuate the practical questions at the same time as diving into them and seeing what comes of them.

Wages for Housework is also an interesting gesture because it collectivises what might usually be a private matter; instead of individual women asking their husbands for more pin-money to act as proper remuneration for their daily toil, or discussing the possibility of reorganising domestic labours to do paid work outside of the home, women came together to campaign. One of the consequences of this is that it prevents a singular conversation in the private sphere which might temporarily solve some of the material and emotional difficulty of what was then an assumed status quo: perhaps the husband would give the wife more money, if they could afford it, and then the wife might be appeased. This doesn’t do much more than fortify the existing arrangement. It is for this reason that I do not think that, in the arts, paying freelancers more or establishing a way for freelancers to be remunerated as non-freelancers (like a National Portfolio Individual model) is whatsoever sufficient. It shifts resources but retains the same model of distributing those resources, getting in the way of more effective and powerful change.

The Wages for Housework campaign was constituted as a set of actions that pointed to the fact that the system of relations between men and women – in the heteronormative model that was contentious even in the 1970s but is clearly not how we understand our families, relationships and sexualities now – was profoundly unjust. As I have written many times and will continue to write, we need to keep stepping back and reminding ourselves of the structures in which we work and how they necessarily demand a state of play that is misogynist, ableist, racist, ageist, classist, transphobic and activating other and intersectional oppressions. To change it does indeed mean that people will need to give things up, personally or institutionally. We will not be able to have ‘crown jewel’ organisations (also and forever dismantle the fucking monarchy wherever it appears). We will not be able to depend on meritocracy and social mobility (once again for those at the back: social mobility is a ruse). It will not be acceptable for some people who contribute to a place of work to earn six figures plus pension, holiday, sick and parental leave pay while others who also contribute scrabble around for minimum wage. It is hard to give things up when you’ve been told again and again that they are yours, or to take things on when you’ve been told that they’re nothing to concern yourself about. I imagine that partners of the women who were demanding wages for housework also felt misunderstood, undermined, and browbeaten. Of course these men also inherited a crappy system – a system that also disenfranchised them from responsibility from their own homes and distanced them from the joys of care. The patriarchy serves nobody well in the long run but it hurts some more than others.

Wages for Housework teaches us to demand the small things that seem impossible. It shows us the power of imagining other worlds through concrete proposals. It shows us how to step into and back from the personal at the same time, describing our experience and providing suggestions even when that would mean changing absolutely everything. It shows us how to work in a pluralist solidarity and to contest the systems that benefit those whom we might very well like or love, because we can see that those benefits hurt more than they help overall. Wages for Housework teaches us to hold on to what we’re asking for at the same time as remembering that we are determined in a direction for so much more.