Housework isn’t compensated with wage payments or counted in GDP. Is that a problem? And if so, who should solve it?

Mikayla Novak contributes to a group column on libertarian feminism along with Sharon Presley, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, and Helen Dale.

Novak is an Australian economist with a doctorate in economics, and has long been involved in libertarian advocacy. She is interested in how libertarian feminism concerns relate to how market processes and civil societal actions satisfactorily accommodate individual women’s preferences, in a variety of ways.

It is indisputable that a significant amount of feminist thought has centred upon the influence of gender norms upon the assumption of unpaid labouring activities in the home, and the impact of those activities upon womenʼs economic and social capabilities. These housework activities, often collectively referred to as ʻhousehold production,ʼ include cleaning, cooking, laundering, the education and supervision of children, the minding of elderly relatives, transporting relatives for economic and social activities, and so on, all of which are undertaken within the home or in family settings. Survey evidence for the United States suggests that the hours of unpaid labour performed in the home environment has fallen from about 36 hours in the mid‑1960s to about 28 hours in the early part of this decade (a 22 per cent reduction over the period).

Although the relative share of household production undertaken by men has increased, from about 11 per cent to about 36 per cent, women remain largely responsible for unpaid labouring in the home. Specifically, it is estimated that about 64 per cent of total housework was undertaken by women in 2011, whose labour market participation rates, incidentally, have risen dramatically over time thus risking a “double burden” effect in which some women perform paid work in addition to unpaid household labour.

To varying degrees of emphasis, feminists have generally viewed the amount and persistent distribution of unpaid household labouring, in which men perform fewer duties at home compared with women, in an unfavourable light. For the most part, feminists over the years have sought to apply some element of moral suasion in efforts to encourage men to participate more extensively in household production, and in doing so sharing some of the housework load with women. Complementing those efforts, others have sought to garner more widespread recognition of the value that unpaid home labouring provides, at the very least to the health and vitality of traditional male ʻbreadwinningʼ workers, if not to the economy as a whole.

In the modern era Marxist feminists, for example, have promoted a concept of “wages for housework,” on the belief that a lack of monetary payment for home production has exploited women in favour of husbands, and in turn the capitalist employers of men. Even some libertarian feminists have embraced this notion, as evidenced in a statement by Angela Heywood in 1873 for women to be compensated for performing housework:

[T]he labour of girls in housework is better performed than present compensation deserves it should be; if it is uneducated and unreliable, it is because it is underpaid and regarded as disreputable; when bread making and house cleaning are justly rewarded and honoured as all true labour should be, and the idleness of so‑called ladies is alone deemed vulgar, the vexed question of “our help” will virtually be settled.

During the twentieth century feminists also demanded that imputed values of household production be recorded in national accounting frameworks, certainly in congruence with the perception that the household is economically valuable but also, presumably, to act as a basis to agitate for formal wage or subsidy arrangements into the future.

Another strategy propounded to redress the gendered skew of household production activities concerns a comprehensive “commodification,” or the outsourcing of houseworking activities and roles to providers situated within markets, to emancipate women from the toils of unpaid labouring in the home. Celebrating “the liberation of women from exclusive domesticity” in her book The Economic Emergence of Women , Barbara Bergmann lauded the development of labour‑saving devices which:

reduced the time required to maintain a given standard of meal preparation and cleanliness, and freed up time of the wife to use on the job. The invention, production, and diffusion of household devices are integral parts of that process of technological change and capital accumulation that has raised real wages levels.

Bergmann also pointed out that “the free market has filled the gap left by the departure of the full‑time housewife and the unwillingness of men to take on a greater share of the housework.”

Whilst acknowledging that “it is not necessarily true that purchased goods and services, including child care, are inferior to parent‑provided ones in every case,” Bergmann seems to share the disquiet of many feminists concerning the appropriateness of commodifying those aspects of household production that most explicitly embody features of care for others. Bergmann insists “leaving parents by themselves to go out and buy child care and early education in the free market has not served the countryʼs needs,” since, among other things, “in the absence of effective regulation, there will be providers who deliver low‑quality services, even unsafe ones.” Given a reticence to embrace notions of commodification to caring labour, numerous feminists tend to advocate for a significant level of direct provision role by the state, or a mix of subsidisation and/​or regulation, such that for‑profit provision, in particular, is prevented, or at least limited, in its application.

However, addressing issues arising from unpaid caring labour through the prism of governmental intervention is illustrative of a basic “nirvana fallacy” committed by many feminists when they opt for an idealised politicisation of caring labour, as opposed to its progressive commodification within the market sphere. The popular charge is that outsourcing home production activities to the competitive markets will merely provide encouragement to providers to skimp on the quality of provision, but this ignores that “open‐​ended, voluntary processes generated by resourceful middlemen, qualified knowers, trustworthy promisors, and wary consumers have been every bit as successful as government restrictions in providing quality and safety assurance” (source).

There are also a host of practical concerns about outsourcing home production activities with more explicit caring attributes to the state, rather than market participants who dynamically strive against each other to provide the best services for consumers. Prescriptive regulations, implemented for the purposes of promoting quality standards, may counterproductively drive some high‑quality, yet financially marginal, child care and education providers from the market, or raise prices beyond the reach of women (working and non‑working) and their families. And as Andreas Bergh and Magnus Henrekson have noted, the high taxes required to furnish substantial state provision of services may contribute toward a deficient marketisation of household production that women need should they wish to devote fewer hours to unpaid home labouring.

Matters surrounding how to deal with the gender division of unpaid household labouring remains subsumed within broader moral judgments and social critiques about the roles that women and men ought to assume in the economy and society but, in the final analysis, household production still has to be undertaken somehow, and by somebody. Even in light of the extraordinary changes over our lifetimes, not least those wrought by technological developments, the meals still have to be prepared; the cutlery and plates still need to be cleaned; the floors still need to be swept and vacuumed; and the clothes still have to be washed and ironed.

The revealed preference of a relatively declining share of female involvement in housework, indicates that more and more women are willingly opting out of household production activity. Such behavioural changes have, to no small extent, been affected by attitudinal changes more greatly leaning toward the desirability of women earning an income through market processes, as anecdotally evidenced by the opprobrium reserved for commentators who contend the most ‘appropriate’ place for women is in the home, or some part thereof.

But how households mix paid and unpaid labouring depends upon their circumstances and preferences, and these are fashioned, most substantially, by the choice set available to them to avoid or undertake the jobs that need to be completed in the home. As Steven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire once stated:

Every household must answer the same two basic questions: where will our market income come from and how will we engage in household production? Households take resources from the market and combine them with human labour to produce household outputs such as cooked meals, clean clothes, mowed lawns, and cared‑for children. For every household, there are a variety of ways to answer these questions.

For their part, libertarian feminists, at the very least, only seek to ensure that the choice set for all women and men, from rich to poor and regardless of background, is continuously extended such that housing occupants can make their own decentralised choices over how unpaid home labouring is to be managed, and who manages it. If women or men in the household wish to work relatively fewer hours, or even exclusively stay at home, to undertake household production activities, including the care and instruction of loved ones, then they should be free to make those choices, without fear or favour of expensive and manipulative government policies. If households choose to outsource home production, or, to use another phrase, “pay for housework,” they should be able to do so by hiring cleaners, gardeners, and other home maintenance specialists from an assortment of market options, in a policy environment which does not unduly stifle commodification possibilities.

It is a thoroughgoing acceptance and respect of the choices that people make for themselves in a choice‑rich environment, and a focus upon those conditions most conducive to ensuring the realisation of abundant choice (such as market‑based economic development), which characterizes the libertarian feminist position on this longstanding matter of broad feminist concern.