The Role of the Housewife in Social Production (1940)

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The con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can left press often dis­cusses the 1970s Ital­ian fem­i­nist argu­ments for the pro­duc­tive char­ac­ter of house­work. How­ever, this argu­ment had already been made some­what closer to home. In 1936 Com­mu­nist Party USA fel­low trav­eler and even­tual mem­ber Mary Inman, who had roots in Social­ist Party and IWW milieus, wrote a large man­u­script review­ing anthro­po­log­i­cal the­o­ries of sex­ual dif­fer­ence, pop­u­lar dis­courses around fem­i­nin­ity, and the eco­nomic role of house­work. The man­u­script was rejected by the CPUSA, but por­tions were seri­al­ized in the San Fran­cisco-based daily People’s World, and even­tu­ally pub­lished in book form in 1940’s In Woman’s Defense. Its the­o­ret­i­cal con­clu­sion was rad­i­cal and explic­itly stated: “We come then to see the social impor­tance of 22 mil­lion house­wives’ work, and its present day rela­tion to the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. And we see how erro­neous is the belief that the house­wife became unim­por­tant to the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion when the home mainly ceased to be the place of pro­duc­tion it once was. We say mainly, and not entirely, because the most valu­able of all com­modi­ties is still pro­duced there: Labor Power.” 

While Inman’s the­ory was artic­u­lated in the lan­guage of the Pop­u­lar Front, with a strong empha­sis on mid­dle-class women, it nev­er­the­less sparked a bit­ter debate, opposed in offi­cial CP polemics by Avram Landy which insisted that women had no spe­cial inter­ests beyond gen­der-neu­tral social­ism. The remain­der of Inman’s book, along with a coun­ter-polemic, was pub­lished as Woman-Power in 1942, fol­lowed in turn by Landy’s 1943 Marx­ism and the Woman Ques­tion. Com­pletely mar­gin­al­ized by the CP, from which she even­tu­ally resigned, Inman envi­sioned a new orga­ni­za­tion for women called the “Union of Labor-Power Pro­duc­tion Work­ers,” and par­tic­i­pated in the “anti-revi­sion­ist” move­ment that split from the Party in the late 40s. In an extra­or­di­nary 1949 pam­phlet called 13 Years of CPUSA Mis­lead­er­ship on the Woman Ques­tion, Inman drew lines of demar­ca­tion that had been blurred in the ear­lier period, expos­ing the com­plic­ity between eco­nomic reduc­tion­ism and iden­ti­tar­ian reformism in the CPUSA. By effac­ing the eco­nomic role of women’s work and nat­u­ral­iz­ing the social phe­nom­e­non of moth­er­hood, the Party reduced the mass “strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ist oppres­sion of women” to the ide­o­log­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion of “mas­cu­line supe­ri­or­ity.” Social­ism, cut off from the agency of work­ing-class women, became lit­tle more than an abstract pol­icy to be imple­mented from above in alliance with the pro­gres­sive bour­geoisie, includ­ing bour­geois women’s orga­ni­za­tions.

Inman con­tin­ued to elab­o­rate on these themes up to 1964’s The Two Forms of Pro­duc­tion in Cap­i­tal­ism. We present here an essay from In Woman’s Defense.

The Housewife’s Role in Social Production

Work­ers of no other group have had their impor­tance so ignored and denied as present day house­wives.

Because pro­duc­tive tasks once per­formed in the home are now per­formed else­where, the housewife’s work now is under-rated to such an extent that she is con­sid­ered in cer­tain quar­ters to even be liv­ing in ease and par­a­sitism.

Adding to this erro­neous notion, and appear­ing to sup­port it, is the fact that the 22 mil­lion house­wives who work only at home and do all their work have no earn­ings or income of their own and must depend upon their food, cloth­ing and hous­ing being bought with money earned by their hus­bands.

Now this sup­port a hus­band gives his wife comes out of pro­duc­tion, and if she is not use­ful, in fact indis­pens­able to the own­ers of indus­try, why do they per­mit 22 mil­lion women to sub­sist on the pro­ceeds of indus­try? They could not pos­si­bly be unaware that these 22 mil­lion women, not directly pro­duc­tive, are out there.

And this own­ing class is noted for its abil­ity to exploit the bal­ance of the pop­u­la­tion in some man­ner. So insis­tent are they that per­sons work for them that they even hound those they refuse to employ, because they are unem­ployed, as the bulk of the vagrancy cases bear wit­ness.

Why then do not the paid pro­pa­gan­dists of this own­ing class attack this arrange­ment of 22 mil­lion house­wives being main­tained out of the pro­ceeds of indus­try, instead of laud­ing the arrange­ment and sur­round­ing it with moral­is­tic robes?

There can only be one answer. Under cer­tain con­di­tions it prof­its them. Under cer­tain con­di­tions it is irre­place­able.

One very strik­ing pecu­liar­ity of cer­tain trends of the­ory about woman and what is called woman’s work, is that this work has been described and then else­where, gen­er­ally apart from it, broad gen­er­al­iza­tions have been made refer­ring to woman’s sub­ju­ga­tion being a part of the sys­tem of exploita­tion of human labor, but these two things have not been ade­quately con­nected.

It is some­what as if the woods were described and in a sep­a­rate sec­tion the trees were also described but the whole mat­ter was left in such a dis­con­nected shape that nei­ther seemed to have any rela­tion to the other; the trees did not appear to be in the woods and the woods were not a col­lec­tiv­ity of trees.

Let us illus­trate the point fur­ther. The work of a cook in a log­ging camp is a nec­es­sary part of the pro­duc­tion of lum­ber. The ser­vices of all the cooks in all the camps, restau­rants and eat­ing places wherever pro­duc­tive work­ers are fed, are a nec­es­sary part of pro­duc­tion. And for the same rea­son, the work of the cooks in the homes of pro­duc­tive work­ers is also, at present, a nec­es­sary part of pro­duc­tion.

The labor of a woman, who cooks for her hus­band, who is mak­ing tires in the Fire­stone plant in South­gate, Cal­i­for­nia, is essen­tially as much a part of the pro­duc­tion of auto­mo­bile tires as the cooks and wait­resses in the cafes where Fire­stone work­ers eat.

And all the wives of all the Fire­stone work­ers, by the nec­es­sary social labor they per­form in the home, have a part in the pro­duc­tion of Fire­stone Tires, and their labor is as insep­a­ra­bly knit into those tires as is the labor of their hus­bands.

Any­one can mul­ti­ply this illus­tra­tion by the prod­ucts pro­duced by Repub­lic Steel, Stan­dard Oil, Henry Ford, etc., and always get the same answer, that the wives’ labor is a nec­es­sary ser­vice in the cre­ation of prod­ucts in these plants. 

The labor of work­ers in the laun­dries who wash cloth­ing for pro­duc­tive work­ers is nec­es­sary to the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion. Maids and porters who sweep the floors, make the beds and tidy the rooms in board­ing houses or camps where pro­duc­tive work­ers sleep and rest, so that they may pre­pare them­selves to return to work the next day, are a nec­es­sary link in the pro­duc­tive process.

And in the same way, the labor of house­wives in the homes of pro­duc­tive work­ers who per­form the ser­vices of keep­ing cloth­ing washed and beds and floors clean, is also an indis­pens­able part of pro­duc­tion.

Per­sons who work in houses where chil­dren are boarded and trained, or schooled, are per­form­ing a use­ful ser­vice, and their labor is indis­pens­able to the present method of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion. And for a sim­i­lar rea­son, mil­lions of women in homes, who do the greater part of such work, are ren­der­ing an indis­pens­able ser­vice to the present method of pro­duc­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing com­modi­ties.

If prof­its are to be made, com­modi­ties must not only be pro­duced but dis­trib­uted. Both pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion are com­plex and are insep­a­ra­bly linked to com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion, and have ten­ta­cles that extend into schools and almost every legit­i­mate phase of human activ­ity.

The house­wife does not cook eight or nine hours like the camp cook, nor wash and iron a stated num­ber of hours like the laun­dry worker, nor make beds for cer­tain hours like the maid in the hotel or room­ing house, nor teach and nurse and feed chil­dren, future pro­duc­tive work­ers, a stated num­ber of hours like teach­ers and work­ers in nurs­eries and schools, but she does per­form all these tasks, and more, for unlim­ited and unstated hours every day, every week, and every month for years.

If the man cook in the lum­ber camp could be held to a sub­or­di­nate eco­nomic posi­tion, directly under another worker and required to work, not nine hours, but an indef­i­nite num­ber, from ten to twelve, or more, and be paid noth­ing directly but have to get his keep from the lit­tle extra given the worker over him, and then be scorn­fully referred to as being “kept,” it is easy to see that his employer would be fur­ther enriched by the decreased sta­tus and length­ened hours of the cook.

And it is in some such man­ner that the col­lec­tive own­ers of indus­try, the Hearsts, Rock­e­fellers, Mel­lons, du Ponts, Fords and Mor­gans ben­e­fit by the cheap labor of the col­lec­tive house­wives and their resul­tant eco­nomic and social degra­da­tion. Besides, the wife’s depen­dence is a means of bind­ing the man too, and of reach­ing through the par­ents their sub­ject chil­dren.

And what shall we say of the house­work mid­dle class women per­formed under devel­op­ing cap­i­tal­ism, clean­ing, cook­ing, iron­ing, scrub­bing and wash­ing clothes and dishes? We must con­sider the work of most of these women as being nec­es­sary to the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion also.

It is true that some of them hired girls but in many cases where they did, the house­wife her­self per­formed a great deal of use­ful work. It is our belief that the major­ity of the women of what is com­monly called the mid­dle class, did not sub­sist par­a­sit­i­cally upon soci­ety, but did socially use­ful, nec­es­sary work.

Why was it use­ful, and why was it nec­es­sary? Because at one stage of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism the mid­dle class was an indis­pens­able part of the sys­tem of man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing com­modi­ties. These per­sons with small cap­i­tal invest­ments were use­ful to the big cap­i­tal­ists, who had not yet got­ten around to depart­ment and chain stores, and mass pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion.

When feu­dal­ism was over­thrown by cap­i­tal­ism, the new sys­tem in the process of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing pro­duc­tion, and spread­ing over the world, uti­lized mil­lions of small pro­duc­ers and dis­trib­u­tors.

And until the big cap­i­tal­ists had time and oppor­tu­nity to expand over the entire earth with impe­ri­al­is­tic, monop­o­lis­tic com­bi­nes and inter­lock­ing com­pa­nies, banks, loans and busi­ness inter­ests, hun­dreds of thou­sands of lit­tle stores and one-man man­age­ment fac­to­ries, with the man­ager often mak­ing a hand him­self, were required in the United States, and mil­lions more were required through­out the world.

This mid­dle class helped build and develop and present machine sys­tem. Dur­ing the build­ing, the larger cap­i­tal­ists ben­e­fited by col­lect­ing trib­ute in the form of rent, inter­est, taxes and in var­i­ous other ways from this mid­dle class.

Yet, although this trib­uted increased in kind and amount with the years, that did not sat­isfy the big cap­i­tal­ists who wanted own­er­ship in more and more cases and not only wanted own­er­ship but took it.

And in time, monopoly-finance cap­i­tal­ists, with their inside track on pol­i­tics and increas­ing power of wealth con­trol, through financ­ing and pro­duc­ing goods and sell­ing them cheaper, prac­ti­cally destroyed the once numer­i­cally great mid­dle class. 

The small indi­vid­u­ally owned and oper­ated fac­to­ries and stores became out­moded and could not com­pete with ever-grow­ing enter­prises not hand­i­capped by small cap­i­tal invest­ments. Such a method of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion truly belonged to the horse and buggy days, but like the horse and buggy, use­ful in its his­tor­i­cal set­ting.

The mid­dle class house­wife then, who did use­ful house­work for a hus­band engaged in such work of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion, or for songs so engaged, or for songs who were already, or prepar­ing to become, tech­ni­cians, engi­neers or teach­ers for the cap­i­tal­ists, or for daugh­ters who would become the work­ing wives of men so employed, such mid­dle class house­wives filled a socially use­ful role in their day to day work, and they con­tributed to the cumu­la­tive build­ing of the great fac­tory process that is mod­ern Amer­ica.

House­wives of both the mid­dle and the work­ing classes helped cre­ate this wealth that is Amer­ica today, and part of it belongs to them by right of toil.

Author of the article

(1894-1985) was a Marxist-feminist theorist and activist.