A remarkable, pioneering Marxist essay by Dr. Maud Thompson on what we might now call ‘social reproduction,’ and how to qualify and quantify women’s household labor in capitalist society and her role as a woman worker. A work from 1909 that would not at all be out of place, with some exceptions, in a discussion today. Maud Thompson was a member of the Socialist Party, a leading feminist, and an academic who received her doctorate from Wellesley exploring property rights among Athenian women. She was married to international editor of ISR, William E. Bohn.
‘The Value of Woman’s Work’ by Maud Thompson from International Socialist Review. Vol. 10 No. 6. December, 1909.
THE Marxian principles of value deal with social products and their application to woman’s work has, therefore, been limited to woman’s work in the factory and the shop. But the majority of women are not engaged in industrial production; at least three-fifths of them are engaged in home production. Yet more and more home products are being replaced by factory products, more and more the work of the housewife has to compete with the work of organized business.
Through the use of steam-heated flats and steam laundries, by the purchase of prepared foods and by the hiring of house-cleaning machines, the needs of a small family may now be supplied with out demanding a full day’s work from the housekeeper. But these methods of lessening labor are as yet more expensive than woman’s unskilled labor performed at home, and they will not replace the latter in the average family until it costs more to keep a working wife than to buy the products of the factory girl’s labor. In the wage-earner’s family the work of cleaning, serving, cooking and repairing which is still left to the housekeeper is quite enough to fill more than an eight-hour working-day.
Much has been written about the value of woman’s work in the days when she “fed and clothed the world.” Is it not worth while to examine the value of the housekeeper’s work under modern conditions? If it is to be compared at all with other work, it must be considered with reference to some common standard, must be measured as all labor is by its usefulness, its exchange value and its market price.
The worth of a thing lies in its usefulness to some person. If one person in the world desires a thing, it is useful to that person, but if no one else wants it, it cannot be exchanged and therefore has no social value. When a thing becomes exchangeable, it must be measured by some common social standard, and that standard is labor, for labor is the only thing which makes the material furnished by nature useful to man. Since the standard is a social one, the value of any. one commodity does not depend on the amount of individual labor that object may happen to contain. If a cobbler makes a pair of shoes a day and a man at a machine turns out a hundred pairs a day, the cobbler’s shoes, if of the same quality, will not be worth a hundred machine-made pairs. In the words of Marx: “The labor-time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.” It is the average labor-time with average skill and the average tools which determines the value of a product. So the use or worth of work and its products is a very different thing from its exchange-value, and its price, the exchange-value expressed in money, is yet another matter.
In valuing a commodity its use-value may be the hardest thing to determine, for it depends on the people who use it. In reference to woman’s work this happens to be the easiest part of the problem. In the individual household the housekeeper is not merely useful but necessary. Men have been known to marry solely to replace her. From an industrial point of view woman’s usefulness as a house-keeper has probably been overrated. Men stand in the bread-line because they can get no work while inexperienced girls are sought as house-workers. Yet in the family as now constituted the use-value of the housekeeper can hardly be overestimated. Only in the slum family, when death or the factory claims the mother, is the house-keeper dispensed with. A home without a woman worker is looked upon as the last misery of humanity.
Woman’s work in the family is productive in character and absolutely essential to the existence of the family. Its use-value is comparable only to that part of man’s work which designs, makes and distributes things; none of it is of that non-productive class of labor upon which so much of man’s labor is expended, such as advertising, gambling and law-suits. Woman’s work in the household is the repairing of the daily waste by transforming the man’s wages into a thousand material things that satisfy the family needs. Psychologically her work is nearer to the primitive forces of production than is man’s, for in modern industry the man who tends a wheel in the big machine of production can get very little sense of the real producing force of his work; a woman’s work is all before her eyes.
But while in quality woman’s work has exceptionally high use-value to the family, its primitive and unspecialized methods render it a most wasteful social product. Under the present constitution of society woman’s work as housekeeper is absolutely essential, but the total productiveness of the race, and that means civilization, is held back by the low degree of producing power in the feminine part of the workers. The team of humanity is not pulling even from the economical viewpoint. Machinery has done little for housework because most labor-saving devices are too expensive to be owned by the individual family. While man’s industrial world has been revolutionized, woman’s has been merely modified.
It is because of its failure as a social product that the exchange-value of woman’s home-work has remained so slight and so indefinite. Although women have been working in a primitive world of their own, with simple tools and at occupations unskilled because so diversified, that world has been within another world where production is skillful and rapid. It is inevitable that the standards of value in the industrial world should affect the valuation of woman’s work in the household. Yet “the labor socially necessary” to measure man’s contributions to production cannot fairly be compared with that socially necessary in woman’s field, for the one is expended in a world of specialization and machinery, the other in a world of handwork and unspecialized labor. Industrially they are three centuries apart.
Under the old system of household production some of woman’s work done in the home had a real exchange-value. In Crete six hundred years before Christ every woman had her own capital and income from “what she spun.” But the household work remaining to women has absolutely no definite exchange-value. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much labor is socially necessary to run a household, what is the average skill, what the average equipment.
The difficulty of fixing the value of the housekeeper’s work is seen in the confusion and helplessness of those well-meaning couples who try to solve the problem by coming to some working agreement. Some of those who are striving to give the wife a dignified, economic position claim that the husband’s income should be equally divided between husband and wife; others would make the income a family fund from which expenditures could be made only by mutual agreement, while others would put the wife on wages, making the husband the employer. The difficulty with the family partnership is that it is a very delicately balanced equality. The sole control is apt to go over to one partner or the other, and which way the power falls is determined not so much by the value of the contribution of each partner as by his or her personal power. So difficult is it for the reformers to make woman’s present economic position rational.
But in the real world where philosophers and the just are few, woman’s work goes into a market where values are even more confused. Like the wage-slaves woman sells her labor-power, not her product; but unlike others, she does not sell it by the week, the day or the year, but for life. Moreover in the initial bargain the economic conditions are disguised by the fact that the woman’s person is given with her labor-power and that over the whole is thrown a mist of sentiment and tradition. But economically, it is not only a bargain but, especially on the woman’s side, a speculation. She gambles on the chance that some particular man may turn out a “good provider” and stakes her whole life on his probable “rise” in the world. She throws her own unskilled and unspecialized labor into the family service as the price of a home. The nature of a home she is able to procure is determined, however, not by her productive power, but by her personality and her social position.
After marriage a woman rates, as a worker, as a member of the family she has chosen and not as a member of society. She gets such a “living” as the family has, sometimes worse, rarely better, but never in proportion to her own productiveness. Among the proletariat the reward of her labor is the same as that of the man, subsistence. Sometimes, with the man’s, it sinks below the level of subsistence and often below the level where normal reproduction is possible. The higher the man’s wage becomes or the more property he acquires, the more reward, as a rule, the wife receives for her labor. The use-value of her labor has not altered in the least, however, and her skill has not greatly increased. Her reward is evidently quite arbitrary according to any individual standard. As a worker she is not a productive unit but a necessary part of a wage-earning machine. As the machine increases in value she is better cared for, though her own working value is stationary or decreasing. Her own productiveness she is unable to increase to any extent be- case she cannot improve even her tools unless the man’s wage-earning power increases. As a matter of fact, as her wage-earning machine increases in productiveness she usually becomes less and less useful until, like any useless part, she atrophies and drops off from the working body. She is no longer even the feeder of a wage-earning machine, she has entered the class of idle women. In that class her labor power is almost zero, her price depends wholly on her personal and social worth. It is by the working out of this system that the parasitic class of women is produced. Men perform manual labor to secure food, clothing and shelter; when these are provided, the energies relax or turn to a more attractive kind of labor. In the case of the wage-earner the wife usually contributes at the beginning far more than the value of her own living. As the family prospers, she receives at some point value equal to the full value of her labor. But as the family acquires property, the housekeeper works less and less until She has passed the point where she is worth her “keep” and has become a parasite. Relieved from the necessity of earning their bread, the weaker relax into idleness varied by eating and dressing and some oversight of hired labor. The women with vitality enough to create for themselves new occupations go into study, philanthropy or the professions.
The class of parasites is larger among women than among men, for men who acquire enough to live on rarely enter a new occupation. The reason is obvious. By the time a man reaches the point where he does not have to work, he has escaped from manual labor into the attractive game of business. A woman who manages an elaborate and luxurious household is comparable superficially to a man who directs a business, but the difference between their spheres of action is an important one. In the modern business world the opportunities for the expenditure of a man’s energies are almost unlimited, the field of a “lady housekeeper” is a single family. However she may elaborate the scheme of daily life, she can scarcely find room for her energies in directing the labor of others. It is true that by entering the world of social pleasure she may extend the sphere of her activities and find an opportunity for playing as good a game as business, but she enters then upon a wholly non-productive occupation which has no relation to her function as housekeeper.
It follows from this shifting scale of reward and from its curious relation to the producing power of another that the woman house-worker really has no notion of the value of her subsistence. In one class she thinks of herself as “supported” whatever the value of her work, and in another class she considers herself as worthy of any subsistence however slight her contributions to the family service. This haziness of woman as to her own worth extends to the atmosphere of the wage-earning woman. She cuts her subsistence down to the necessity line by cooking her own food and making her own clothing. Thus she makes herself a less expensive machine for an employer and enables him to replace expensively fed men by cheaply fed women.
Another condition which makes it difficult to estimate the value of woman’s work is the elimination of the time-element. Her labor bargain was for life; her labor day is limited only by her own endurance. Her labor cannot be regulated by law; it is not regulated by efficiency. Woman’s is the typical “free labor,” free to contract for life, selling labor-power for subsistence, the household slave of a wage-slave.
The economic link between the wife who works for board and clothes and the factory “hand” who works for wages is the hired house-worker, the so-called “servant.” The “servant” is a remnant of the old household system’ of labor, as is seen in the “residence requirement,” the condition of employment under which part of the wage is paid in board and lodging. The board varies with the financial status of the employer but does not, except in a general way, represent the value of the work. The higher the wage and the easier the work, the better usually the board, but over that part of the bargain the “servant” usually has no control. Her skill as a worker may enable her to get a job in a family where the standard of living is high but her share of the luxuries of the family life is arbitrarily determined by her employer. Thus her situation, as far as her “living” goes, exactly duplicates that of the working wife. But in the case of a “servant” a new element enters in, wages. It is a curious feature of our marriage system that a woman will sell her labor-power plus her person for less than her labor alone. It is true that for the wife there is always the hope of a “rise” in the social scale, a prospect denied to the “servant.”
Except for the one important fact that the house-worker is evidently worth more than her mere “living,” the paid house-worker’s wage does not help us much in determining the value of the woman’s household work. The “servant” works usually under the direction and with the help of another woman, her employer, who is partly emancipated from labor and gives to the housework what time she can spare from other occupations. But for various obvious reasons there is no overcrowding in the trade of house-service and, as a consequence of the unusual demand, the house-worker fares as well or better than the average woman wage-earner. Exploitation of the house-worker through machinery is impossible and so far in the progress of capitalism, exploitation of servants through the use of the reserve army of the unemployed has been blocked by the inexorable family and social sentiment. To “go into service” means not only to lower the worker’s social status, but to surrender her family life. Factory toil or any kind of a marriage has been preferable to the average American woman. But the shifting class of the unemployed grows and the end of the capitalistic regimé is not yet in sight. If the wall of social pride and family solidarity is battered down by hunger, we may expect to see the same exploitation of house-workers that we now find practiced on factory workers.
The present housework system under which in one class the housework is done by overworked, unpaid wives, and in another class by hired “servants” who are in the family but not of it, is an essential part of the bourgeois capitalistic system. Every bourgeois family is struggling to emerge into the servant-employing class; every proletarian family is trying to keep its girls out of the servant class. Under this system of domestic economy the increase of the servant-class means not so much a specialization of the trade of housework as an increase in the class of parasitic women. Where a paid house-worker takes the place of the unpaid wife in order to release the latter for productive, paid labor elsewhere, that is a step in the specialization of labor and the emancipation of women. But at present in only one family in ten in the United States is the housework done by hired labor; in other families it is paid for by “living” only. In spite of the increase of the number of servants and the rise in their wages, the method of paying the other nine-tenths of the house-workers has not been affected. On the other hand the economic condition of the “servant” depends on the economic status of the women in the industrial world, rather than those in the household. The paid house-worker and the unpaid wife live under the same conditions of family labor, their board and lodging being regulated by their employer, but the wage of the “servant” is measured not by the value of the wife’s work, but by the value of the girl in the factory or shop.
It is obvious that to speculate on the value of woman’s work in terms of wages is idle, for she is not living under the wage system. The work of running a household involves the practice of a number of skilled trades, requires the use of much unskilled labor and demands some administrative power. To rate this combination of trades and effort with its undetermined labor-time would be an appalling task. But it is a task we need not undertake, for the work of the housekeeper who is also the wife is not exchangeable and, therefore, can have no real money value.
What is clear is that the work of women under this system is socially wasteful and individually unfair. The industrial revolution with its increased production and labor-saving devices must remake the home too. It has already entered there and modified a hundred processes used in providing for the family needs. That revolution must go on. When woman’s task in the home is one of oversight only, she will be free to work in any form of labor which is marketable and will receive the actual product of her labor in the form of exchange that is socially recognized. Many a woman would live less well than she does, were her work the measure of her living. Many a woman who now works fourteen hours a day, seven days in the week for board and clothing would have a larger share in the social product, if her work ever came into the market.
Woman’s work must eventually conform to modern industrial methods and be measured by a common social standard. What the method of valuation is to be will be determined by the economic structure of society as a whole. If the capitalistic system survives, there is no reason to suppose that the present tendency to divide women into the toilers and the idle will be checked. Women of the proletariat will be forced more and more into the wage system and employed outside the home. Women of the bourgeoisie will come nearer to the bourgeois ideal for women, idleness with power to direct the hired labor of the proletarian women.
The collective ownership of the means of production and distribution would not necessarily mean any economic rating of the work done in the individual home. In other words, state ownership of industries would not make married women economically independent. But social evolution is working toward larger ends than the mere owning of machinery by all the people, important though that change be; it tends always toward socialized production. Bit by bit the stupid, primitive, unproductive ways by which housework is done are giving way to scientific, co-operative production of food and clothing. Every invention in this realm strikes one more chain from the housebound, unpaid wife. Under the banner of industrial democracy all women will be free to spend their energies either in motherhood or in specialized, paid, productive labor. Socialism works to give every individual full opportunity to live, and its very existence will ultimately depend on its freeing humanity not by sexes, nor by races, but universally.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v10n06-dec-1909-ISR-gog.pdf