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New Left Review I/89, January-February 1975

Jean Gardiner

Women’s Domestic Labour

This contribution to current debates about the political economy of housework has two specific objectives. [1] Published contributions to these debates include Margaret Benston, ‘The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation’, Monthly Review September 1969 (reprinted in Voices from Women’s Liberation, ed. L. B. Tanner); Peggy Morton, ‘Women’s Work is Never Done’, Leviathan May 1970; Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, London 1970; John Harrison, ‘Political Economy of Housework’, Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists Spring 1974; Wally Seccombe, ‘The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism’, New Left Review 83.The present article is a slightly rewritten version of a paper presented to the Women and Socialism Conference held in Birmingham on 21–2 September 1974. The ideas expressed in the paper, although written by an individual, are to a very great extent the product of collective discussion in the London Political Economy of Women Group. Firstly, it presents a critique of Wally Seccombe’s article in nlr 83, ‘The Housewife and her Labour under Capitalism’. Secondly, it looks at two questions currently under discussion amongst Marxist feminists concerning women’s domestic labour. Why have housework and childcare, in modern industrial capitalist societies such as Britain, continued to such a great extent to be the responsibility of women and organized on a private family basis? What are the pressures working for or against fundamental change in the economic role of women within the family in the current phase of British capitalism? Since Seccombe does not himself attempt to answer these questions, it may not be immediately obvious why they should be linked to a critique of his article. However, it is his failure to relate the theory of women’s domestic labour to questions such as these, which are of key political importance to socialists in the women’s movement, that forms the basis of this critique—rather than the existence of internal inconsistencies or obscurity in his arguments themselves. I shall begin by summarizing and criticizing the core of Seccombe’s article, which concerns the role of women’s domestic labour in value creation. There will then follow a more general examination of Seccombe’s political and theoretical framework, which is counterposed to the approach of socialist feminists. This will lead into discussion of why women’s domestic labour has retained such importance in the reproduction and maintenance of the labour force. In conclusion, I shall look at the possible pressures currently working for or against change in the role of domestic labour.

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