That Time When Virginia Woolf Called for Wages for Housework

Dayton Martindale January 25, 2018

Virginia Woolf's politics were complicated—and revolutionary. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Born 136 years ago today, Vir­ginia Woolf was a pio­neer­ing fem­i­nist thinker who reject­ed the label fem­i­nist”; she sup­port­ed the Labour Par­ty while show­ing lit­tle sol­i­dar­i­ty with her own ser­vants. Her pol­i­tics, in short, can be as hard to pin down as her lilt­ing, lin­ger­ing sen­tences — but both, make no mis­take, were revolutionary.

In her 1938 anti-war book Three Guineas, framed as a series of let­ters to male-run orga­ni­za­tions that had asked her for dona­tions, she makes a case for women’s empow­er­ment as the route to paci­fism. A fol­low-up to her more famous A Room of One’s Own, the epis­to­lary essays mix earnest out­rage with cut­ting satire, at once a call to arms and laugh-out-loud funny.

And in one sec­tion, almost as an aside, she advo­cates wages for house­work, 35 years before the launch of a glob­al Marx­ist fem­i­nist move­ment that would make the same demand.

Anti-war women, she writes, must press for a mon­ey wage for the unpaid work­er in her own class — the daugh­ters and sis­ters of edu­cat­ed men. … But above all she must press for a wage to be paid by the State legal­ly to the moth­ers of edu­cat­ed men.”

(Woolf has been crit­i­cized, per­haps just­ly, for focus­ing on the rel­a­tives of edu­cat­ed men.” And there is an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between wages for house­work” and wages for those whose pro­fes­sion is mar­riage and moth­er­hood” in a milieu where much house­work was done by under­paid ser­vants. But her repeat­ed use of edu­cat­ed men” through­out the book can also be inter­pret­ed as a tongue-and-cheek jab at the self-impor­tance of those men, her intend­ed audience.)

The anti-war case for these wages is based on who edu­cat­ed men” are most like­ly to lis­ten to: In a class soci­ety, the opin­ions of those who earn their own liv­ing are treat­ed as more valu­able than the opin­ions of those who do not. So if women were no longer forced to be depen­dent, they might be more respect­ed. But she real­izes the effects of eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence go deeper:

[Wages are] the most effec­tive way in which we can ensure that the large and very hon­ourable class of mar­ried women shall have a mind and a will of their own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to sup­port her hus­band, if bad to resist him, in any case to cease to be his woman” and to be her self. You will agree, Sir, with­out any asper­sion upon the lady who bears your name, that to depend upon her for your income would effect a most sub­tle and unde­sir­able change in your psychology. 

In oth­er words, eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence cre­ates space for polit­i­cal independence.

As she is mak­ing the case to a male audi­ence, she then turns her eye to where a two-income mar­riage might lib­er­ate the hus­band, too:

If your wife were paid for her work, the work of bear­ing and bring­ing up chil­dren, a real wage, a mon­ey wage, so that it became an attrac­tive pro­fes­sion instead of being as it is now an unpaid pro­fes­sion, an unpen­sioned pro­fes­sion, and there­fore a pre­car­i­ous and dis­hon­oured pro­fes­sion, your own slav­ery would be light­ened. No longer need you go to the office at nine-thir­ty and stay there till six. Work could be equal­ly dis­trib­uted. … Cul­ture would thus be stim­u­lat­ed. You could see the fruit trees flower in spring. You could share the prime of life with your chil­dren. And after that prime was over no longer need you be thrown from the machine on to the scrap heap with­out any life left or inter­ests sur­viv­ing to parade the envi­rons of Bath or Chel­tenham in the care of some unfor­tu­nate slave. No longer would you be the Sat­ur­day caller, the alba­tross on the neck of soci­ety, the sym­pa­thy addict, the deflat­ed work slave call­ing for replen­ish­ment; or, as Herr Hitler puts it, the hero requir­ing recre­ation, or, as Sign­or Mus­soli­ni puts it, the wound­ed war­rior requir­ing female depen­dants to ban­dage his wounds. If the State paid your wife a liv­ing wage for her work, … the old mill in which the pro­fes­sion­al man now grinds out his round, often so weari­ly, with so lit­tle plea­sure to him­self or prof­it to his pro­fes­sion, would be bro­ken; the oppor­tu­ni­ty of free­dom would be yours; the most degrad­ing of all servi­tudes, the intel­lec­tu­al servi­tude, would be end­ed; the half-man might become whole. 

(She goad­ing­ly admits that politi­cians will find this pro­pos­al imprac­ti­ca­ble,” as pay­ing for war must remain a high­er pri­or­i­ty than pay­ing women.)

This does not mean Woolf thought women should con­fine them­selves to the home. She calls on women to enter all the pro­fes­sions now open to her sex,” though advis­es to remain out­side any pro­fes­sion hos­tile to free­dom, such as the mak­ing or the improve­ment of the weapons of war.”

She even flirts with a break from cap­i­tal­ist labor, call­ing on women to cease all com­pe­ti­tion and to prac­tise their pro­fes­sion exper­i­men­tal­ly, in the inter­ests of research and for love of the work itself, when they had earned enough to live upon.”

A vision it’s easy to get behind — though not for many men of the time. Three Guineas was con­tro­ver­sial even to some in her inner cir­cle. Accord­ing to her nephew Quentin Bell, Woolf’s friend John May­nard Keynes found it dif­fi­cult not to lose his tem­per with a pro­duc­tion that seemed to him so shrill, so fool­ish, so muddleheaded.”

But 80 years lat­er, the book stands among the best of her oeu­vre, and bat­tles for eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence, child­care sup­port and an end to mil­i­tarism remain impor­tant realms of fem­i­nist struggle.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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