gendered division of labour and ‘feminism’

I love to cook and bake. I have a friend who is brave enough to call herself a feminist and she hates cooking. I made a massive batch of chilli jam the other week and I took her some in a little glass jar – hand-delivered by me to her office. She said to me, ‘you know, I don’t want you take offence at this, but for someone who is really critical of the gendered division of labour, you’re a really good homemaker!’ I laughed and just said, ‘yeah, I just love cooking’.

I have since thought about the exchange. I don’t think doing activities that are typically associated with femininity, such as baking, cooking, sewing etc is incompatible with being a femininist. I don’t think it’s incompatible with being critical of the gendered division of labour either.  Actually, I don’t think being a good homemaker is anything for a feminist to be ashamed of either. In fact, I think everyone, regardless of sex should strive to be good homemakers. I think it’s a shame that things like cooking, cleaning and childcare get outsourced to the market these days in countries like Australia and the US (and many more I’m sure). I certainly don’t think women should go back to the kitchen…on the contrary, I think men should join women in the kitchen. Women have ‘joined’ men in the paid workforce, now it’s time for the men to catch up, as far as I’m concerned.

And in actual fact the outsourcing of domestic work has done nothing to break down the gendered division of labour because the people who are now paid to perform that work are still overwhelmingly women.

I just finished reading a book by Amy Borovoy, an American academic, about Japanese women married to alcoholics. She made some really interesting points – in Japan, in general, the work done by mothers and houewives is respected. Nurturing both husband and children are important jobs done by married women. Motherhood is central to a woman’s identity and while there is pressure on women to be good mothers, there is also social respect. Full-time housewives in Japan are also eligible for the pension regardless of whether they have ever been in the paid labour force or not – unlike in Australia, where married women get little recoginition or financial reward for raising the kids, cooking the meals, doing the wasing and cleaning etc.

The burden on married women in Japan to look after the family (including in-laws) and household is immense, but because of their status as mothers they are buffered from social expectations placed on women to be sexually attractive to men, they do not face sexual harrassment or discrimination in the workforce, and they engage in community and voluntary life – something most people in the workforce don’t have time for. Borovoy is not saying that Japanese women have got it right, and nor am I. Housewives remain financially dependent on their husbands and if the marriage fails, divorce is a very difficult path to take. The American feminist movement that focused on equal rights has seen women enter the paid labour force and consequently nurturing and domestic tasks have been outsourced. Neither stories from the US or Japan have seen a significant breakdown of the gendered division of labour. Maybe in the future we will see something in between the case of Japan and the US where housework and parenting are given appropriate value and where it is not assumed that WOMEN will do those tasks.


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