Dusting Rafters - and Other Unpaid Tasks

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, on May 12, 1917, my great-grandfather ended his diary entry on a domestic note:

"Wife, Ethel, Lena, and Mary cleaning house and tending babies."

This was spring cleaning season, and almost every day for three weeks he interspersed accounts of his own activities - running his general store and preparing his small farm for spring planting - with variations on this housework-and-babies theme:

"Wife beat carpets."

"Wife and Ethel putting away clothes and tending babies."

"Wife varnishing floors."

"Wife, Ethel, and Lena caring for babies, cleaning, ironing."

Sometimes he mentioned outside chores:

"Wife raked yard."

"Wife and I brushed off rafters in big barn."

It was clear that they both worked hard to keep their home and business running smoothly. But there was a difference in their labor. He worked for money; she didn't.

It probably never occurred to my great-grandmother, or to millions of wives and mothers in generations before and after hers, that these endless domestic tasks might have a monetary value. Even today, it is hard to imagine putting a price tag on what is traditionally called "women's work."

Yet that is the goal of an international grass-roots movement, the Wages for Housework Campaign, which is observing its 20th anniversary this year.

Founded in London, the movement wants governments to count women's unpaid contributions in the home, in agriculture, and in the community as work that is productive to society. Putting a value on these unremunerated tasks, supporters say, is central to women's progress in other areas of their lives, including the workplace.

As a result of this campaign, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 1985 urging governments to include women's unwaged work in their gross national product (GNP).

Similarly, a bill introduced in Congress last fall would require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct time-use surveys, then estimate the monetary value of such unpaid services as care for family members, housework, volunteer service, and work in family businesses. The estimates would include unpaid work by men and women, and would be included in the GNP.

Not surprisingly, economists and statisticians disagree about the merit of such calculations. Some oppose having them included in the GNP, arguing that they would represent empty symbolism.

To be sure, assigning a value to this kind of labor gets complicated. How much would home-cooked meals be worth? A freshly waxed floor? Laundry? Or brushing off rafters in a barn? Is time the only measure, or does quality count too? And what about men's unpaid contributions? If a price tag were put on the time my great-grandmother spent beating the carpets, for instance, would an equal value need to be placed on the time her husband spent the day before, when he wrote, "Fixed rack to beat carpets on"?

In the early 1980s Michael Minton, a divorce lawyer in Chicago, wrote a book called "What Is A Wife Worth?" He estimated that a homemaker should earn more than $40,000 a year in her roles as cook, teacher, nurse, waitress, dishwasher, cleaning woman, secretary, and hostess. That figure would almost certainly be higher today.

What is work, and who is a worker? In a career-oriented society, the usual answers come with dollar signs attached. Anything that doesn't produce a paycheck at the end of the week doesn't quite count.

But the first step, even before figuring an equivalent wage, is to establish an equivalent status - to take away the apology from the phrases "just a housewife" or "just a mother."

The "labors of love" - tending babies, caring for children, providing the stability of a home - need to be recognized with every form of acknowledgment that can be mustered. As of now, the work of those family members who give care to the others is not only largely unpaid but mostly unhonored.

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