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  • The Cost of the Gift:Gender and Labor in Lydia Maria Child's Writings
  • Hildegard Hoeller

Imagine being asked to work seven days a week, for free, without breaks or even a thank you. Those conditions might seem outrageous in any workplace, yet they are typical in our homes, where women are regularly expected to serve as faithful unpaid caregivers. Our recognition of the first scenario as a serious violation of labor rights, while the second can be brushed off as "tradition," is a measure of the sexism still embedded in our thinking about economic equity in the U.S. and around the world.1

Michelle Chen, "All Work and No Pay" (28 Feb. 2013)

A Massachusetts study estimates that adding unpaid care to traditional measures would increase the state's gdp from $352 billion to $504 billion—and that if unpaid care were counted in gdp, it would amount to nearly 30 percent of goods and services produced in the state.

Riane Eisler and Kimberly Otis, "Unpaid and Undervalued Care Work Keeps Women on the Brink" (22 Jan. 2014)

Lydia Maria Child's writings on the traps of unpaid labor or gift-giving by women are, to me, some of her most important legacies. This gift-giving—the extension of female labor without remuneration in a personal gift economy perceived of as separate from industrial capitalism—still causes women to be more likely to live in poverty than men. Child herself often lived at the brink of poverty; she in no way sympathized with capitalism and envisioned mutual gift-giving as a model for citizenship. However, she understood that as long as the US economy was based on capitalism and self-interest, women would be impoverished if they spent their lives giving rather than earning.

When Child wrote The American Frugal Housewife in 1829 she did so to escape her own poverty and to suggest ways for other women to do so as well;2 the book not only provides valuable and money-saving household advice but also reimagines the household in economic terms: "The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be [End Page 17] thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of the family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money. 'Time is Money'" (3). Child's use of the terms "materials," "time," and "earning" radically reenvisions the household economy not as separate from but as part of industrial capitalism.3 This was timely, as women were then being discovered as an untapped labor force for early industrial capitalism (Larson 112). Child clarifies that her image of gathering fragments should not be confused with the art of quilting, a form of communal, unpaid craft that wastes time rather than economizes it. "In this point of view," she writes, "patchwork is good economy. It is indeed a foolish waste of time to tear cloth into bits for the sake of arranging it anew in fantastic figures; but a large family may be kept out of idleness, and a few shillings saved, by thus using scraps of gowns, curtains, &c." (3). Unlike quilting, Child's patchwork economy is strictly about time and money.

Throughout her writings, Child affirms that the gift and its earliest form, sacrifice, should be central prerogatives for ideal citizenship for both men and women; however, she also warns women that their gift-giving and sacrifices will be self-destructive in a world that is ruled by self-interest.4 Proponents of the dominant separate sphere ideology understood Child's challenge all too well. Writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, one such advocate, cautioned:

Now we do not think that either in earning or saving money consists the chief importance of life. And we fear in thus inculcating the love of money, that root of all evil, as a wise precept, in a book designed as a manual for young housekeepers. Our men are sufficiently money-making. Let us keep our...


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