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  • Forging a Politics of Care:Theorizing Household Work in the British Women's Liberation Movement
  • Sarah Stoller (bio)

In 1972 the Cambridge Women's Liberation group published an essay that had first appeared in Italian earlier the same year. Its author began:

We have discovered our invisible work, the enormous quantity of work that women are forced to perform every day … this work, which consists of having children and taking care of them, feeding a man, keeping him tidy and cheering him up after work is never presented as such.

She went on to say:

We are looking at our work in a new way. We have been taught to see that work as an expression of our femininity, in which, we are told, our finest quality – generosity – is fully expressed in giving others security and serenity … we now see that work as a socially necessary activity which must be paid for …1

Over the course of the 1970s, feminists in Britain and elsewhere in the West raised questions about the nature of work and criticized the gendered division of labour. They argued that the undervaluing of women's work lay at the heart of troubled relations between men and women and viewed the transformation of this work as a necessary condition for the formation of new types of intimacy. By the late 1970s British feminists routinely referred to the 'burden of care' that seemed to fall automatically to women as the emotional centres of households and called for a rethinking of caring within the home and beyond.2

The issues of household work, paid employment, and women's social roles as carers were combined in the crucible of the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) as activists sought to challenge women's status theoretically and politically. By drawing attention to the emotional labour performed by women and to the commodification pervading intimacy, activists in Britain responded and contributed to a shift underway in both the affective and political economies of labour. The highpoint of feminist [End Page 95]

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Fig 1.

'Capitalism also depends on domestic labour', See Red Women's Workshop, Poster, London, 1975.

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Fig 2.

'My wife doesn't work', See Red Women's Workshop, Poster, London, 1976.

[End Page 96] activism in Britain in the 1970s coincided with a major restructuring of the British labour force with corresponding consequences for family life. Between 1951 and 1971, the proportion of married women in work in Britain doubled from twenty-three to forty-six percent.3 British women's overall labour-force participation continued to rise in the 1970s, from fifty-two to sixty-five per cent.4 This growth was fuelled in large part by the expansion of part-time employment.5 As women entered the workforce, they did so primarily in the lower-paid female-dominated sectors of the economy – personal services, clerical, health, education, welfare, and sales.6 While women's rates of employment outside of the home increased in the 1970s, they nonetheless continued to perform a disproportionate share of household work. In 1988 the British Social Attitudes Survey found that women employed part time were responsible for housework in eighty-eight percent of households. In families where both partners worked full time, the figure remained seventy-two percent, and in unemployed households it remained seventy-six percent.7 By the end of the twentieth century, there was some indication of growing male involvement in domestic work, though men were much more likely to spend time with children than to carry out tasks such as cleaning, cooking and laundry.8

As women mobilized around a broad array of feminist concerns in the 1970s, questions of women's work both inside and outside the home had a new salience. The subject of women's household work, first raised by nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminists, had re-emerged as a political theme in the postwar West as early as 1949 with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. In the 1960s the issue gained steam, particularly in the wake of Betty Friedan's 1963 The Feminine Mystique. While historians have...


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