I was surprised to hear her experience, though I suppose I already knew inside why we need to attend to the truths of women’s lives.
In my Women’s Studies class, we were reading Catharine MacKinnon’s classic piece on consciousness-raising. A woman quoted in the article said, ‘I am nothing when I am by myself…I only know I exist because I am needed by someone who is real, my husband, and by my children. My husband goes out into the real world. Other people recognize him as real, and take him into account….I stay in my imaginary world in this house… The work I do changes nothing; what I cook disappears, what I clean one day must be cleaned again the next…”
A housewife in my class, articulate and passionate, read this excerpt to us because it described how she feels every day. Then, she began to cry. Don’t worry, forget it, she said, dismissing her feelings and her voice.
Not in my class. Knowledge should touch not only our minds, but our hearts. It should rattle the cages we peer through. It should teach that our silences will not protect us, and it should turn our fears into language and transformation. Invisibility and inequality hurt, and we can also get cut by the shards when we shatter those glass walls. It’s totally okay to cry.
Another woman suggested that the first not let anyone undervalue her contribution as a mother to her family and to society. However, it is not that housewives must discover self-validation from within themselves. It is that our values must change.
Housewives live in a society where their labour has no visibility and no value. CSO does not count the number of hours spent on cooking, cleaning or caring for elderly or children. It is as if the care economy, for which women remain unequally responsible and without which the waged economy would collapse, does not exist. The government has no clue what the these many thousands of hours and skills add to Gross National Product (GNP). Yet, we know they have value because a price can be put on that work when it is not performed, mainly by women, for free.
When a woman leaves the paid workforce to mind children, she cannot put any skills she uses or gains on her resume. She is not only considered unemployed, she is considered a cost. That’s damn untrue. The majority of housewives are home-based, non-unionized, unwaged labourers for whom negotiating access to power, status and resources may not be easy.
Housewives subsidize the cost of reproducing workers for the economy. This is why unions used to fight for a ‘family wage’, not only because men were seen to be the family breadwinners, but because those producing and being paid are like a two for one deal.
Of course, the women in the class then began to debate whether housewives should get ‘wages’ from their husbands, whether there was an income to which they were due. These wages are not a sign that the wife is the husband’s employee, but that his income includes her contribution. After all, the hand that rocks the cradle, labours, sometimes night and day.
The personal is political precisely because it points us beyond our own individual experience to women’s shared social and economic realities. Consciousness-raising aims to enable women to find the words to identify the annihilation they must resist, make the connections they need so that they always struggle collectively, and enable even, or especially, housewives to name the problems that rule the world, and which must still be changed.