When there’s housework to do…

According to the flyer in yesterday’s mail, “Life’s too short to clean your own home.”

Naturally, for the people who work for The Cleaning Authority, life is not to short to clean someone else’s home – and love it, as this woman on the inside flap apparently does:

Maybe she’s happy because she has a job she likes — even though she would be miserable cleaning her own home — like in the 1970s feminist version:

Remember, nobody smiles doing housework but those ladies you see on TV.
Your mommy hates housework,
Your daddy hates housework,
I hate housework too.
And when you grow up, so will you.
Because even if the soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach
That you use is the very best one,
Housework is just no fun.

Children, when you have a house of your own,
Make sure, when there’s house work to do,
That you don’t have to do it alone.
Little boys, little girls, when you’re big husbands and wives,
If you want all the days of your lives
To seem sunny as summer weather,
Make sure, when there’s housework to do,
That you do it together!

The sociological truth is that it is different to clean someone else’s home. Today’s corporate cleaners are different from an informal cleaning relationship. I once tried to imagine that “keeping house” should be considered a real occupation — which would help reveal the overall gender division of labor, not just the segregation of occupations or housework, which are almost always studied separately.

Corporatizing housework does change its social nature. It’s not the physical labor itself that makes it about gender, after all. That doesn’t mean it’s not unpleasant work. But cleaning the toilet of an anonymous person may be less degrading than cleaning the toilet of someone you have a personal (subordinate) relationship with. On the other hand, maybe people love cleaning toilets for people they really love.

The rationality of market dynamics ideally makes irrelevant the gender of workers in general. Men are more somewhat more likely to cook and clean for money than for free, for example. In that ideal, not real, marketized world, then, maybe there is no such thing as housework — just work and workers. Would that be better?


Maybe it would be better — a genderless world of labor and capital. But as Joan Acker wrote 21 years ago, and reiterated last year, the generic worker in the mind of employers is usually actually male —  in the sense that “he” has no family responsibilities; and if he does, “he’s” not a good worker, committed to the job, and the ones that get promoted are more often actual men.

That makes this ad from Groupon especially ironic (thanks to Ken Kolb for the tip):

How many “man-hours” does a woman at Designer Maid do in an hour?

If you follow the links to Designer Maid, it gets more interesting still. On the home page, the copy reads:

For many upwardly mobile and dual income families today, the home we’ve worked so hard to obtain is a time consuming chore to maintain. We give you more time to do those things you need to do or would rather be doing. So, instead of spending endless hours on mundane housework, Relax… We’ll take care of the rest! (emphasis added)

That’s rich, because on the Employment page — where there is the same picture of the smiling woman doing the backbreaking work — those “endless hours” of “mundane housework” become a fabulous professional opportunity:

Designer Maid is a great place to work… Designer Maid provides all of the equipment and supplies you will need to fulfill your role as a professional house cleaner. In addition, we provide all of the training necessary for for you to achieve the distinction of Certified Professional House Cleaner.

So, just forget what we said about the endless hours of mundane work, and common down to apply!

12 thoughts on “When there’s housework to do…

  1. Just wanted to put it out there that not *everybody* hates housework. I feel about housework the same way I feel about my job: I enjoy a paycheck, so I work pretty happily. I enjoy a clean house so I clean pretty happily.

    (Housework is not a monolith! Or something)


    1. Thanks, Jade. I have heard other people say that over the years. That piece is an interesting time capsule that way.

      That said, not knowing your family situation, I’d wonder if the social relations are part of your enjoyment, too. You might like a clean house, but if you felt overworked and/or underpaid for doing that work, would the joy of cleanliness be enough to make you happy?


      1. (Since “Jade” is AFAICT always a feminine name I’ll assume that the September 5, 2011 at 7:18 am poster is a woman. […]

        [I deleted the rest of this post as unnecessarily personal. Comments are open, but please keep them to the subjects discussed, not things about the writers’ personal lives. Thanks -pnc]


  2. Hi Philip — this is totally off the cuff on a rainy Labor Day morning but can I add another way of thinking about the issue that I think complements your discussion. I think one of the problems we have with understanding work is we usually individualize it. What am I doing in terms of specific tasks? How do I feel about those tasks? Personally, I love my job (sociology prof) and I don’t mind cleaning the tub and toilet (did it yesterday). Perhaps under traditional gender roles, housework was an individual task – but remember men were still responsible for the “outside” tasks even if they were cyclical and took less overall time and children did chores. I think the better analogy to understand how people feel about housework is to view it as a group project — the kind many of us hated in school and at our paid jobs. When everyone is doing the part assigned to them (and we can certainly argue about how those jobs are assigned), everyone is (hypothetically) satisfied. Which explains why it’s not the amount of work one does but whether one thinks it’s fairly divided that makes a difference in one’s satisfaction (“traditional” women are less dissatisfied with the division of labor in the home than “nontraditional” women). When you are engaged in a group project and the other members fail to do their part (the classic free rider problem I think) then we are unsatisfied and even aggrieved. Even if the overall project gets done to our satisfaction (the house is clean), we are not happy. But if I get paid as an individual to clean a house, it’s a transaction where I am not afflicted by the free-rider problem – unless of course it’s a cleaning team sent out by the company and I’m doing all the work while my co-worker sits out in the vehicle reading a magazine. Which is why Carol Channing is right — do it together — although some of us may like or at least not mind doing housework, none of us like free-riders. I would argue that traditional relationships are no less attuned to the free rider problem than non-traditional relationships — but the balance is different. Oprah once did a show where she profiled a woman who had gone on strike. The woman’s comment was that it wasn’t so much about the specific tasks as it was about getting the family to work together. So to end, if my husband (who is married to a nontraditional wife!) does not mop the floor this Labor Day like he’s been saying he’s going to do for the last week, we’re going to have a problem!


  3. Or another perspective here, especially given the historical relations not only between gender and the division of household labor, but the racial dimension, too. It could be an artifact of the scan, but it appears that the ‘corporate cleaner’ is a person of color, possible of Hispanic decent. The family, who hates cleaning, and rather enjoy their privilege and nurture the social capital of their children, is white.

    While not surprising to this historical family sociologist, the back-story of women in the paid labor force and the double-shift in their own households is formidable, whether we/they enjoy the work. Persons of color, historically, have worked and served in the homes of the more affluent middle-classes, usually in racial and gendered ways. It is different to clean someone else’s home, whether the work is enjoyed or not. We are not in any position to judge the happiness factor, but the obvious message, rooted that is historically contingent, is an important one to continually confront and question.


  4. Persons of color, historically, have worked and served in the homes of the more affluent

    Substitute “Persons of color” for “poor” and that’s what’s been happening since the dawn of civilization.

    Power/wealth accumulates to the aggressive and quick-witted. Their heirs do their best to retain that power & wealth. No Marxism, Socialism or Communism will *ever* change that fundamental human reality.

    It’s why Communism collapsed in Europe, India opened it’s economy and the PRC pulled it’s head out of it’s collective arse in the 1980s.

    (No, I’m not some Adam Smith devotee. I’m just open-eyed enough to realize that a kumbaya-singing socialist workers paradise is a Utopian fantasy which in 2011 everyone over 30 should realize.)


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