In praise of women’s work: reflecting on International Women’s Day

Mar 8, 2023
Happy 8 March International Women's Day lettering with red heart on white background.

Failure to appropriately value the work women do perpetuates their subordinate status.

As International Women’s Day approaches l’ve been thinking about housework – that mundane but essential stuff mostly done by women. Not long ago keeping a house clean required a woman’s body to power the scrubbing brush, the broom, the mop. I remember it well! Those electrical household appliances that became available in the second half of the 20th century freed up a great deal of time and energy and played an important part in revolutionising women’s lives. The automatic washing machine was the standout performer because washing was such hard work.

Being a housewife was usually a fulltime job but, in my home, there was no male breadwinner so my widowed mother and her two unmarried sisters all went out to paid work. The load of cooking, cleaning, ironing and sewing was manageable because there were three women to share it. My sister, my brother and myself were also expected to pull our weight. Our house was hive of industry every evening and Saturday, the day the washing was done, was particularly busy.

It started at the crack of dawn because the clothes needed to be on the line early to have any hope of being dry by day’s end. Drying stuff inside was a pain. Wet clothes were draped everywhere and the whole house reeked of damp. Hot water systems were rare so a copper heated the water. This was a large receptacle supported in a brick frame with a fire cavity underneath so the first task was to split enough wood to heat the gallons of water in the copper and keep it boiling for an hour. Boiling removed dirt and stains from some things. The hard work began when the items in the copper had to be lifted into a wash trough. Done with an old broom handle, that required strength and getting scalded was a hazard. Those items had to be rinsed at least twice by pummeling them over and over in clean water and between each rinse they were put through the ringer. To counteract discolouration all the white things had a third rinse in blued water. Then the things that didn’t get boiled were washed. Linen and cotton looked better starched but took more time to iron, never the less, my mother insisted on starching. Finally it all had to be hung out to dry on wires stretched around the backyard. There was no such thing as drip dry or creaseless material so Monday evening would be devoted to ironing.

The washhouse was very hot, the work physically demanding and the process took several hours. No wonder I love the automatic washing machine. Just open the door, put stuff in and push a few buttons. Most women had to wait until the 1970’s before they could afford one, but I was more fortunate, this marvel entered my life in 1958. With six children that machine was invaluable when I re-entered the paid workforce.

Wealthier Melbourne women could send their washing to the Abbotsford Convent where unmarried pregnant women hid their shame behind the convent’s walls and atoned for their sins labouring in the laundry. Their babies were taken immediately after birth and given out for adoption. It was a very courageous and determined single mother who managed to keep her baby. The introduction of the supporting mother’s benefit, a landmark victory of 70’s feminism, closed down those grim places.

Being a housewife was a physical demanding, time absorbing, repetitive, poorly regarded, fulltime job and a mere forty years ago our society demanded women aspire to this role virtually to the exclusion of all else. Well wasn’t that why God made women? Set one down in a house full of kids and a husband and like some kind of android she automatically went into action. No skills needed. No sweat raised. No sacrifices made. No praise deserved. We are still caught in that mind set. Marilyn Waring’s Counting for Nothing documents how the work of women is frequently not recorded in national accounts e.g. if men do a task, say carry water from the river, it is counted but not if women do the carrying. Consider this. Baby formula produced in a factory counts as an economically productive activity while breast feeding is ignored.

Housework is infinitely easier now than it was 70 year ago but it still has to be done and overwhelmingly women do it. So while this work keeps the 9 million plus Australian households functioning it is not recorded as having economic value. That discrediting perpetuates women’s subordinate status.

Lest We Forget! Our government spends vast sums on memorials honouring men who have fought in overseas conflicts. Contrast this with what our government does to remember and honour the women who have fought on the home front to gain protection for women from domestic and sexual violence and to free Australia of gender discrimination. None have worked harder than women to make Australia the land of ‘a Fair Go’. They began in the 19th century and shaped our founding constitution. Uniquely this gave women the right to stand for election as well as the right to vote. But apparently it is ok to forget those heroes.

International Women’s Day will see some of our female heroes celebrated but that’s hardly adequate when you consider what women do. Women cope with months of discomfort during pregnancy, endure the pain of childbirth and make sacrifices to rear the children for the next sixteen or so years. Women have picked up the slack when men go to war and when they do not return or return very damaged. Women transform a house into the life support system on which we all depend. Women have played and continue to play a central role in the making of Australia. Until that contribution – i.e. the contribution of half of our population is appropriately recognised gender equality will not be achieved.

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