Working women

Phyllis Duguid (1904-1993) was best known as an advocate for the rights of Indigenous people, for which she was awarded the Order of Australia. In the 1940s, however, she caused a bit of a stir when she published a short work entitled The economic status of the homemaker. She was proposing a wage for housewives, or for “all women who are prevented by essential home duties from earning their own income.” (Sun 21/12/47) Inspired by the great contributions that women had made to the war effort, she perceived the financial dependence of housewives as a barrier to women’s liberation. “The political emancipation of women can never be complete so long as a large proportion of them are economically dependent…” (Mail 12/4/45). The post-war expectation that returning servicemen should no longer be replaced by women workers, combined with the social biases in favour of married women staying at home, resulted in some backlash. Catholic newspaper The Southern Cross accused Phyllis of “contributing to the downfall and destruction of Australia…the dignity of the husband would likewise suffer…whose is the wife – his or the State’s?”

This idea was not entirely new – 25 years earlier pioneering WA politician Edith Cowan proposed a union for married women, who should also be legally entitled to a share of their husband’s income.

The International Wages for Housework campaign was launched in 1972 by American socialist activist Selma James, which argued that work in the home and community should be compensated by the state. Again, in 2014, Italian lawyer and politician Guilia Bongiorno suggested the same idea, with the additional consideration that it would assist women to escape domestic violence. Advocates of this concept have seen it as being a question of dignity, which comes from being financially independent. Instead of underestimating women’s contribution to the economy, a salary is a potential tool for empowerment.

Financial abuse

Guilia Bongiorno raises an important point about the role that money can play in situations of domestic violence. Firstly, women who are being abused by their partners may often feel unable to leave because they have no means of financial support. This puts women and children who do leave at greater risk of poverty and homelessness. Also, financial abuse is a serious type of abuse, in which money is used to exercise control in a relationship. A financially abusive man will often use repeated patterns of behaviour in which he may take control of bank accounts, take his partner’s salary or forbid her to work and then give her an inadequate allowance. It may also be combined with emotional abuse, undermining her confidence and making her feel that she is incapable of making financial decisions. Women with a disability or chronic health issues are particularly vulnerable. Women’s shelters and other charities who help women in these situations by giving them financial assistance are absolutely vital. But in the case of stay at home mothers, an independent source of income may allow them to leave a dangerous situation much earlier.

Poverty and economic empowerment

If a woman is debating whether or not to stay at home, she is already in a position of privilege. It is certainly something that is only possible with a nuclear family structure, and not everyone has the financial freedom to make that choice. Conversely, many women find the cost of childcare so prohibitive, that they cannot afford to work.

This may also be considered a ‘first world problem’. In many developing countries, women make vital contributions to the agricultural industry, increasingly threatened by climate change. A recent report by UN Women states that closing the gender gaps in agriculture is essential for ensuring food security, building climate resilience and ending poverty. If these measures are combined with much needed improvements in maternal health care, as well as giving women the ability to choose if and when to have children, women will have much better chances of rescuing themselves and their communities from poverty.

Women in the workforce

Discussions on women in the workforce tend to focus on getting them in – into jobs, into management, and into all professions. But simply getting more women employed is not enough. There needs to be more flexibility in employment, in order to solve the issue that more women than men work in lower paid or casual jobs, they earn less over their lifetime due to time out for children and then have much less superannuation.

Commonly proposed solutions for the gender pay gap include encouraging longer paternity leave, subsidizing child care, allowing parents to work from home or bring their children to work, and simply paying women the same for doing the same job. Before this can be achieved, however, there needs to be a change in the wider cultural, economic and political factors that limit women’s empowerment.

Lower paid professions are frequently caring professions, including child care and aged care. Greater government and corporate investment in these fields would not only allow unpaid carers more time for paid work, it would also send the message to society that caring work is valuable and people in that sector deserve to be paid well.

Housework, parenthood and religion

So far I have examined the practical aspects of women’s finances, but there are frequently religious influences guiding their decisions. Several major religions promote the idea that it is more virtuous or moral for a married mother to stay at home, notably evangelical Christianity and Islam, but also Mormons and Hare Krishnas. In these faith groups, traditional gender roles are often given spiritual meaning, making it hard to distinguish between the teachings of the religion itself, and mere social conservatism.

Marriage and parenthood are seen as the ideal way of life, particularly for Christians – in contrast to the teachings of the early church which prioritised virginity. During the Reformation, the enforced closure of many convents and monasteries worked out better for men, who could use skills learned in the monastery to earn money in the town. Women were less fortunate: if they could not marry as they were strongly encouraged to do, they might only find menial or domestic work*. In that era, life in a religious order was the main avenue for a woman to receive an education and potentially rise to a leadership position within the community. One of the Reformation’s legacies may indeed be the Protestant church’s prioritisation of marriage and subtle distrust of singleness.

The lure of nostalgia and the cult of domesticity

Throughout history, women have worked. The advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, was the point when domesticity for women began to be idolised, particularly in the middle and upper classes. Victorian poet Coventry Patmore wrote a poem The angel in the house which is widely considered to be the ultimate representation of this viewpoint in English literature. Virginia Woolf responded to this by saying that “killing the angel in the house was part of the occupation of the woman writer.”

Modern proponents of the domestic sphere as the proper role for women will often look back with nostalgia at three different eras of history: the Regency (as described by Jane Austen), the Victorian era, and the 1950s. But they are only looking at wealthier white women – slavery, colonisation, child labour, domestic service with long hours, dangerous factory work and myriad other ways in which people of colour and the lower classes suffered in the past are conveniently ignored. This selective memory contributes to the whitewashing of history, as well as reinforcing gender stereotypes.

A recent revival in homemaking and domesticity among the young women of Generation Y, partly fuelled by social media sites such as Pinterest, has also been described as a deliberate avoidance of the workplace. Staying at home is perceived by some to be easier than trying to forge a career. They would probably be supported by their husbands – the latest HILDA survey shows that more men than women believe that mothers should stay home with their children.

Historically, women have not always been able to make that choice. The perennially popular classic Pride and Prejudice is all about a group of women who are not able to earn their own living, and must rely on finding a wealthy husband to support them. Marriage meant financial security, and women reading the novel at the time it was published might have judged Charlotte Lucas, who marries an awful man in order to gain a comfortable home, a little less harshly than modern readers.

The increase in working women, as well as rises in their wages, has been linked by a study from the University of California to a decline in the marriage rate. Every 10% increase in women’s wages leads to a 7% decline in marriages. This may be viewed as a positive development – women who are getting married are possibly doing so for the right reasons, and not for financial support.

The cult of motherhood

Some people, particularly religious people, tend to view women’s work as a stopgap, or something they do before getting married. Some women may look forward to giving up work when they are married, and they see marriage and motherhood as the purpose of their lives. Other women find fulfilment and meaning in the work they do – they are contributing to society and to their professional spheres. Neither lifestyle is necessarily more superior to the other, and the choices a woman makes in her life are very much dependent on her individual tastes and interests.

The ‘cult of motherhood’, as the cultural glorification of motherhood has frequently been described, is just as harmful to mothers as it is to childless women. When women are expected to take to motherhood like a duck to water, immediately upon giving birth, any small omissions in the areas of feeding or nappy changing may be mentally magnified and make her feel bad about asking for help. But if a man changes a nappy, however sloppily, he may be congratulated for doing it at all. Working mothers, as Annabel Crabb points out, are in a double bind: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job**.

Some might say, why work at all, when you don’t have to? Education and professional development are very much self-motivated activities, and many women who work do not do so simply from financial necessity, but from the same goals of finding meaning and intellectual fulfilment that many men have. It is unfair to suggest that a woman should only work to help pay the bills, or that if one partner must give up work, it must always be the woman.

Economic independence

Women are not a homogenous group, and there are as many right choices as there are women alive today, because each one is different. Almost 40 years after her controversial pamphlet, Phyllis Duguid reassessed her ideas in a 1983 interview: “it seemed to me that any mature person to be totally dependent on another person is thoroughly bad… if I’d been writing it now I would have taken into consideration the fact that so many women now do a double job of homemaking and income earning…but I still feel just as strongly as ever that no mature person should be completely dependent – economically dependent – on another person.”

Although Phyllis’ scheme never got off the ground, her motivation for giving all women the dignity and respect that financial independence can bring is a good one. She was not suggesting that women should stay at home – this was simply the norm at the time – nor was she devaluing the genuine reasons that women (and men) have for choosing to care for others. She was declaring that those who do should be recognised for their contribution to society.



*Kidder, Annemarie S. (2003) Women, celibacy and the church: towards a theology of the single life. New York: Crossroad. Pp. 200.

**Crabb, Annabel. (2014) The wife drought. North Sydney: Ebury Press. p. 11

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