Before lockdown, we were already being sold various Mrs Hinch-type versions of housework as somehow competitive and fun. If women want to polish the bars of their own cage, let them. But to save you watching any of these cleaning “influencers”, let me simply tell you that the answer to any cleaning problem in their world is one word: vinegar.
In mine, it’s also one word: men. Some may wipe down the worktops and do a bit more, for which we must applaud them. Get the pom-poms out. The fact is, though, Covid-19 has taken women’s roles back to the 50s. Women are home schooling, working and doing huge amounts of domestic work. The answer to 50s-style problems may be some 70s-style consciousness raising about gender roles. “Women’s domesticity is a circle of learnt deprivation and induced subjugation: a circle decisively centred on family life,” said Ann Oakley in 1974. If that’s a little too hardcore for you, have some Betty Friedan: “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” Damn right, Betty.
But, instead of discussing how gender roles are regressing; how the virus has derailed women’s careers; how childcare is falling apart; how female workers will be hit hardest by the recession; how female academics have turned in far fewer papers than their male counterparts; how, at the end of furlough, redundancy will affect more women; how the gender pay gap is rising – in other words, all the pre-existing inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 – what do we talk about?
Two things. We continue to have a conversation around gender, which emphasises it as a set of feelings rather than being about often mundane lived experience; and we have, on social media, a ridiculous row over cleaners. Various bright young things declare their sainthood. Either they don’t have cleaners or they pay them the GDP of Venezuela. Only bad women, Karens, boomers, like me, have cleaners, whom we probably abuse. Some of us have been cleaners, but no matter. Working women pay others to look after our children and to do some of the domestic work or we could not do it. Just as men do. And always have done. But men are not attacked for this. Ever.
Ineptitude in the domestic sphere is something that men actually boast about, as if it proves their competence in every other sphere. Isn’t it hilarious? Those men who don’t even know if there is a washing machine in the house. I have interviewed rock gods like this. I much prefer the Joan Collins approach. Apparently, when asked at airport check-in if she had packed her own bags, she answered: “The very idea!”
But the serious part of domestic labour being invisible and somehow personal has huge implications. The absolute tragedy of this crisis is that underpaid care workers in homes have died because care in our own homes is not valued. We are run by people who don’t respect those who do such care in our society, because this is the lowest-status job. Women do it. Immigrants do it. Childcare and the opening of schools has not been a priority because, well, like the laundry, other people do that.
Inequality isn’t something that exists in the outside world. It lives indoors, part of the everyday. A glowing showerhead is not the route to happiness. Yes, lockdown has meant pleasure in the domestic sphere for some, and well done to those who have gussied up their homes and gardens. Yet, with months until all children are back to school, many women are exhausted and will be unemployed by the winter. It is terribly old-fashioned to talk about the domestic labour debate I know, the part about how unpaid work keeps capitalism functioning. Well, it keeps us all functioning. This is why a former prime minister can joke about never having to do it. It’s a sign of power.
How we laugh as we lie back and think of descaling the kettle. How many prime ministers does it take to change a lightbulb? Don’t ask me. How many prime ministers does it take to change the reality of women’s lives? We were on the double shift: work and housework. Now many are on the triple shift: work, housework and schooling. The lightbulbs went out some time ago, and, if we are not to go back to the dark ages, then someone better get some bright ideas and replace the duds quickly.