A housewife’s economic theory

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
There is something wrong with economic theories that do not quantify and recognize that reproductive work is a crucial input or investment made every day by women

In many societies work in the productive economy is valued far more than work in the reproductive economy. By the productive economy, I mean the production of services and goods that people will pay for or buy. By the reproductive economy, I mean cooking, cleaning, ironing, emotional nurturing (including sexual relations), care for children and the elderly. When these things are done within the family, these are not paid for. Of course, reproductive work also includes the act of giving birth.

Society tracks the productive economy in many ways. When we worry about joblessness we often think of jobs in the productive economy. Jobs that involve reproductive work are often seen as low quality jobs, whether done by local househelp or overseas Filipino workers who go abroad to raise children, clean houses, etc. Often, the criticism leveled at the Philippines growth (as shown by the GNP, another measure of the productive rather than the reproductive economy) is that it is “jobless” growth or that the growth is in “low quality” work. Low quality work is often reproductive in nature, and poor women who work long hours to help their families survive by extending their housework to outside the home (by taking in laundry or selling food home cooked food for example) are also considered unemployed or underemployed.

Indeed, when government statistics tell us that more women are unemployed by men, this shows blindness to the fact that most women do important work for long hours at home.

Women’s work

Yet any housewife, or the increasing number of enlightened men who share in the housework, will tell you that reproductive work is hard.

It takes long hours and requires certain skills and, if it is to be successful, intellectual and emotional intelligence. Like productive work, it can be quite fulfilling when done well and properly appreciated. One wonders therefore why, such work is still considered by many as “trabahong babae lang” (just women’s work) and why it is so undervalued such that when women (also men but it’s mostly women) get paid for it, it gets paid so little.

I am reminded of the story of some of the male janitors at one of the places I work for who snuck their wives in to do the cleaning. The male janitors continued to receive and control their salaries as better paid and permanent employees in an institution which had still not contractualized such services and which had acceded to union demands for higher pay and job security. I myself advocate higher pay and job security for everyone including janitors. One of the reasons this is not happening is that reproductive work done outside the home is not considered important enough to be paid well.

I often wonder why the work I do for my kids gets paid more highly when I hire men to do it for me rather than when I hire women. Thus our male drivers get paid more to drive the family car rather than our househelp who takes care of the kid’s minor illnesses. In truth, our househelp’s contribution to preventing minor illnesses from graduating into serious ones should really be of equal value to my chauffeur’s ability not to get into fatal accidents.

There are paeans sung to mothers and women and their work in the home. Women are put on the pedestal as long as we do these things for free and out of love. The minute we do it for money, we get called many things, from the derogatory “chimay” if we are doing housework, or whore, if what is being provided is sexual in nature.

Fake admiration

All the paeans sung about motherhood are hypocritical in light of the denigration of reproductive work. There is something hypocritical about a society that praises motherhood but still cannot implement a reproductive health law that would reduce maternal death and disability. There is something wrong when people perceive breastfeeding in public scandalous just because a woman’s breast is shown. (I admire malls and other places that give us breastfeeding areas but would prefer that it become acceptable that we can breastfeed just anywhere.) There is something wrong in a society that claims it values the reproduction of children and yet prevents women from taking their kids to the office, considers maternity a drawback that prevents hiring women for certain jobs and takes it against women when they have to absent themselves to take care of their kids, their parents or their husbands.

To this day in most families, it isn’t the man who will stay home and do these things.

Reproductive work – and with it women’s sexuality – is kept controlled by an ideology of domesticity that says these things should be done only within the family, by women, for free, and in conditions they often do not control.

These strictures are detrimental to women. Many forms of control keep reproductive work undervalued. These include the lack of economic measures that can account for housewives’ contribution to the real economy, the low wages given to those who get paid for it, the name-calling and/or violence many women experience if, for some reason, men and certain social institutions don’t think we are measuring up to our motherly or wifely duties.

Economics by housewives

There is something wrong with economic theories that do not quantify and recognize that reproductive work is a crucial input or investment made every day by women in order to reproduce the labor power that is sold to employers.

I do not see why we think it logical that we quantify and value the labor people expend in offices and factories but have no theoretical and conceptual constructs that would value the labor that reproduces people’s ability to work in offices and factories.

When neo-liberal economic theory talks about how “rational man” will behave to minimize risk and input and maximize profits, it talks with a forked tongue. Because it assumes women will sacrifice and work for love at home even when this has become detrimental to their personal well-being.

If women were to be rational, we would not necessarily ask to be paid for housework. But we would ask that men share it equally. We would insist on access to quality day care centers and pre-schools. We would ask that the salaries of everyone, not just men, be raised to the level that recognizes the need to support reproduction, nurturing and recreation, and not just the 8 hours we spend on the job. We would ask that househelp and janitors be paid much more. We would demand that our homes become free from violence. Demand that childbirth be safe. Insist that our sexuality not be looked at as dangerous or evil when we refuse the strictures of domesticity and breastfeed in public.

Ah, I can hear the economists and employers screaming already about my hopeless naiveté and my utopian thinking. But that is only because they have accepted the economic concepts and measuring tools that box us into paradigms that make me seem naïve and them rational.

Even the most cynical employer has received free goods and services from the women who love them. Even the most cynical employer is aware of the large amounts of time and money given over by people to help others. My experience shows that such people are mostly not millionaires or billionaires but ordinary folk, even poor folk.

There is a large economy of passion and solidarity out there – whether it is the large amounts spent by famous philanthropists, the increasing number of social enterprises, the people who create free and open software, the people who buy land to use for nature preservation, the contributions of people who donate to community kitchens, halfway houses, orphanages, and so on.

It is only those who believe that altruism cannot be the basis of the economy who would laugh. They are probably not housewives. – Rappler.com

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Director of the University of the Philippines Center for Womens Studies and Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health.







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