Who will iron the papers?

The Servant Problem
June 2, 2006

Domestic work has always been a problem - for women, who do too much of it; for men, who do too little; and for human culture, which has tended to associate the management of dirt with a low social status.

Housework is a tedious necessity, but necessity here is not the mother of invention. Western industrialised nations have been singularly uninventive about housework. Governments have legislated for equality outside the home, but the home is a private haven where people are allowed to be as unequal as they like - or as unequal as gendered customs and social forces of various kinds dictate.

This book concentrates on one increasingly prevalent form of domestic inequality - the hiring of people, mostly women, to do the housework and childcare of women who find themselves struggling with the modern version of women's two roles. There are apparently 2 million domestic workers in Britain today, and 2.7 million British households employ some form of domestic "help". (This term is one of many linguistic and cultural strategies in common use that are designed to deflect our attention from the reality of housework and childcare as hard labour.) Housework, however, has always eluded the statistical gaze: it is notoriously difficult to estimate how many people are doing how much housework, paid or unpaid. Much of today's paid housework "help" belongs to the informal economy - economic migrants or benefit-poor women stitching together a patchwork of domestic jobs to make ends meet.

The Servant Problem is a rather unsatisfactory book about a very important cultural and economic phenomenon. It is neither an academic book nor a "popular" one: it is sloppily written, poorly referenced, and the interviews with domestic workers that Rosie Cox conducted are not afforded the status of a research project with details about methods, sample characteristics and so on. The stories she picked up are certainly engaging and often horrifying (au pairs confined to box rooms, servants asked to iron newspapers and flush their employers' toilets for them), but people are always most vociferous about what they least like, and there are probably some positive experiences out there, too.

Cox argues that, far from disappearing, the "servant problem" is still with us. While the Victorians and Edwardians were preoccupied with the increasing difficulty of finding reliable servants, in homes all over Britain today arguments about housework are "solved" by buying women out of their traditional housewife-mother roles. One reason why this is happening is because we now have a ready supply of women prepared to do other people's housework for them. "Neo-liberalism" and the "global economy" (ill-defined terms that feature a lot in the book) have created working conditions in both Britain and other countries where the people who do have jobs work longer and longer hours in an effort to make their industries competitive, while at the same time impoverished countries export their workers in order to secure foreign currency to repay national debts. Global economic inequalities are therefore feeding national gender and class ones. The housework is getting done, but at what cost?

The solution, in Cox's eyes, is simple: abolish housework. Who wants gleaming homes and ironed newspapers? Children, on the other hand, do need to be looked after, but the best way for this is state-subsidised childcare. There is nothing original about these answers, which are most startling perhaps for the naivety with which they are announced. Cox would do well to look at some of the interesting work that has been done recently (beyond Mary Douglas's oft-quoted Purity and Danger ) on cultural constructions of housework, and also on the British Government's fundamental failure to engage in evidence-based public policy (in this or any other area).

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and social policy, Institute of Education, University of London.

The Servant Problem: Domestic Employment in a Global Economy

Author - Rosie Cox
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Pages - 163
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 85043 619 3 and 620 7

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