The 'Amenities of Domestic Life': Questions on Labour
Though the sexual division of labour remains the basis of most feminist critiques and agendas, domestic labour is still a somewhat segregated, underanalysed subject. In this essay I will attempt to offer some loosely connecting ideas about domestic labour as culturally specific and changing, the way in which it structures and is structured by social practices, the labour market and by other institutions that regulate labour and inheritance, the nature of its imbrication in lasting personal relations with suggestive consequences for patriarchal ideologies and processes of class differentiation, and as a prism for re-reading nineteenth and early twentieth century reform and controversy.
The governing social assumption that domestic labour should be done by women combined with the fact that it is largely though not exclusively performed by them, underwrites, its social, economic and ideological locations. Unpaid and usually unacknowledged, undertaken in the constricting confines of the home, domestic labour exists socially as a gendered category; it is difficult to discuss it as an abstraction though theoretically it could be performed by anyone. The substantive content and ideological registers of domestic labor are determined by class and social locations—tribal, urban, rural, different practical arrangements for sharing, which women are freed from it and which men drawn into it, and whether it is a renumerated service.
At present, domestic labour mediates women's capacity for, choice of and control over paid labor, interlocks with the proliferating sexual division of labour in waged work, and is structured by the labour market. It is part and parcel of the 'dependable* social relations in which the market is embedded. Yet the apparent location of domestic labour outside the domain of the market and unacknowledged in the realm of exchange—for reasons part ideological and part structural— facilitates its rapid, recurring transformation and absorption into symbolic and ideological systems of valuation based on the constella-
Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teenmurti, New Delhi.
Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 9-11, September-November 1993