I spent International Women’s Day at a workshop run by the ‘Women work and value’ network in Budapest. Apart from the network event, the only signs of International Women’s Day seemed to be discounts in the tourist bars: one woman, 10% off drinks, 2 women 20 % off etc. I’m not sure that is quite what the International Day is about, and, no, we didn’t take up the offers. At our workshop we were a little more focussed on women’s rights in the more usual sense of the word, from trade union activists in post-war Italy to redundant textile workers in today’s Croatia and care workers fighting for the right to overtime payments in the USA. All women, all low paid and all trying to get a better deal. My contribution was on the household duties tests in the UK sickness benefits schemes from the 1900s to the 1980s.
Gender, housework and incapacity
My research concerns the history of incapacity or sickness benefits in the UK and my paper was about housework. Is housework work? After all, as the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley told us in 1974: ‘the only difference between employment work and housework is housework’s lack of pay’ (Oakley 1974, The Sociology of Housework, p26).
If we count housework as ‘work’, then it seems to make sense to use evidence of capacity for housework as evidence of capacity for paid work when people claim sickness benefits. Policy makers battled over this problem for the first forty years of sickness benefits after they were first introduced in 1911. Women were often refused benefit when they were assessed as being able to do their own housework. By the 1950s decision makers came to a more considered view. A legal test case in 1951 said that a woman’s housework should only be considered as evidence of capacity for work if it was reasonable to assume that she could be paid to do similar work for an employer, for example as a cleaner or cook.
But what about men? The legal case did not discuss the position of men but the civil servants at the time thought about it. They were discussing how to crack down on married women who were capable of doing housework and pondered how to treat single women. They thought that they should be treated in the same way as married women:
I agree that the spinster or widow running a home for her sisters (or brothers) should be covered as well as the married woman
Handwritten note, October 1951 in TNA PIN 35/41
But not men:
but I think we should not be too avid in our search for the mere male who is doing his best with the housework while his wife goes out to maintain the home.
So men doing housework were just ‘helping out’ and were not to be policed in the same way as the women.
The 1970s and Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP).
And the whole housework question came back in the 1970s. In 1975, at the same time as introducing the Sex Discrimination Act, legislators in the UK came up with a social security benefit which made specific rules barring married women from claiming unless they could prove that they could not do the housework. This was Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP). To be fair on the legislators, the idea was to make a benefit available to women who had been unable to collect enough national insurance contributions to qualify for Invalidity Benefit because they had been out of the labour market. But the main benefit, Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (NCIP), was only available to men and single women. Married women had to pass the extra ‘housework’ test. The thinking was that married women did not expect to work outside the home, that they would be financially dependent on their husbands and that they should only qualify for a state benefit if they were unable to do their ‘normal work in the home’.
So what did these housewives have to do to show that they couldn’t do their housework? The claiming process was the same as for everyone else trying to get an invalidity benefit: they needed a certificate of ‘incapacity for work’ from their doctor but then they also needed to fill out a lengthy claim form. This form included questions about ability to dust, iron, stand in a queue, keep the home clean and tidy and other such ‘normal household duties. It also asked whether the claimant need to use any ‘special appliances’ to carry out such duties. Critics of the scheme pointed out that it was not clear at all what a ‘special appliance’ meant and whether or not it included such things as hoovers and automatic washing machines.
Disability campaigners and feminists at the time recognised the discrimination in this system and published detailed criticisms of it (For example, Lister, R. and Loach, I. (1978) Second Class Disabled – a report on the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign.) Eventually, as a result of campaigning by various organisations, the practical difficulties identified by the policy makers and increasing pressure from equal opportunities policies, HNCIP was abolished and replaced by a non-contributory benefit which the same for all men and women: Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) in 1984.
Housework not child care
What struck me at the Budapest workshop was the discussion on housework duties and ‘care’. Several of the other speakers talked about ‘care work’, either paid or unpaid in connection with providing personal care for older people and disabled people, or the work of looking after small children. In all the discussion of ‘housework’ in the archives that I have been looking at, the focus is almost entirely on the daily work that has to be done to maintain a household, with little mention of the people who live in it. So it is all about cleaning and washing, dusting and hoovering, shopping and cooking. Obviously the existence of small children or many other people in the house will increase the volume of these activities but there is barely a mention of the personal care which small children need or the sheer daily grind of getting children up and out to school, keeping them clean and getting them to bed. I also realised that the discussion in the archives is always about ‘married women’ not ‘mothers’. Now it may be assumed that married women and mothers could easily be equated in the early to mid-twentieth century but in many of the housework cases that I’ve identified, the women’s status as mothers was not mentioned. Either they did not have children, or their children were grown up or it was not felt to be relevant to discuss them. So what is happening here? It looks to me that the emphasis on housework was really that: the cleaning, cooking etc that was needed to maintain the house or the household, not the ‘child care’ that we think about today in relation to women’s ‘double burden’. So this was a recognition that housework was work but perhaps that looking after children was not – or maybe it was just so taken for granted that there was no need to mention it.
There is nothing like an international workshop like this to get you thinking about your research in a new way.
Dr Jackie Gulland
University of Edinburgh
For more information on this research, see: http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/constructingincapacity/