Do We Want To ‘Have It All’?

The workshop ‘Who Cares? Gender, Care Provision, and Inequality’, put on by the Centre of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, was a follow up event to the WWV workshop that took place in April. Using a similar structure of bringing together care practitioners, academics and policy makers, the workshop addressed issues around the gendered assumptions and implications on the paid and unpaid care economy.

An emerging idea, highlighted by Professor Jane Mair of the University of Glasgow, was the issue of a new stereotype of independent, self-sufficient individuals, which ignores the care commitments that large numbers of society hold. This idea that ‘you can have it all’, implies everyone should be able to have a high profile, highly paid career and live exciting lives while simultaneously and effortlessly raising a happy family. Professor Nicole Busby showed images put out by the EU of women, working while preparing food or holding a young child. While this is a lifestyle choice that people should be able to make, participants at the workshop seemed to think it is not one we should be expecting, or imposing on women. It suggests that those who choose caring for children, elderly or ill relatives, over a career, as a higher priority, or see it as just un-reconcilable with working life, as somehow doing it wrong. In this model, where is the place of care?


Italy’s MEP Licia Ronzulli, with her daughter Vittoria in the European Parliament. The Telegraph called her ‘a poster girl for working mothers’, but is this what women should have to do?

This conversation echoes the individualist/ relational arguments that have coloured feminism since the time of Mary Wollstonecraft; do we advocate complete, uncompromising equality with men, or do we create policy and perceptions that cater to ‘differences’?

Recent feminist thought has obviously nuanced this debate significantly, acknowledging individual experience and ‘difference’ between all people, rather than either side of a defined gender line. Particularly differences in experience that have been formed through institutionalised discrimination against certain groups, women of course being one. However, the persistence of this ‘have it all’ stereotype, worryingly seems to miss these ideas.

It was suggested that this stereotype seemed to echo the male breadwinner model, of an autonomous individual who ‘has it all’ at the expense of their care obligations being fulfilled by others: men who achieve high status careers while their wife cares for the family; wealthy families who succeed in their jobs while their children are cared for by others; etc. This ideal sees care as a burden or a disadvantage, and this is reflected in the legal terminology. Perhaps women, and in fact everyone, should be striving towards an ideal where care is acknowledged as an essential foundation of society and valued respectively.

This idea that care work, both paid and unpaid, is undervalued in society, resonated throughout the workshop, with all the speakers addressing issues ranging from the low pay given to care workers, to the lack of quantitative value for the care work done in relationships. In all the cases looked at, women were disproportionately the ones fulfilling the role of carer.

Later discussions raised the question of the feasibility of commercialised care; whether the role of supporting vulnerable people should be assessed through an economic lens or whether we need a new way to value care.

Speakers agreed on the need for interdisciplinary, intergenerational and interdependent thought on care work, so we can provide support for vulnerable people that fulfils their needs, giving them respect and dignity, without negatively impacting the care giver’s mental or financial situation.

Maybe we need to re-think our perception of what it really means to ‘have it all’.


Kate Whitaker

Women, Work and Value Intern at the University of Glasgow


One thing I learnt in this workshop…

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At the ‘Women, Work, and Value’ academic conference in Florence in October , I had been fascinated by the ideas and debates surrounding the position of women in the workplace and at home, and how their output was valued by society and economists. Now it was time to take some of these ideas to a group that would have a slightly different perspective on what was being discussed than a group of academics. On April 21 I had the pleasure of running a workshop for a group of young women from the Meriton School, Bristol,  in my role as the network’s Public Engagement intern. The Meriton is a school for teenage mothers and expecting mothers, with crèche facilities enabling teenagers to continue their education, and take public exams, while their children are being cared for.

Josie McLellan and I met the group in the Refectory for lunch, and could already tell they were an exceptional group of girls- outgoing, chatty, and amazingly at ease in completely unfamiliar and potentially intimidating surroundings. I then ran a workshop designed for the girls to reflect on the discussions that had been had at the conference. Wary of a possibly shy and intimidated group, I had prepared plenty of activities and stimuli to prompt discussion.

Yet starting with just one simple activity – to name one ‘man’s job’, and one ‘women’s job’ – the group immediately launched into spirited debate, already asking each other the kinds of questions I had planned to raise with them. Why were certain jobs were perceived in such a gendered way? Can’t women do anything? This pattern continued through the whole workshop, with the lively debate, contributed to by every single girl, picking up outstandingly on the issues surrounding women and work. My favourite moment was when a fourteen year old suddenly made an astonishingly perceptive point about how women in advertising are just sexualised bodies – something I definitely did not pick up on when I was fourteen!

The debate continued when we moved on to ask how much stay-at-home mothers should be paid per hour, compared to what bankers, lawyers, teachers, and nurses earn. The point was made that a mother’s role incorporated all of these elements – something that had not occurred to me when preparing the activity! The room was divided between those supporting high pay for mothers, and those who thought mothers should not be paid at all, because it’s something you should do for love, not money. This led to another lively discussion about whether child benefit was payment for mothering, as well was why certain jobs were seen as better suited to men or women; we all challenged our own perceptions about female plumbers, and male childminders.


We honestly could have carried on the discussion for hours, and there was just time for a quick evaluation before the girls had to leave – as well as Josie introducing Bristol’s Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities One of the many fantastic moments of the afternoon was one of The Meriton’s students showing a real interest in the course (which is a year-long preparatory course for an undergraduate degree) and leaving with leaflets and Josie’s email address.

Thank you so much to Josie, Amy in the Widening Participation office, and Eleanor at the Meriton for organising the afternoon, but most of all to The Meriton’s participants, who made quite a nerve-racking experience for me (the first session of that kind I’ve completely designed and run alone) an amazing, enriching experience that I feel everyone got a lot out of. The level of discussion, as I told them at the end, would not have been out of place in one of my undergraduate seminars, and their life experience meant I saw the ideas and research that had been bandied around at the conference from a different, and helpful, perspective.

My whole internship, from the conference to this session, has given me the chance to connect with such a fantastic cross-section of really inspiring and impressive women in settings that put me far out of my comfort zone, and I hope all the network’s participants have found it as stimulating as I have. It’s also given me a fair few ideas for my dissertation… in fact, I might have to make another trip back to Florence for, um, research?

Sarah Brodie, Women, Work and Value Public Engagement Intern.

International Women’s Day in Budapest

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: