Cleaning: One of Feminism’s Great Battle Grounds

Warning: much swearing

Well, Twitter’s a fucking shit show at the moment, isn’t it?

But then, everything else is, so why wouldn’t the world’s most argumentative communications platform also have descended into absolute chaos?

The latest furore concerns columnists Owen Jones and Sarah Ditum, who fell out over whether people should be allowing cleaners into their home. Jones’ opinion is that those who can afford a cleaner should pay them to stay home and do their own cleaning, whereas Ditum protested that more people stuck in the house meant more cleaning whilst trying to work and care for children in lockdown, which she is finding overwhelming.

Several badly chosen phrases were used in this discussion. Firstly, Jones’ assertion that those who employ cleaners have “certainly got the time” to do the cleaning has been, rightly, ridiculed.

This was Ditum’s main gripe – if you have children, you’ll be fully aware that there is NO TIME AT ALL, time has actually become negative since lockdown, and all the people posting on social media about all this free time they have and all the hobbies they’re taking up can, frankly, fuck off. (I have a two-year-old who has been stuck inside for seven weeks, it’s a nightmare, send wine.)

But then, suggesting that the housework was, in caps lock, “KILLING” her wasn’t ideal wording from Ditum.

Then people suggested that Jones should check his “childless privilege”. Now, there’s a loaded term. To those currently trying to do full-time work in part-time hours whilst entertaining bored toddlers or home-schooling irritable children, childless time to relax and learn Mandarin might well seem like a privilege. But then again, despite the fact that both I and my daughter are climbing the walls at the moment (me figuratively, she literally), I know how incredibly privileged I am to be in a position where I wanted a baby and was able to have one. Jones is a gay man, and for all I know may want children very much, but if that’s the case he will have to jump through all manner of hoops to have them. For many straight, cis couples, getting pregnant can be incredibly simple – sometimes, it takes mere seconds. For others, though, it can take years, and sometimes be impossible – it can be a journey laden with miscarriage and invasive procedures and extreme suffering. For many, having a child is the ultimate privilege.

Following that, the number of men I’ve seen screaming at Sarah Ditum to “clean your own fucking house” is rather terrifying.

So yeah, utter shit show.

The cleaning dilemma

So let’s break this down. The majority of paid domestic cleaners are female (83% of cleaning and domestic staff are female). The pay, for the most part, is utter crap. Now, in theory, if you’re employed then they should be able to furlough you (but then you get 80% of a crap wage) and if you’re self-employed then you should be able to claim a self-employed grant (but not if you became self-employed during the last 18 months, or had a baby in the last three years, or set yourself up as a limited company). If you weren’t making much money pre-lockdown and you’ve been making zero money during lockdown then you’re probably in a really difficult financial situation right now, so many cleaners are probably eager to get back to work. The fact that the government have singled out cleaners and childminders – two predominantly female professions – to be sacrificed on the altar of “getting the economy moving” is a topic that I will be coming back to in another blog! But it puts a lot of women, many with their own families to support, in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to risk their health to put food on the table. Certainly a lot of people can afford to continue to pay their cleaners to stay home, but a lot can’t. It’s not only the filthy rich who have a cleaner, many mid-earners have them but paying for them was tight before and now that incomes have dropped it may be impossible. Not to mention that many disabled people have an absolute need of a cleaner; of course some disabled people may be fantastically wealthy, but the majority are not.

On the other side of the coin, the majority of non-paid domestic cleaning is also done by women. However woke the men of the house are, and however much cleaning they think they’re doing, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of women are still doing nearly three times as much as male partners. Women also take on most of the childcare responsibilities. So if you’re a heterosexual woman with a family, during lockdown you’re likely to be trying to work full-time, look after children full-time and clean the bloody house. If cleaners aren’t allowed into the home, it will be the woman in a heterosexual couple who will be penalised. She will have to pick up the domestic slack, possibly to the detriment of her career. Allowing cleaners into the home allows those women space to work and some support for their mental health.

Then, of course, there are the huge numbers of women in the vast, ignored wasteland between these two class battlefields who earn medium levels of income for intensive hours of work but don’t earn quite enough to afford a cleaner and struggle to manage (if they can manage at all) the extortionate cost of childcare. Since the days of the suffragettes the rule seems to have been that wealthy women should win rights and freedoms first, and these will gradually trickle down through society’s ranks to reach those of us on lower rungs of the social ladder. Those of us stuck in the middle are still trying to juggle full-time jobs, full-time childcare and look after our households, and wouldn’t be able to bring in work even if it was safe. In the current climate, we risk ending up in a situation where only men are able to work properly and women will be considered to be not putting in enough time and effort, giving employers and excuse to overlook them and leave them behind even more than before.

So, what’s the feminist stance? Refuse to allow low-income, working class women to be put at risk to benefit the (mostly) affluent and insist that their clients pay them to stay at home where they can? Or celebrate the liberation of working women from the tyranny of domestic slavery, allowing them to take a prominent role in business as well as supporting the economy?

Or… smash the patriarchy into tiny little pieces

Alternatively, we could stop arguing amongst ourselves about who has the least privilege and accept that the whole system is absolutely fucked. It’s all utter bollocks. None of this should be happening. No one should be choosing between their physical safety and their financial security. Nobody should be held back in their work because they have kids and dirty dishes. We need a fundamental rethink about how we value childcare and domestic chores, because if it was men doing the majority of this stuff in the home then you can be damn sure someone would have figured out a solution a long time ago.

When Ditum says the housework is “killing” her, it’s unfortunate. Housework won’t kill you, coronavirus might kill your cleaner. And they might give it to you if they catch it, so that might be the thing that gets you. However, we’re made to feel like we have to do a level of housework that feels like it might kill us. If our houses aren’t spotless, Instagrammable paradises, with beautiful home-cooked meals and perfectly behaved children in adorable matching outfits, we’re made to feel like we’ve failed. Society holds a ridiculous, unattainable standard up to women and beats their self-esteem until it’s see-through if they don’t live up to it. So here’s the thing – fuck it. Let your house get a bit dirty and a bit messy. It doesn’t matter. As long as you run a hoover and a damp cloth around every few days, no one will die. Trust me.

You can’t do it all. That’s why you employed a cleaner in the first place. And christ knows you miss her. Possibly more than your mum at this point. But if you can afford to pay her to stay home, do it, and just let the house go to shit. If your husband and your kids are that bothered, they’ll pitch in and do a bit for a change. I gave the toddler a duster the other day and told her to “play” at cleaning. She did a lovely job of everything lower than 3ft and I had a cup of tea WHILE IT WAS STILL WARM. #winning

If you can’t afford to pay your cleaner to stay at home, you need to have an honest talk with her. One of the things that irritates me most about these types of argument is all the middle class people decreeing what we should do to look after the poor worker bees. HAVE YOU FUCKING ASKED THEM?! Maybe your cleaner doesn’t want to work and she’s terrified and she’d rather stay home. Maybe she’s actually doing ok for money for now and she’s happy not to work. Or maybe she feels perfectly comfortable about the risk and she doesn’t mind coming round if you don’t mind having her. There are all sorts of possible situations, and if you’re comfortable with her having a key to your home then you ought to be comfortable having a candid discussion with her about something this important. Don’t try to guess what she wants or what would be best for her – find out.

Then once we’ve got through this whole apocalypse fiasco, let’s start a bloody revolution.

We need support for all women to make sure no one is left behind. We need greater child benefit for starters – what are you meant to do with £80 a month anyway when the average cost of raising a child is more than £75,000 per couple? More money in each family’s pocket would mean more women were able to afford help. But that help should be government subsidised. We need properly government funded childcare, and government support for domestic help. We need an awareness of how vitally important these services really are – this crisis has shed a bright light on their true value.

Let’s make cleaning and childminding be paid what it’s truly worth. Let’s close the gender chores gap. Let’s work together to make sure the needs of all women are taken into consideration. Let’s tell the government that we’re not expendable just because we have vaginas. Let’s clean up the system, because it’s full of shit.

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2 thoughts on “Cleaning: One of Feminism’s Great Battle Grounds

    1. Thank you! At the end of the first paragraph of the second section I did mention that some disabled people need a cleaner. I didn’t expand on this in much detail as the argument in this case has been around households who choose to employ a cleaner. If you need to have a cleaner then there isn’t a choice. However, the government subsidies for cleaning services that I suggest would greatly benefit disabled people and non-disabled alike.

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