Will the fight against climate change mean more housework for women?

Feminist Fightback has been discussing the gender politics of the environmentalist movement, and what a feminist perspective can bring to it. Here we suggest that struggles against climate change must also consider the question of domestic labour.

Many years ago I worked as a cleaner for an elderly couple. Mrs P had been a home economics teacher in the 1940s and 50s, and key to her extensive housekeeping expertise was the principle of thrift. Accordingly, I was required to wash rather than throw away used tin foil, scrub not peel potatoes, and save the dirty washing-up water to throw on the flower beds.

These are all practices that I have recently taken up myself in my latest burst of environmentalist panic. But when carrying them out under the strict surveillance of Mrs P, I found them utterly miserable. The kindly, authoritarian and puritanical ways of Mr and Mrs P (he was a retired vicar) were very much part of a certain kind of British culture, stretching back to the early nineteenth century, of ‘waste-not want-not’ godly efficiency. I preferred the attitude of my North American Jewish grandmother, a strong advocate of the dishwasher and, even better, paper plates and plastic cutlery, which she credited as the secret to her wild parties and enthusiastic outlook on life.

Today, I can see that my Bubbi’s approach embodied the rise of consumer capitalism and throw-away culture, with its hugely destructive environmental impact. While Mrs P’s represented the tail end of a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mentality, that had once been widespread common sense and needs to become so again. There is nevertheless a lot of politics bound up in this proposed shift in our household practices, worth further consideration.

Until the Second World War middle-class housewives could rely on live-in servants to wash their tin foil for them, and many of them (like Mrs and Mr P who had been missionaries in Kenya) spent years living in the British Empire where they were able to benefit from the labour of a large number of low-paid domestic staff right up until decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s. Had Mrs and Mr P not been able to afford a twice-weekly cleaner as they became older and more frail, they might well have embraced a more profligate approach to housekeeping.

Working-class women of Mrs P’s generation, on the other hand, were horribly burdened by domestic labour, working 16 hour days cooking food from scratch, washing clothes by hand and scrubbing out pans with lemon juice and soda. It is an uncomfortable truth that the introduction of fridges, washing machines and hoovers from the 1950s onwards made women’s lives much easier while also using up fossil fuels and creating landfill.

Environmentalism is absolutely an issue for anti-capitalist feminists who want to challenge intersecting oppressions. Those worst affected by climate change are women (usually the primary caregivers and people responsible for growing and cooking food); poor people (lacking the resources and infrastructure to deal with flooding and droughts) and people of the Global South (where so far weather conditions have been at their most extreme and who are forced to migrate and thus endure the dehumanising immigration controls imposed in the cooler areas of the planet). It is the wealthy, not the working class, who have the least environmentally sustainable lifestyles – consuming far more, flying frequently and having bigger houses using up more heating etc.

The struggle against climate catastrophe requires a massive structural transformation of our economy, energy production and industry. But it also necessitates a transformation of the way we live our everyday lives and the reorganisation of our homes. We need to seriously consider the politics of gender, race and class that this entails.

Although the increasing popularity of eco-friendly household tips is probably a good thing, what is hardly ever mentioned is that this new approach to housework is more labour-intensive and more time-consuming. Avoiding heavily-packaged processed food; sponging and airing clothes rather than chucking them in the washing machine; using a manual carpet-sweeper rather than a vacuum cleaner; towelling over disposable nappies; avoiding highly effective and highly toxic chemical cleaners; sterilising our mooncups instead of throwing tampons into landfill; even washing-up everything that goes in the recycling bin…. all of this takes time and effort.  And it is work which continues to be carried out mainly by women, whether for free by mothers and female partners or for poverty wages by a cleaner who is also often a migrant.

Opposing climate change in the home needs to challenge rather than entrench these inequalities of gender, race and class. Not least because, if the only message for how to live a more sustainable life involves doing loads more work in a culture where there is already very little free time, then few people will be convinced to make the necessary changes.

What might some concrete feminist demands around every day sustainability look like? More community kitchens providing affordable non-processed food benefitting from economies of scale? Sharing household technology with neighbours via easily accessible laundry rooms in every block of flats, collective purchase of high quality industrial items that don’t break after a couple of years? More opportunities for communal living in general rather than inefficient nuclear family units that require more cleaning and the endless replication of household commodities? A shorter working week to give us time to cook and even grow our own food? Feminist Fightback is only beginning to consider these questions, and we welcome suggestions for further reading, feminist campaigns against climate change around the world, and even labour-reducing eco-friendly household tips!

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