Marx and Housekeepers

In 2009, the movement of gender equality logged another milestone with the signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. However, while it advances the rights of women with male counterparts in their profession, it says little about those who are engaged in gendered professions such domestic services.

Regardless of whether they go by the title of live-in nanny, housekeeper or servant, the labour of these women assumes a unique meaning due to the intimate terms of their employment. For some, it is seen as form of servitude, despite the woman’s economic freedom.

Among the more vehement opinions expressed in class, some reminded me strongly of Marx’s theory on labour alienation. For Marx, the capitalist system can be divided into two classes – “property owners and the propertyless workers”. The property owners are those with capital and they are “the masters of labour”. Despite what we commonly believe about the freedom of our labour, for Marx, the exchange of labour for money is an “alienation” and an enslavement of the self. Marx believes that labour is inseparable from the self. Thus, when you contract over your labour, he who owns your labour, owns you. This becomes especially true in the case of the housekeeper, whose labour and duties are seldom separate from her personal life. What freedom she thought she had in entering into the employment is illusory because by contracting over her labour, she has contracted over herself. Her employment is, in fact, oppressive.

Furthermore, given the capitalistic belief that everything can be expressed in money, it is not difficult to see how the meager compensation some of these women receive can be interpreted as a debasement of their persons and a sign of oppression.

Work cited: Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Estranged Labour

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One Response to Marx and Housekeepers

  1. ethankerp says:

    In an ideal world everyone would have a job that they found personally rewarding, and for which the would receive ample financial compensation. We do not live in such a world. At least for the near future, there will always be dirty jobs. There will always be very few people who want to do these jobs. There will always be many people who are capable of doing these jobs.

    We value an occupation by the training required to and by complexity of its actual performance. More people are capable of the work of a maid than are capable of the work of a doctor. So it is not surprising, nor should it be denounced that a doctor is paid more than a maid.

    What should be denounced is how we let that financial valuation inform our judgement of the worker’s character. In America, it seems we tend to define a citizen by their occupation. We mark dirty jobs as shameful because they are dirty, when truly these jobs should be respected because of their dirtiness.

    I do not agree with Karl Marx on this subject. To serve is not to be owned by another because a person is not their job. However, I do think that physical labor in exchange for low wages is only a small step from slavery. This is why we must have a minimum wages, to ensure that our financial valuation does not dip below the point at which it cannot support the worker. So much of this course is about respecting each other in the face of our differences, and I believe this issue is no different. We must judge people not by their occupation, but by the content of their character.

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