We Look Up To Households That Make Consensual Decisions and We?re Not Sorry

By Steve Horwitz

(Co-Authored with Sarah Skwire)

Recently, the blogger Amy Glass from ThoughtCatalog posted a piece titled “I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry.”

We are aware that the post is troll bait and an attempt to get hits for the website and explicitly designed to inflame, and we should probably know better.

However, Glass’s post is such an astonishingly good example of what is wrong with the way that we talk about work, and such a good master class in how libertarian feminism can help, that we just can’t resist the urge to respond. (We have, however, resisted the urge to link. If you want to read more than the quotation we’ve pulled here, you’re on your own.)

Among the other risibilities in her piece, Glass says, “Doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business. This word play is holding us back.”

As Sarah noted on Facebook, the claim is simply inaccurate. “Modern medicine IS modern medicine, in large part, because of laundry. Without clean sheets, clean towels, clean linens of all kinds, clean surgical tools, and clean hands, many of you reading this would be dead by now.” But we are aware that not everyone gets as agitated by inaccurate portrayals of medical history as Sarah does.

However, even leaving Lister, Pasteur, Nightingale, Semmelweis, et al. aside, Glass’s comment is an example of some of the dumbest things we do when we talk about work–particularly work done by women. It also provides us an opportunity to talk more about what a libertarian feminism might look like and how it might address issues such as this one.

Important and Impressive are Not Synonyms

Glass has made the classic mistake of confusing impressive work with important work. Garbage collection may well not be impressive. Neither are diaper changing, gutter cleaning, grocery shopping, or any number of other icky, sticky, stinky, slimy and otherwise unpleasant jobs that keep humans healthy, safe, clean, and dry. But if no one is doing those tasks, humans don’t stay healthy, safe, clean, and dry enough to do impressive work–like designing skyscrapers, doing brain surgery, writing novels, and so on.

Scut work isn’t fun. It isn’t glamorous. And it isn’t impressive.

All that means that it is easy to dismiss it as unimportant. But if this winter’s storms and attendant power outages have taught us anything, it is that–without the electricity that allows us to hand our daily scut work over to machines, or without humans willing to take on those jobs in the absence of machines, we would soon be drowning in piles of garbage and poop.

When we compare the value of being a doctor with the value of doing the laundry, it’s also worth remembering the difference between total and marginal utility. It’s true that any specific act of professional medical care is worth more in the market than any specific act of doing the laundry, given the greater scarcity of medical skills. But the question about their relative marginal utility is a different question from whether “having clean laundry” is less valuable than “having professional medical care” as a whole. As Sarah’s Facebook post points out, the answer to that question is more complicated when we look from a total utility perspective. Not only does keeping the sheets and clothing clean in the home do a great deal to prevent disease, modern medicine depends upon hospital employees who keep the bed linens and operating room scrubs clean. Someone has to get the laundry clean, and no matter how much glamour it lacks, those who do it are, in total if not on the margin, just as important as doctors.

When You Forget the Distinction, You Undervalue Certain Types of Work

So Glass is simply wrong in her assessment of what is and isn’t important. But she has also made a fundamental error that feminists of all types have objected to for decades. Impressive work tends to be rewarded with not only more acclaim, but also more money. Work that is only important–and lacks any impressive component–tends to be rewarded with much less money, and often with none. The laborers who washed the sheets in Florence Nightingale’s Crimean hospital were surely paid less than the doctors. But we would be willing to bet they were responsible for saving for lives too.

Feminists have long complained that the work that is traditionally done by women in the household has not been financially compensated. This means it is not counted in GDP. This means it is not “important.” This is, of course, nonsense.

Feminists–again, from all over the political map–have gathered data on how much it would cost to pay someone to do the work traditionally associated with keeping a home. It’s a lot.

We can signal the value of that work by telling some segment of the population (and historically, this has been women) that the work done at home is so important that they must do it and can’t be permitted to seek outside employment.

We can signal it by saying that the work is so important that it must be done by professionals and we should all work outside the home–even if we don’t want to, and even if the jobs we are doing outside the home replicate what we would do at home. (Is dry-cleaning important because we pay to have it done, while laundry is unimportant because we don’t? Is cooking dinner for the family home unimportant, but making an identical meal for strangers who pay for it automatically more important?)

Now We Have to Do Some Laundry

One thing is certain, and it’s a thing that Glass, and many others, elide. The laundry has to get done. You can talk theory all you like. You can praise traditional women’s work or you can denigrate it. You can reclaim it, or do it ironically, or make it a point of masculine pride to take it on, or to never do it. But the laundry has to be done.

What is feminist is not how you feel about it, or write about it, or whether you do it or pay someone else to do it for you. What is feminist (or not) is the set of assumptions you bring with you when you see a big pile of laundry that needs to be washed, and how couples engage in the process of deciding how it’s going to get done.

Every household must answer the same two basic questions: where will our market income come from and how will we engage in household production? Households take resources from the market and combine them with human labor to produce household outputs such as cooked meals, clean clothes, mowed lawns, and cared-for children. For every household, there are a variety of ways to answer these questions. But rather than, as Glass does, dismissing the value of household production and assuming that feminism means that women can only be fulfilled by working in the market, a libertarian feminism might focus on the process rather than the outcome.

Libertarian feminism can start by recognizing that the decisions households make about who will do which kind of work are unavoidably particular to their own context. The complexities of specific careers, the expectations of specific jobs, and the skills of each person, not to mention things like the availability of relatives to help with household production, all suggest that leaving people to make these determinations on their own, in the absence of artificial incentives from policy or strong cultural expectations from any side, is probably the wisest route. Policymakers and the cultural elite are hardly in a position to have the contextual knowledge relevant to such decisions that is possessed by the people in question.

That said, we cannot ignore the reality of the power dynamics of spousal negotiation, in particular. In decades past, when women were far less likely to have meaningful earning potential in the market, they were at a clear disadvantage in the joint decision-making process. That is notably less true today. What feminism and economic growth driven by markets have done, is to offer women options that they did not have before. What is needed for that joint decision-making process to work best is for both parties approach it with at least the potential to either earn market income or to engage in household production sufficiently well to ensure a negotiation among equals. That negotiation will also be less skewed if socio-cultural norms and socialization processes don’t lead either party to assume that, for example, the home is the woman’s job and earning an income is for men only. The absence of such strong gendered expectations along with a sufficient degree of economic independence for both parties helps to validate the particular division of labor a couple negotiates for themselves. And that particular couple’s particular choices, and their happiness with them, are what matter.

It’s About the Process

And this where Glass goes wrong. What a libertarian feminism tells us, in a way consistent with political theorists such as Nozick or Hayek, is that if we wish to appraise the legitimacy of a particular outcome, we should look at the process–not just the end-state. That some women are at home full-time does not mean feminism has failed (or that these women have failed feminism). It does not mean that those women are doing work that is less important than other women’s work. If that particular arrangement is recognized as the best way to solve that particular household’s need for market and household production, and has emerged out of a negotiation that is reasonably equal and absent of powerful cultural expectations, then it is no less feminist than any other arrangement so negotiated. Feminism should be about choice, not about the “one true way.” Choices such as these that are negotiated by intimates, however, are truly legitimate when they are the result of process that involves meaningful consent. We should applaud that consent and the agency to make the choice. We are under no compulsion to love the choices any particular household makes.

Finally, we should also point out that while some of our examples have been heterosexual couples, most of what we said would apply to same-sex ones as well. They too must do the laundry and solve the other basic problems of the household, especially if they wish to raise children. The social expectations might play out differently, but the legitimacy associated with a negotiation process among equals is the same.

Libertarians should celebrate the ways in which markets and our deep belief in equality before the law (a belief shared with the great majority of feminists) have helped provide women with the options they now have. We should equally celebrate the diversity of arrangements that households adopt to accomplish market and household production by recognizing that they are local responses to complex contexts. What’s really important is not the kind of work men and women do, but their ability to solve their own household-specific problems in ways that satisfy all parties. Dictating the “right” way to organize a household is very likely to fail, given that such decisions require the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, not the bludgeon of the policymaker’s hammer or the misguided moral hectoring of the right or the left.

This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.


Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics and department chair at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and macroeconomics.