The Home Stretch

Sally Howard

Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes

Published by Atlantic Books 5 March 2020

336pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns

Click here to buy this book


‘If women were paid for all they do, There’d be a lot of wages due.’  (1970s feminist chant)


There would indeed. A quick internet search reveals £30,000 per year as the estimated market value of the domestic services of the average full-time housewife.

And it’s not just wages that women lose out on by spending more time than men cleaning, cooking and childcare, according to a new book by Sally Howard. The Home Stretch argues that this arrangement leads to female poverty, exhaustion and lack of free time, as well as lower status in the workplace, in politics, in society generally. It also limits women’s ability to concentrate on other things, and may contribute to domestic violence.

Sally Howard, journalist and academic, is partners with a man called Tim, who appears on page 1 of the book’s introduction sending texts pleading for guidance on how to look after their baby while she is at work. She resents the underlying assumption that ‘I’d keep the domestic show on the road by knowing what was needed and when.’She sees this assumption as a symptom of the ‘stalled feminist revolution’ of the 1970s.

Another symptom is the way what the book calls ‘emotional housework’ – i.e. maintaining good relations with extended families, including sending Christmas cards to his blood relations – always seems to fall to the woman. (The phrase ‘fall to’ recurs revealingly often to cover what sometimes sounds suspiciously like women volunteering to do men’s work.)

Moving out from the experiences of one couple, the book surveys historical and international aspects of the domestic labour debate, from nineteenth-century industrialization and the housework-ignoring theories of men such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx, via world wars and their aftermaths, to the gig economies, robotic technologies and outsourcing practices of the present day. It takes in the growth of welfare states, and employment practices which assume that the ideal household contains a breadwinning man and a financially dependent woman who cleans up after him for free.

It also chronicles resistance to this view: Wages for Housework controversies in the UK and the US, guerrilla action in Germany, women’s strikes in Iceland and Spain, and legislative reforms in Sweden.  Additionally it looks at attempts at egalitarian arrangements in communes (real and dystopian), and same-sex couples, It revisits and unpacks established terminology such as Having It All and Yummy Mummies, and introduces us to some new expressions: Housework Cult, Latte Pappas and Mumsplaining. (Mumsplaining is what gets done to some men who appear in public in sole charge of their own babies and who get accosted by unknown women eager to tell them what they are doing wrong. This is apparently one of the reasons why some men are reluctant to take on childcare.)

There’s some fascinating stuff here, which could do with being better organized. Where on earth would a statistic like this come from: ‘In the years from the end of the war to the early 1960s, British women dropped three dress sizes and 30% of us took to bleaching our hair blonde’? It’s not footnoted, so we can’t know. There’s no index, so if you suddenly encounter an interesting snippet on how things work in, say, India or the Philippines, and you want to retrace your steps through other India- or Philippine-related material that you remember from previous pages, they may be difficult to find, The cryptic chapter headings – ‘Paint it Pink and Blue: Naturalizing Gendered Chores’, or ‘Don’t Iron When The Strike Is Hot’) aren’t much help.

The Home Stretch comes to no easy answers. Technology has of course lightened some burdens. But even if you had a houseful of multi-tasking robots, those robots would still have to be selected, maintained and managed. Hired help is another possible solution – but how much should you pay the person who looks after your home and your children? Should it be more, less, or the same as what you yourself earn in your job, a job that your employee (who may be from a racial minority or other underprivileged background) makes possible?

The most basic answer is surely that when able-bodied adults share a home, they should share the housework. Who should do which bits should be a matter for fair-minded negotiation.  But some negotiations are more fair-minded than others, particularly when people come to the negotiating table (which may also be the dinner table, covered with crumbs and clutter and heaps of ironing) with different power bases and different skills. And they may have more or fewer escape routes to resort to if the negotiations break down.

Negotiations between the author and Tim appear not to have broken down, if the warm paragraph of acknowledgement at the end of the book is anything to go by. Tim is quoted elsewhere as admitting that he has been ‘a lazy git’ when it comes to sending Christmas cards, but that doesn’t answer the question of why, since the author suspected this all along, she didn’t just leave his cards unsent, and concentrate on her own.

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