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Coronavirus, domestic labour and Dominic Cummings

LAURA BRIGGS explores how women’s oppression in the form of sex stereotypes serves a dual purpose to capitalism

LAST WEEK, the senior adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, found himself at the centre of a media storm after breaking lockdown rules to visit family hundreds of miles away. 

Cummings has repeatedly asserted that this 260-mile trip was essential to ensure his child could be cared for by her grandparents while his wife was unwell.

An official statement from No 10 said: “Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.” 

From this, we can gather that Cummings himself was not unwell when he sought alternative childcare arrangements — only his wife. 

This begs the question, could Cummings (who was not unwell) not care for his child himself? 

Was the prospect of taking on the role of primary caregiver so abhorrent to him that he saw fit to breach lockdown policy? 

Was he willing to endanger the lives of others simply to avoid taking on domestic labour and childcare while his wife was incapacitated by the virus?

The current crisis has already revealed that women are over-represented in high-risk key worker professions. 

Women make up: 92 per cent of nurses; 90 per cent of personal support workers; 99 per cent of childcare workers; 75-80 per cent of community and social workers; 84 per cent of cashiers; 72 per cent of food prep workers and 71 per cent of cleaners. 

It is no coincidence that these professions are an extension of domestic, reproductive and social labour — the socially acceptable caring, nurturing, subservient domain of females.

But what about within the home? With so many couples confined to their homes during lockdown, surely childcare and domestic labour is now being shared equally? Sadly not.

Not only are men doing just as little as ever before (according to a 2019 YouGov survey), but the domestic workload has increased dramatically for their female partners. 

The constant presence of husbands, boyfriends and children at home has increased the amount of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and grocery shopping. 

Along with this, new, unforeseen domestic tasks have arisen: homeschooling, children’s entertaining, disinfecting groceries, undertaking new lockdown weight loss/exercise routines, etc. 

This is not to mention the mundane daily activities of running a household which have suddenly become of critical importance and infinitely harder to carry out: collecting prescriptions, checking in on relatives, queueing at the supermarket.

Cummings is far from the only man who has revealed himself to be chronically work-shy within the domestic sphere during lockdown. 

For many women, the comforting myth that they only do so much around the house because their partner works hard/late has been exposed as a lie. 

The uncomfortable reality is that, even when their partners have nothing but time, they are still reluctant to take on women’s work — but may occasionally indulge in masculine ego-boosting DIY projects between binge-watching Netflix series and playing video games. 

Marigolds and ironing boards simply cannot compete with the macho allure of power tools and unnecessary building jobs.

In order to understand male aversion to women’s work, we require an understanding of sex stereotypes and their role in upholding the capitalist status quo. 

The development of capitalism relies on the exploitation of women’s reproductive labour to grow the industrial workforce. 

Rather than extracting this reproductive labour by force, sex stereotypes are used to maintain the sexual division of labour through ideological coercion. Male sex stereotypes dictate that men are intelligent, capable and dominant. 

Female sex stereotypes demand that women are caring, nurturing, emotional and subservient. These sex stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies. 

They are so long-standing and widespread that the population generally conform to them, thinking it perfectly natural to do so — largely unaware that these sexed roles (beyond what is biologically necessary) were socially constructed by the ruling class. Thus, women compliantly reproduce for the benefit of the state.

However, women’s reproductive labour is relatively inefficient; it will take 18 years before the fruits of her (reproductive) labour are able to join the workforce. 

In previous epochs (where child labour was both legal and rife) the five to 10 years before a child began work may have been a worthwhile investment; but in a modern, fast-paced, service-based economy, capitalists must be able to respond to market demands much quicker than reproductive labour allows. 

Enter: migrant labour. Superstates such as the European Union use migrant labour with formidable efficiency, using freedom of movement legislation to move workers around the continent at will. 

Thus, the exploitation of women’s reproductive labour is not required to breed new workers — steady population growth will suffice. 

Women, therefore, are no longer such a valuable reproductive commodity and are rushed back into the workforce on part-time or zero-hours contracts — ensuring they still fulfil their childcare obligations alongside productive labour.

So, if women’s reproductive labour is surplus to capitalist requirement — and a move away from manual labour towards a heavily automated service economy has enabled women to join the workforce as on-paper equals to men — why are women still taking on the vast majority of domestic labour and childcare? 

Again, we need to examine the character of sex stereotypes.

The universalism of this sexist ideology transcends class boundaries. Sex stereotypes elevate men above women and so, keen to retain this dominance, men will readily replicate these power structures in their personal, private and domestic relationships with women — regardless of their class. 

Not only does sex stereotyping delineate between men’s work and women’s work, it also characterises the latter as inferior — relegating it to a subservient position, secondary to the work of men. 

Men cannot degrade themselves (either consciously or subconsciously) by undertaking menial women’s work. 

So, even if a working-class man is pitifully downtrodden under capitalism (and many are), he can take solace in knowing that he still wields domestic power over women.

But why would the ruling class be concerned with the division of domestic labour within the private sphere? 

Surely the ruling class is only concerned with the role of men and women in the public sphere, where their exploitation is profitable? To resolve this apparent conflict, we must examine the dual purpose of sex stereotypes.

Ideological oppression in the form of sex stereotypes serves a dual purpose to capitalism. 

First, it allows for effective control of reproductive labour. Second, it divides the working class into two halves, creating antagonisms between the two which need not exist. 

While Engels, Clara Zetkin and other early 20th-century Marxist thinkers imagined that the antagonisms between sexes would diminish as women entered the workplace, they underestimated the universalism of women’s ideological oppression.

The universal, naturalised nature of sex stereotypes has become painfully apparent. 

Coronavirus lockdown measures have forced many women to acknowledge a reality that they have been wilfully denying (an act of psychological self-preservation) — there is no equality in the home. 

While both partners and children are at home, there is no ambiguity as to which sex takes on the bulk of day-to-day domestic labour. 

Though it may be uncomfortable for men to acknowledge their role in this ideological oppression, the material discomfort of their exhausted partners is significantly higher.

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