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Salary for wives: Domestic chores as work?

Publication Date : 26-09-2012


The recent initiative of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, making it mandatory for husbands to pay a monthly "salary" to their wives, has come in for severe criticism both from the rightists as well as feminists.

One cartoon rightly depicted a husband saying to his wife, “here is your salary for the month of August 2012. However  3355 rupees has been deducted as you were at your parents’ home for a week.”

The Union ministry of woman and child development is drafting a bill to make this proposal a reality. The ministry has termed this step as an initiative to empower women. If the bill is passed, husbands will have to pay 10 to 20 per cent of their monthly salary to their wives.

Sometime back, the Supreme Court had questioned the government’s census parameters which placed housewives and women engaged in domestic work in the same economic bracket as “prostitutes, beggars and prisoners”.

The court observed: “This bias is shockingly prevalent in the work of the census.” Domestic work is indeed more productive than working in an office because here one actually takes care of three people who go to work--two children who are the future of the nation and two elders who have given their best years towards serving the nation. 

The apex court rightly observed: “Such categorisation of about 360,000,000 women in India by the authorities betrays a totally insensitive and callous approach towards the dignity of labour and is also indicative of a strong gender bias.”

The court noted that women make a “significant” contribution to national life, and referred to a report by the “Evangelical Social Action Forum and Health Brigade” which estimated the economic value of services by women in India at US$612.8 billion annually.

“One has to admit that in the long run, the services rendered by women in households sustain a supply of labour to the economy and keep human societies going by weaving the social fabric and keeping it in good repair. If we take these services for granted and do not attach any value to them, this may escalate the unforeseen cost in terms of deterioration of both human capabilities and the social fabric,” observed Justice AK Ganguly.

The latest proposal has revived the debate about the recognition of domestic chores as productive work. The proposal has created a flutter among the people. There may be complications with the idea of husbands paying a “salary” to their wives. Many social rights activists are comparing it with the British policy of “divide and rule”.

Several questions arise. What is the history of recognition or non-recognition of wives’ work as work in the western democracies? What are the justifications of treating domestic work as work? What has been the legislative activity in this regard?

We should seek to emancipate wives’ labour in the household as well as in the market, and to do so, advocate “joint property” laws that would recognise wives’ claims to marital assets to which husbands otherwise have title. Wives are entitled to joint rights in marital property by reason of the labour they contribute to the family economy. In seeking joint property in marriage--distribution of property commensurate with a wife’s contribution to the household economy--we must insist that the work women perform for the family should be valued equally with men’s work and reject the arguments that wives’ labour should be emancipated in accordance with its market value because the market  still devalues women’s labour.

For centuries, the British common law of marital status was starkly hierarchical, imposing pervasive constraints on the lives of women. The common law charged a husband with the responsibility to represent and support his wife, giving him in return the use of her real property and absolute rights in her personality and “services”--all products of her labour.

Unless her family was sufficiently rich to provide property in an equitable trust, a wife negotiated marriage as a dependent without property or the legal prerogative to earn it, and impaired in her capacity to contract, to convey or devise property, and to file a suit. If she survived her husband, she acquired a life estate in one-third of any real property he held during the marriage (“dower”), so long as the marriage produced an offspring. A husband who survived his wife was entitled to tenancy for life of any lands she held.

Till 1851, no country had recognised a wife’s right in earnings of any sort. If a married woman worked for pay in or out of the home, it was the husband’s prerogative to collect her wages. Wives frequently had no say in monetary decisions in the family. Even in the happiest of marriages, where husband and wife worked and shared together, the doctrine of marital service imposed itself because the law categorically defined wives as dependents. It effaced their contribution to the family and posed an affront to dignity in a culture that celebrated labour as the source of autonomy.

By the middle of the 19th century, some American states started reforming common law of marital status by enacting “Married Women’s Property Acts”. Some of these statutes exempted wives’ real property from their husband’s debts; others codified the equitable separate estate, allowing wives to hold, though frequently not to control or dispose of, property acquired before or during marriage.

The reform legislations opened vistas beyond the ancient status doctrines of the common law, suggesting that the traditional consolidation of property interests in the husband might be supplanted by a regime of separate property ownership in marriage.

By 1850, the era of “earning statutes” had begun. It  granted wives property rights in earnings from their “separate” or “personal” labour, and enabled wives to engage in many legal transactions in their own right. This was a significant development as it sought to alter the course of life of those women who had no property to hold in marriage other than the proceeds of their labour. A wife was granted the right to earnings acquired by “trade, business, labour or services carried on or performed on her sole and separate account”.

The earning statutes did not emancipate the common forms of wives’ work, but instead left most forms of wives’ labour subject to the doctrine of marital service. These statutes emancipated a wife’s “separate” or “personal” labour: work performed by wife for family was often explicitly excluded, and, even when it did not, courts generally construed the statutes to give a wife rights only in income earned outside the family context that was not used for family support.

By the 19th century,  growing numbers of men in the US had begun to work outside the household, but wives continued to work in the family setting, and so their work increasingly appeared an indistinguishable part of “family life”.

Moreover, the development of a market economy left most wives dependent on their husbands for money. As it became more common for men to exchange their labour for money-wages, production for use came to be identified as a distinctly female activity, associated with the social, but not economic, maintenance of family life.

Census measures of the economy that appeared in the aftermath of the Civil War characterised such labour as “unproductive”, and, consistent with this gendered valuation of family labour. It excluded women engaged in income-producing work in the household from the count of those “gainfully employed”. In so doing, they gave official expression to what were already deeply entrenched assumptions of popular discourse, which denied that wives’ work was work.

One should, therefore, not be surprised by the Indian census document which regards wives’ work as unproductive and equates it with beggars and prostitutes.

The writer is the vice chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad


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