Feminist Sees ‘Unfreedom’ In Women:

Phyllis Chesler Sees Wife and Mother Having 15 Unpaid Jobs, No Benefits “Unfreedom”

The Washington Star, March 30, 1976: Phyllis Chesler, feminist, psychologist and coauthor of “Woman, Money & Power” was interviewed by Washington Star Staff Writer Judy Flander.

Question: Do you think the housewife is an endangered species?

Chesler: No, I don’t. Most people, and especially women, cling to unfreedom with a vengeance and do not wish to become self-supporting, independent or to control their own economic destinies.

Q: Do you think there is any justification in the fear some housewives express that with the advance of the women’s movement, they will be forced to work?

A: Wives and mothers already work very hard for no money. When women say that they don’t want to work, what they are saying is that they already have about 15 jobs at home. To go out to work means taking on a 16th job in the money culture, which discriminates against women, paying women far less than what they need and deserve.

Q: Then the woman who stays home as a wife and mother is better off than the working mother?

A: No. Motherhood, they say, is powerful, right? But no mother can control the air a child breathes, the school her child goes to, what’s taught there, the media that the child is exposed to, and in fact, mothers can’t prevent war. War is a direct hit on the fruits of female labor. It kills people. Mothers have no say in what happens to their ‘product’ — children.

Q: Most women seem to make a distinction between the work they do in the home and the work they do in the marketplace. Is it merely a question of unpaid and paid work?

A: Yes. Women’s work is never done and never valued, even by women themselves. Many housewives say, ‘Oh, I don’t work, I’m a housewife.’ Now, what that says is, in the money culture if you’re not paid wages for what you do you don’t think you’re working. If a woman makes a dinner for 10 and you compliment her, she says, ‘Oh, it was really nothing.’ Yet women deny being economically victimized. Women can talk about sex, but not about money.

Q: Why do women downgrade themselves like this?

A: That’s due to the fact that women are so removed from the money culture and so removed from understanding power that they settle for very little, their standards are very low, they don’t expect very much. Whatever they get they’re grateful for. Most women are reared to expect a lifelong dependency and never to be in charge of their own lives. Women are taught to be bought by the highest bidder, if they can.

Q: Are you proposing that women be literally paid for the work they do in the house?

A: Yes, but that’s almost impossible right now. Most men don’t have fancy salaries, you know. And if private companies paid men for their wives’ labor, the labor that allows them to go work with a sandwich, go home to a dinner, to a cleaned house, to well cared-for children, they’d go broke right away. If the government attempted to pay for women’s work at home, it would go broke, too.

0: Is there any reason for the contented housewife to concern herself with the economic goals of the women’s movement?

A: Well, the problem is, even the best of men die and leave you unprepared to cope economically. Most men do not have a lot of money, therefore they cannot properly support a wife. It’s not their fault — that’s how it is. When women say that money is not important, that only family health and love are important, they are taking a real head-in-the-sand look at their lives.

Q: Well, if women are undervalued, underpaid and cannot be paid at all for the work they do in the house, where does that leave them?

A: Well, men have struggled very hard to get paid by the hour and to have sick benefits, pension benefits, Social Security benefits, and working conditions that are workable. Now, women must begin to think about the work they do as productive and that they shouldn’t work 24 hours a day, but perhaps eight hours as workers do. Which means women must begin thinking that they are workers doing productive labor, in the home or outside the home; workers should not have 15 jobs, possibly two at the most.

Q: That sounds all right theoretically, but most women don’t have anybody else to do their other 14 or 15 jobs.

A: Women don’t have wives.

Q: Right. And they have children who may be sick and they’re not thinking in terms of either work or money when they’re nursing sick children. What are the alternatives?

A: That’s a good question that’s hard to answer. A woman could be an employe of her husband, rather than an unpaid wet-nurse-mother surrogate.

Q: So she would get a salary, say, instead of an allowance?

A: Right, except that this is tricky and most women would not like that. It would be better if her husband’s salary was paid directly to her. Only it should be doubled, to pay for her work. Men say that they work for women and for children — fine. Then pay the woman who is the true head of the household.

Q: What about the woman who truly believes the compensations of love and service are as valuable as money?

A: I know that woman. She says that she’s here to serve God and to produce children and provide love. If it turns out that she doesn’t get too much love in return or economic security, well, religion also teaches how to be fatalistic about that. She did what she could, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She has no options, she’s got no choice, anyway. She is going mad with powerlessness. She is vicious to other women

Q: What evidence to you see of this?

A: Women are absolutely without mercy or justice or compassion for the suffering of other women, even though they may be next. When a woman gets divorced, she doesn’t get invited out anymore. The husband gets invited out. When a woman is abandoned, people look the other way. It’s like being on a city street corner and somebody gets stabbed and you look the other way — you don’t want to get involved. It could be you next and that’s too terrifying a reality, so you dissociate yourself from the fate of other women.

Q: Have women always been like this?

A: Yes. That’s one of the facts of our oppression. We’ve been divided against other each other and we hate ourselves. Women mistrust women, despise women, and are very competitive with other women. Economic reality forces each woman to look out for herself and not to see that we will have to do things with a very large view and collectively to achieve even the smallest end for each individual. Women don’t think in large terms.

Q: Is there any way that housewives could get together and maybe form an arm of the women’s movement?

A: Yes. It is crucial. I think that housewives can come together as consumers. They have no consumer power whatsoever. The food we buy is filled with poison, as is the air we breathe. Each woman, because she happens to be a mother or who has a man who she says loves her, that doesn’t give her any power to say to Congress, listen, we’ve got to change the air pollution.

Q: How about a union for housewives?

A: That might be one way housewives could get health benefits or pensions, vacations, sick leave, but it has its dangers. Women wouldn’t be paid more than the minimum wage, so it would keep them at home, pregnant and barefoot.

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.