She Feels Unclean
March 09, 2020
In the pages of the Observer, a new niche agony is detected:
Is it ever acceptable for a feminist to hire a cleaner?
Needless to say, it starts off quite dramatically,
The day my cleaner used to visit, I would return home in the evening to the smell of Dettol mixed with Tania’s sweat, to a clean kitchen and bathroom and a drenching sense of guilt.
Gratuitous drama and drenching guilt aside, I’m not entirely sure why hiring a cleaner should obviously be more fraught than hiring, say, a gardener or roofer. And it occurs to me that if you can smell someone’s perspiration above the odour of cleaning products, said person may require some kind of medical attention.
The piece, by empowered feminist author Sally Howard, continues in high gear,
It was the same unease that greeted me when I collected my son Leo from his nursery – a national chain disproportionately staffed by women of colour – or bought clothes from a mainstream clothing outlet that relies, as many do, on female garment workers in the global south.
For the kind of middle-class feminist who as recreation writes for the Observer, life is apparently an endless moral torture inflicted by minor, everyday events, or at least an exhausting theatre of pretending to be tortured by minor, everyday events. Which of the two constitutes a more harrowing and nightmarish existence, I leave to the reader.
For [my book, The Home Stretch], I spent time under cover with the women who clean Britain’s offices and homes. I picked used tampons off bathroom carpets and scrubbed bathtub tidemarks and sauces spattered across kitchen walls; and I discovered a few things.
That some women are so messy and antisocial that bloodied tampons are left for others to step on? Is that a permissible feminist thought?
I learned that fashionable householders’ preference for less-effective eco and homemade cleaning products doubles cleaners’ labour.
No laughing at the back.
And I learned that the second-wave feminist rhetoric that positions housework as nasty and tedious “shitwork” also, quite naturally, alienates the workers who take pride in competently performing necessary work.
Why, it’s almost as if there were an unflattering class dynamic to poke at, a rich seam to mine. Alas, we veer away and instead head towards ideological fetish territory:
Is it morally and economically reprehensible to contract out our domestic labour? And if this act is dubious from the point of view of many or most feminists, can we correct for this ethical quandary by contracting, say, a male cleaner…?
For some reason, 1970s comedy sketches are flashing before my eyes. Presumably, fewer tears would be shed, and written about at length, while hiring a male cleaner in preference over a female one - in the name of feminism and female empowerment, of course. Other questions come to mind. What about the chap who fixes Ms Howard’s car or washing machine – would his toil and perspiration be noteworthy too, a cause of public agonising and a “drenching sense of guilt”? And then, unaddressed, there’s the issue of what a disabled feminist is to do, or a feminist recovering from knee surgery or whatever. Must she limit her hiring to one sex or the other, or must she do without and clean her own carpets, wheelchair permitting, in order to conform with current feminist ideology?
For two months, I tried the fair pay option, contracting Jurate, a non-agency cleaner, and paying her, to her delight, £40 for a two-hour session. In the end, I couldn’t square this approach with my new knowledge about the relationship between paying a woman to clean my home and the structural devaluation of women’s work.
Yes, I know, it’s a bit of mental tangle and somewhat mysterious. But apparently, paying a female cleaner over the odds, much more than she or her male peers would likely earn elsewhere, is a structural devaluation of women’s work. It’s new knowledge, you see.
The clincher, in the end, was my three-year-old son, who quizzically followed Jurate around the house as she squeezed her mop and brandished her ever-present Viakal. I did not want him to see the labour of some women as less worthwhile than the labour and leisure of other women and men… I found I could ease my feminist conscience by scrubbing my own toilet.
And so, with immense righteousness and a great sense of personal breakthrough, the services of the female cleaner in question were dispensed with. No above-market wages for you, my dear. Because the way to empower female “domestic labourers” is, it turns out, to not hire them at all.
Clearly, another triumph for twenty-first century feminism.