How domestic labour is dangerous

jackie_gullandJackie Gulland is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh. She began her career working in the voluntary sector as an information officer and trainer. Her work raised important questions about how those on the receiving end of welfare negotiate entitlements and challenge decisions. In order to follow this interest she made a major career change to study for a PhD in social policy. Since then she has continued to study these questions, considering the role of legislation, rights and redress in policy development and implementation. The research discussed here was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and will form the basis of a book to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

When we think of dangerous women we tend to think of fighters of all kinds: warriors, politicians, campaigners, women who stand up and make their voices heard.  But can women be dangerous just by getting on with the everyday drudgery of housework and childcare?  In my current research on the history of incapacity benefits since 1911, I found danger in this most domestic of spheres.

Here was the problem.  Married women in the early twentieth century were assumed to be housewives.  They were not expected to work outside the home.  Of course, we know that many did, particularly women in poorer communities where their income was essential to the family budget.  Many would have what we recognise today as the ‘double burden’ of paid work and housework but their income was necessary and the housework had to get done.  The danger arose when these married women were ill and tried to claim sickness benefits. Since 1911, in this early version of the UK welfare state, married women were entitled to join the national health insurance scheme if they were working.  This meant that they were entitled to sickness benefits if they were ill and unable to work.

It seems straight forward.  You pay national insurance, you become ill, your doctor advises you not to work until you are better, you claim benefit.  The problem was that the people who decided on benefit claims were suspicious of married women.  They suspected that these women were not really workers who were ill but housewives who were trying to escape from the labour market.

The argument went like this.  If someone claimed sickness benefit, the test of their ‘incapacity for work’ would be whether they were able to do their most recent paid job, at least in the short term.  If people were on benefit for more than a short period then the test would be whether there was any work they could reasonably be expected to do.  For men and single women this was relatively straightforward.  They could be assessed against the kinds of work they had done in the past or against some hypothetical ‘real world’ job.  For married women it was much more difficult.   If they were still doing the housework, did that prove that they weren’t really ill?

Decision makers and civil servants at the time recognised that housework was ‘work’, anticipating an argument that feminists made in the 1970s:  ‘the only difference between employment work and housework is housework’s lack of pay’ (Oakley 1974, The Sociology of Housework, p26). The problem was that it was not paid, so was it reasonable to treat ‘work’ that women did in the home for no pay in the same way as work that women (or men) did in the labour market for a wage?   In the archive papers that I’ve been looking at, there are records of women who had their benefit stopped if they were caught hanging out the washing, scrubbing the step or peeling potatoes.


Mary Macarthur – a dangerous woman?

The National Health Insurance scheme was set up in 1911. Within a year of its introduction there was concern that too many people, particularly women, were claiming sickness benefits. A committee was set up to look at these ‘excessive claims’ for benefit.  The committee met for seven months and collected evidence from ninety-four witnesses and looked at 1,500 pages of written evidence.  Along with two other women and eleven men, another dangerous woman, Mary Macarthur, was a member of the committee, representing the Women’s Trade Union League.

Mary Macarthur was more typical of the activists and campaigners that we usually think of.  She was active in the labour and trade union movement, campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace and later standing for parliament as one of the first women candidates. Less well known are her efforts to improve sickness benefits for working women.  Her involvement on the committee on sickness benefits included giving evidence about the women’s claims for benefits, as well as listening to the evidence of other witnesses and writing a dissenting memorandum to the final report.  She stressed the need to take account of the realities of working class women’s lives in deciding their claims for sickness benefit.  She dismissed ideas that women were claiming benefit in order to get away from the factories, or because they could get more money from benefit than they could earn her wages, or because they couldn’t understand the principles of the insurance scheme.  She argued instead that women were genuinely ill and that the scheme had shown up the realities of poverty and ill health amongst working-class women.

The committee paid some attention to Mary Macarthur’s argument and concluded that most women were probably genuinely ill when they claimed benefits.  It felt that there should be better guidance on when housework should and shouldn’t affect benefits and guidance from decision makers to women ‘to appreciate the necessity for abstaining from prohibited housework while in receipt of sickness benefit’.

It didn’t say who was supposed to do the housework. Neither did it come up with a clear view on what to do about the supposed problem of married women’s claims.  As the sickness benefit scheme evolved and changed again after 1948, policy makers provided general guidance that decision makers should pay particular attention to claims by married women who appeared to be housewives, subjecting them to extra surveillance and medical tests.  Today, under equality legislation, social security benefits are theoretically gender neutral, although feminists are quick to point out that benefits policies fail to take account of the continuing gendered nature of both the paid market and responsibilities for domestic labour.

Sadly Mary Macarthur died in 1921, aged 40, so was not around to continue the campaign for women’s rights to sickness benefit or to draw attention to what she described as the ‘treble burden’ of paid work, housework and childbearing.


Women, housework and benefits today

What does all of this tell us about women’s claims for benefits today?  The benefits system, as it was devised in 1911 and continues in its much revised form today, is intended primarily for ‘workers’.  Current controversy about definitions of incapacity for work and requirements for claimants to demonstrate work-seeking behaviour continue to underline this. Crucially, these requirements in our welfare systems assume that ‘work’ means ‘paid work’.  Policies usually refrain from describing caring or domestic labour as ‘work’ but someone still has to do it.

Ironically, early twentieth century policy makers did recognise domestic labour as work but used this as evidence to exclude women from benefits, on the assumption that women had male partners to support them financially, a position which was not tenable then and is even less so today.

The question for feminists today is how to square that circle – to recognise caring and domestic tasks as work without cutting women out of entitlement to financial support. Domestic labour is dangerous because it calls into question the nature of ‘work’ in society and undermines much of the ‘work first’ rhetoric of social security policy.  Dangerous women are those who continue to point that out.


Further reading

For more information about this research and the archives I’ve been looking at, see

For further information on Mary Macarthur, see Angela John, ‘Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880-1921)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004).  Access to the online edition is available through the National Library of Scotland and often available through public libraries.