“Why did it take a pandemic to show how much unpaid work women do?” wrote Diane Coyle in the New York Times in June 2020. Nearly three years later, the writer and essayist Marina Benjamin enters into an intellectual and embodied conversation with this labour, the cleaning, caring, feeding and pleasing that is carried out by women, and that has once again been relegated to the invisible and unseen, now that things have returned “to normal”.
Benjamin’s approach to the topic is more personal and lyrical than recent work such as that of feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser, who argues that capitalism is a guzzler of care, but its thesis is largely the same. “Sometimes I think that carrying – other people, the continuity of history, generational identity, the emotional load of the everyday – is the main thing that women do,” writes Benjamin. What is the impact of that carrying, on women’s lives, on their bodies, on their minds? This is what Benjamin sets out to uncover.
As with her other recent publications, which meditated, respectively, on insomnia and the menopause, Benjamin draws from literature, art, philosophy and popular culture. Virginia Woolf, predictably, is a key presence, as is Simone de Beauvoir. I also enjoyed the author’s consideration of artist Paula Rego’s Dog Women paintings, which suggest a tension between subservience and defiance, a tension, writes Benjamin, that “bristles within most women I know”. Yet she also counters Beauvoir’s assertion that housekeeping is the worst kind of Sisyphean torture, insisting to the foundational thinker of second-wave feminism that the repetition, as Sisyphus learned, is the point.
Most of all, Benjamin turns to her own life to wrestle with the contradictions imposed on women by our system of patriarchal capitalism. In recent years, as her body feels the toll exacted by housework, she has hired a cleaner, but is tormented as to whether this decision makes her part of the “oppressive economy that underfunds feminised labour”, while at the same time resenting that it is women alone who are forced to grapple with these questions. Men, she writes, “just hire people to clean for them and get on with their lives”.