Social Studies Opinion

We Undervalue Women’s Work. Teaching This Topic Could Help

The case for studying household labor in your social studies class
By Alexandra Thrall & R. Zackary Seitz — March 22, 2024 4 min read
A couple of historic rusty irons on a shelf.
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How much time does your family spend per week doing household labor?

Who in your home does most of the housework and why?

What is the history of the household technologies we use, and how have they shaped our household labor?

These are questions that belong in our social studies classrooms and at no better a time than Women’s History Month. However, the notion that we should include the study of housework in our curriculum may feel unnatural, if not absurd. Ask your students or colleagues about studying housework in history, for instance, and you might be met with snickers about how housework is not history.

To many, housework does not feel like a subject worth studying.

As social studies researchers and teachers, with a collective 18 years of history and economics teaching experience, we know how easy the subject is to overlook in our classes.

However, we have now corrected course and devised discussions, lessons, and even units around the aforementioned questions for our own classes. These questions have proved to be generative fodder for critical analysis. Discussing household labor in class is both culturally relevant and an unconventional approach to addressing myriad content standards.

Excluding the study of housework in our K-12 curriculum not only reflects the myopia of social studies educators and policymakers but also our broader social devaluation of this traditionally female labor.

Most of us either conduct or are the recipients of some form of housework from the moment we wake up each day. We prepare or receive breakfast. We put on (preferably clean) clothes. We care for, or receive care from, those around us. This is no less true for our students, including our youngest learners.

Our classrooms are full of a wealth of knowledge and experience about household labor: how to do it, what it feels like to receive or not receive it, how it differs across circumstances. By remaining silent on the subject in our curriculum, we perpetuate the belief that it is insignificant. In truth, excluding the study of housework from our curriculum is what is unnatural, if not absurd.

Educators and policymakers need to make space for this important subject in our classes. In history class, this task should not be difficult. As historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues in her 1983 book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, “housework” is a socially constructed notion, the origins of which only appeared in the United States at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when men stopped spending most of their time engaged in housework. This stopping is a fundamental part of Cowan’s historical argument.

Today, we, teachers and students alike, may take for granted the seeming timelessness of men’s and women’s separate public and private “spheres” in society.

In our own history teaching, attending to when men stopped working in the private sphere, instead of when women were able to gain access to the public sphere, proved to be a productive counter story for our students. It allowed us to reorient our views of gender relations in the past and open up new lines of inquiry into our present. Students simultaneously grappled with the social effects of the Industrial Revolution and questioned the perspectives, values, and practices that shape their daily lives.

In our economics teaching, we have also found success prompting students to interrogate the gender bias in our dominant economic measurements and systems. The term “economics” derives from the Greek words “oikos and “oikonomia,” meaninghousehold” and “household management,” respectively. Although ancient Greek economic structures—which forbade women from civic participation and relied on enslaved persons for household labor—are far from desirable, this etymology reminds us that household can be viewed as a valuable site of productive activity.

Our current economic measurements, however, elide the Greek valuation of household labor. For instance, the calculation of gross domestic product, our standard measure of a country’s economic activity, excludes household labor when that labor is unpaid and done by someone within the family.

This exclusion was not universally agreed upon when GDP was created. Phyllis Deane, a British economist who was a research assistant on the team that designed the statistical measurement that would become GDP, floated the inclusion of household labor in the measurement in 1946.

Bringing her British bias to bear on her analysis of then-colonial territories that are present-day Malawi and Zambia, she struggled to draw the line between local women’s “economic” and “domestic” activities. She wrote that it would be “illogical to exclude the value of women’s services in collecting firewood, preparing and cooking food, and so on, yet include their work on the land.”

Ultimately, however, her argument was ignored by the broader (male) research team. Uncovering the contention surrounding the design of this prominent economic measurement has provided our economics classes with fertile ground for students to interrogate the assumptions that undergird our economic system and consider the real value of household labor. While there are numerous statistical options for quantifying this value, educators might use the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Household Production Satellite Account to as a starting point to provoke student inquiry.

Including housework in our curriculum does a number of important jobs. It allows teachers and learners alike to inquire into the making of our everyday lives. It places value on this traditionally female labor that has long been devalued. And it leaves us with the understanding that our social arrangements are historically and socially produced—and therefore, able to be disrupted, challenged, and changed.

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