The next battleground for feminism is simple: women’s time

Where should gender equality campaigners focus their energies next? Follow the lesson of the washing machine, argues Difficult Women author Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis
MeToo protest
Photo: Getty

When people ask me to name the biggest issue facing feminism today, I am tempted to throw up my hands in despair. How could anyone possibly adjudicate between the needs and priorities of billions of women? 

Sometimes, I almost feel jealous of campaigners for the vote, or divorce reform, or laws such as the Equal Pay Act: they had causes which cut across class, race and disability. Their demands were straightforward, even if the struggle was hard. Feminism today is more fractured, and some of the women facing the most hardship have the least ability to make their case: single parents, carers, mothers of young children, disabled women. For all of these groups, the challenges they face in their lives also mean they have precious little time to organise politically. 

After reading an early draft of my history of feminism, Difficult Women, a friend suggested that the idea of women’s time deserved a chapter of its own. He was right: behind every feminist battle lies a struggle to be heard. And that requires time. Across the world, women do more unpaid work, and more caring labour, than men. (The Office for National Statistics recorded that British women had 38.35 hours of leisure time a week in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available. Men had 43.) Women are more bound to the domestic sphere, even now. Having a baby can be a radicalising experience: as women lug a pram up the stairs on maternity leave, or breastfeed in a stationery cupboard, or miss a work trip (and a chance at promotion), they realise that the world was not built with them in mind.

My feminist heroine is the washing machine.

But just at that moment, when they most need feminism, they have no spare time for it. ‘No cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us,’ wrote the suffragette Hannah Mitchell in her memoir The Hard Way Up. ‘Looking back on my own life, I feel my greatest enemy has been the cooking stove – a sort of tyrant who has kept me in subjection.’

That’s why, whenever I’m asked to name my feminist heroine, I’m tempted to answer: the washing machine. The cause of women’s rights benefited hugely from the invention of labour-saving domestic appliances in the twentieth century. The dishwasher, microwave and washing machine might well be as important to feminism as the Pill. All of them gave women more time. 

By general agreement, there have so far been four ‘waves’ of feminism: the suffragettes in the 1910s were the first wave, followed by the legal reforms of the 1970s, the fight against sexual harassment in the 1990s, and the explosion in online campaigning in the 2010s. Of these, the second wave was most animated by the realisation that women’s ability to work was constrained by their unpaid duties at home. And with good reason: they were living through a workplace revolution. In 1975, only 57 per cent of British women aged 25-54 were employed, compared with 78 per cent in 2017.

Across the world, women do more unpaid work, and more caring labour, than men.

As employment of women increased, these new workers had to juggle their day jobs with what the American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild would later call ‘the second shift’, and they were exhausted as a result. The statistics she uncovered were staggering: over a year, women worked an extra month of 24-hour days compared with men. ‘Just as there is a wage gap between men and women in the workplace, there is a ‘leisure gap’ between them at home,’ she wrote in The Second Shift in 1989

So why did women not simply stay at home, if work was tiring them out? First, very few could afford to, and second, they relished their newfound economic independence. It gave them more power in household decisions, and more power, if they needed, to leave. 

Truthfully, very few of us would want to turn the clock back to a time of increased gender disparity. And thankfully, the picture described by Hochschild has improved since The Second Shift was published. Although household tasks are still not evenly distributed, the gap has narrowed. And there is now, she told me when I interviewed her recently for Difficult Women, at least an expectation that they will be shared, even if the reality is still catching up.

The women facing the most hardship have the least ability to make their case.

So men have taken some of the strain, and the washing machine has pitched in, too. But what about employers – and the state? That’s where our gaze should turn next. The second-wave feminists of the 1970s were much more utopian than we are now, dreaming of a world in which governments would provide free, universal, 24-hour childcare – it was one of their four original demands at the Ruskin Women’s Liberation Movement conference, exactly 50 years ago. We now need to bring back some of that ambition, to make it easier for women and men to combine careers and divide caring labour.

This is where policies could make the difference. Proper funding for adult social care, where budgets have been slashed in the last decade, is a priority. More money for nurseries would help too. In some cities, the monthly bill can eat up a mother’s whole salary – meaning that some women do not return to work fulltime after maternity, or at all, before their children start school, which then affects their career prospects and lifetime earnings. There should also be tough penalties for maternity and pregnancy discrimination at work. Employers should be flexible: allowing working from home, or hours that fit around school pick-ups. Parents who ask to go part-time shouldn’t be penalised for their ‘lack of commitment’; they should be championed as citizens making a valuable contribution to society, by raising the next generation.  

If there is a fifth wave of feminism, the battle to have women’s work – at both home, and in the workplace – properly valued would be a great place to start. The battle to have our time properly valued. The battle to allow women to participate fully in public life by easing their duties at home. As the Dutch comedian Hester Macrander once joked: ‘My grandmother didn’t have the vote, my mother didn’t have the pill, and I don’t have the time.’ Give women back their time – and let’s see what we can do with it. 

Difficult Women by Helen Lewis is out now. 


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