Transactions between those who obtain cleaning services and those who perform them are laden with class issues. I have often been unpleasantly surprised by comments coming from people who I thought were progressive feminists or humanists: “My place is such a mess, I’m so glad the ‘cleaning lady’ is coming,” they declare, apparently without consideration of the human implications.
At a very basic level, I can’t understand how you can call yourself a feminist if you deliberately choose to subjugate another human being, usually a woman with less economic advantage, by hiring her to clean up your mess. I once remember a coworker saying defensively, and somewhat forcefully, “I work hard……. I deserve it………. I just can’t do it ALL, you know.” I have also heard comments to the effect of “well, I am contributing to ‘their’ income,” or “‘they’ appreciate the ‘extra’ money.” The reality is, what domestic workers make will not even begin to cover their and their families’ basic needs, never mind extra money. I have to admit, I have a hard time not judging when those classist comments are made.
To personalize the issue, in the past, I have worked helping older adults with household duties that they couldn’t perform due to disability or illness. This work didn’t feel oppressive as I did it, or as I reflected on it. On the contrary, I felt good about doing something that allowed older adults to live in their own homes in dignity and to help them do things they were no longer physically able to do. I don’t begrudge help to people with mobility difficulties or who are otherwise physically unable to care for their own homes. I contrast those scenarios to the domestic worker jobs that I did to make ends meet before and while I attended university. I remember feeling resentful when I was hired to do childcare and tutoring but was left with the mess people couldn’t be bothered to clean up, the aftermath of dinner parties, and other acts of drudgery.
So, would I get someone to clean my home? The blunt answer to that is “no.” Simply put, I don’t think I could live with this inequality in my own home and this would not be the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being. I think of the sinking feeling I have when I see cleaning personnel washing the floors in public places. In one’s own home, though, the inequality transaction becomes much more personal. I am very interested to know how others feel about this ‘behind closed doors’ issue.
I was simultaneously touched, intrigued and horrified when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s account (in her book, Nickel and Dimed) of her brief employment experience with a cleaning company. I loved her profound comment about whether or not the privileged homeowners knew or appreciated that their floors were washed with fresh “human tears.” With her depiction in mind, I can easily imagine how cleaners must despise or at least resent the material privilege and entitlement that they see. It isn’t a stretch to imagine how tempting it must be to dip those privileged toothbrushes in the toilet bowl!
I am not naive enough to believe that there is enough meaningful work to go around for all. Rather than hire someone to clean up after me, what I would do if I had that much spare change is to direct it to women’s literacy, affordable housing or employment programs, so that less women would have to clean up after other people for a living. That is my anti-oppressive, anti-classist wish.