For those of us who are privileged to keep our salaries working from home, adapting to the new mode of telework has brought a challenge to our traditional work conceptions. In essence, we have had to reconcile two apparently opposing activities: working life and domestic life. The space of the house has been transformed into a makeshift office, and the working hours have been fragmented, intersping with kitchen work, toilet, repairs, and sometimes care for young relatives or older adults. Just as British political scientist and academic Robert Kelly sneaked his two sons in a television interview in 2017 – a video that became one of the most viral of that year – it is common to see some fragments of that domestic life on camera today. Regarding the phenomenon of telework in the covid-19 contingency, an architect from Los Angeles, USA, notes that «video conferencing from home is an intimate window into the life of each of us. We see in the background children jumping in armchairs, we hear dogs barking, we see people in their pyjamas, the couples of our colleagues.» In Chile, we had a glimmer of that intimacy when we could all see Senator Jacqueline van Rysselberghe teleworking from her bed and drinking wine while attending a session of the legislative chamber.
There’s some revolutionary in this new image of work. They peek into the back of the scene clothes of freshly washed clothes, ordinings typical of any desk, sportswear, baskets of dirty laundry and toys on the floor, as opposed to the neatness and coldness of the meeting rooms or the impeccably ironed two-piece suits. We see something normally repressed for being considered dirty, unworthy, shameful. Robert Kelly’s first addition, when he noticed his daughter’s entrance to the scene, was modest: he tried to hide his daughter with his hand, repeatedly apologizing to the journalist, while about 5 seconds later his wife, watching her husband’s image of professionalism, be jeopardised, appeared slipping down the floor trying to go unnoticed in her mission to take the children. In those 10 viral seconds, the care of these children appears as the opposite of academic work: the manual versus the intellectual; the rudimentary versus the complex; the feminine versus the masculine.
The imaginary of work has historically been linked to status issues: work dignifies, work enriches, labor gives power. The labor hierarchy has been marked by signs of this status: ties, polished shoes, heels, gold rings, makeup, voice tones that denote authority, square meters of office, modern ornaments, glass facades. The more you climb on this socio-labor scale, the more invisible the domestic becomes. In Victorian England, we are reminded of the Swiss writer Mona Chollet, «thanks to a separate ladder for the staff, the aristocrat who climbed the steps of her abode was not in danger of crossing with her faeces the night before, in the fight that a maid was wearing.» We think it is normal to see a kiosk tending with her young son in her arms, but scandalous that a Member of the Republic attends the work accompanied by her daughter. The possibility of concealing the domestic seems to be a privilege, something to be aspired to. «With the diet of parliamentarian can pay for nanny,» former Deputy Schaulsohn accused Meps Vallejo. With this phrase of accusation, it seems to appeal to a class imaginary who establishes, on the one hand, that domestic work is unworthy of an honourable Member and, on the other hand, that the work of a domestic servant is less valuable, monetaryly, than that carried out by the parliamentarian.
But there is also an implicit gender imagination. Before women were a significant part of the «public» workforce, they were the ones who exercised the bulk of the «private» or domestic workforce. As maids or as homeowners, the concern – unpaid – for the neatness of spaces and personal presentation, the care of children and the elderly, corresponded to them. Chollet points out that one of the slogans of feminist criticism of Marxism in the ’70s was «Proletarians of the world, who washes their socks?», as a feminized mirror of the classic «Proletarians of the world, unite!». Shortly after Kelly’s video went viral, she circulated a parody that showed what would have happened if the teacher had been a teacher: the interviewee manages to hilvany brilliant ideas without interruption, while playing with her children, ironing, cooking and cleaning a W.C.
The «Wages for Housework» feminist movement of the 1970s sought to highlight how this invisibilized and unpaid female labor is a fundamental pillar of the industrialized economy, proposing as anti-capitalist action that state wages be established for domestic work. Perhaps the new image offered by telework relates to this kind of feminist conception of labor, where all the «minor» jobs that were historically burdened by women and are now often outsourced, can be valued collectively, either through remuneration, or through recognition of their employment status.
Taking out the dirty rags (kitchen cloths? diapers? rags?) and putting them in the sun can be a good metaphor to portray the act of transparenting the domestic life and the work that involves maintaining that life, taking out that veil with gender and class bias that assumes that there is an invisible «other» who will make the punch for you. If one of the important struggles of feminists in this century has been the equitable distribution of the physical and mental work of the home, the visibility of those same tasks can contribute to balancing them between genders.
A few days ago Robert Kelly was interviewed with his entire family, asking him – as he appears to be an expert – how he reconciles work, domestic life and confinement during the coronavirus pandemic. He showed up, yes, in a suit and tie; don’t forget that you’re a distinguished teacher.
The content poured into this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of El Mostrador.