What can you say about housework? From the perspective of today’s career-minded men and women, scrubbing floors and doing dishes often looks like drudgery, a distraction from more important and fulfilling paid labor. But a 1995 paper by family science scholars Nancy Rollins Ahlander and Kathleen Slaugh Bahr suggests a different take, elevating housework’s status by looking at its moral dimensions.

Ahlander and Bahr write that “housework” became a thing starting in the mid-1700s with the rise of factories, wage work, and urbanization. While many women worked in the flourishing factories, a growing gender ideology—particularly among middle- and upper-class whites—held that only men should work outside the home.

The phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness,” which had originally referred to being morally clean, was now applied to housework. “Cleaning became a moral duty, and it was not uncommon to judge a woman’s moral state by the orderliness of her house,” Ahlander and Bahr write.

In the 1950s, a new concept for understanding housework emerged: the division of labor. Sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that women were naturally more suited to the expressive work of caring for a family, making the gendered division of public and private work efficient and inevitable. More recently, some feminist scholars have framed housework in terms of power relations. Given the low status of household tasks, they argue, men use their greater social and institutional power to foist them off on women.

Ahlander and Bahr argue that all these approaches suffer from blinkered thinking, reflecting an individualistic, economically oriented view of valuable work.

They advocate for a whole different way of approaching housework, one that brings back a moral dimension, but without the baggage of gender roles. When it comes to children’s chores, they note, many modern advice-givers argue that “identities, emotional ties to family members, and acceptance of kinship obligation grow out of common participation in the day-to-day essential activities of shared family life.” Yet, while housework is seen as fostering positive, prosocial behavior among children, it’s often dismissed as drudgery when adults do it.

In fact, Ahlander and Bahr argue, in many ways housework can have elements of a calling—work that combines activity and personal character, helping to bond a person to a community. Thus, one father who was a participant in a 1989 study noted that he “would sometimes derive pleasure from cleaning the bathroom or picking up a sock if he looked at it as an act of caring for his family.”

In Ahlander and Bahr’s formulation, the moral dimension of housework is less about the work itself, and more about the work’s purpose. Labor done in service of one’s family—particularly when all family members contribute and recognize each other’s contributions—can be more than a distraction from our “real” work.

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Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 54-68
National Council on Family Relations