I learned to make lace when I was small, solemnly winding my bobbins with white thread then working over the pillow with deepest concentration – twisting and crossing the splints of wood, carefully weighted with scavenged beads, never learning so well that my hands could work without stumbling, but working all the same. I made my first few pieces, slack-tensioned and a little sloppy. My older female relatives and family friends inspected them indulgently but unimpressed. They were Bedfordshire women who had learned the needle arts at school, women who had been educated for domesticity, women who could not believe that I would leave school at 16 unable to knit, sew or make pastry. “I could make this,” my grandma would say, plucking the unhappy hems of my Topshop jumpers. “Didn’t they teach you anything?”
Their lives didn’t stop at what their education had fitted them for, though, because this generation of women lived and served in World War 2. Air traffic control. Fork lift trucks. Munitions manufacture. Sock knitting. Forestry. All the work that drove the pulse of winning a war, that kept life ticking over, that men were not there to do – that was women’s work, and they did it well. They weren’t much honoured for it, though. It wasn’t until 2005 that they received a monument. A few weekends ago, I was in London with my children for the marathon, walking from Westminster to Trafalgar Square to kill time at the National Gallery before we expected to cheer their dad, who was running. We stopped and talked about the monument to the women of WW2. “Why aren’t they just on that one?” asked my son, pointing back up the street at the Cenotaph.
Because they weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. In Anna Karenina, Levin teases his wife Kitty for her needlework. Her broderie anglais strikes him as a frivolous absurdity: he calls it “one of her feminine freaks” and says that “respectable people mend holes but she made them on purpose.” Shortly after this, Kitty nurses his brother through a serious illness. Like her cutwork, this is a kind of labour that leaves nothing but air behind it. Levin has his agricultural plans, which will lead to crops, profit, growth. The clean sheets and hot water Kitty supplies are essential to health and life, but they generate no substance.
In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again. Female work is barely admitted as a kind of labour, really: it is a natural outcrop of women’s caring nature, another of our feminine freaks. When we talk about the economy, we talk only about the work that is presumed to count – the labour that creates value. As Katrine Marçal writes in her book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, this explicitly excludes all the unpaid work that women habitually do, none of which is included in calculations of GDP despite it being essential to the function of society: “The fruits of male labour could be stacked in piles and measured in money. The results of women’s work were intangible. Dust that is swept always collects again. Mouths that have been fed grow hungry. Children who sleep, wake. And after lunch it’s time to do the dishes. After the dishes comes dinner. And more dirty dishes.”
Someone will have to clean up the monument to the women of WW2 now: yesterday, during the anti-government protests, some political genius sprayed the words “FUCK TORY SCUM” on it, in screaming red. Some anarchist piss-baby with his face swaddled up, deciding where to express his contempt, and he chose to desecrate the tribute to women’s labour. It took 60 years to recognise that work, and now we are in the middle of a savaging of the welfare state that hurts women most – hurts women, because women are treated as a kind of natural resource, generously supplied by benevolent nature like air or water or soil, there to do the work that the government has decided cannot be paid for anymore. Caring for elderly or disabled relatives, cutting back on her own meals so the children can eat – this is women’s work now. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. When do we get to count?
Photo by exfordy via Flickr