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Upon hearing that I was going to the Domestic Imaginaries symposium last month, the author of Marxism and the Problematic of Desire forwarded to me an article from Jacobin, hoping that it would provide me with some interesting discussion points. The article very ably and clearly deconstructed the notion of ‘Do What You Love’, stating that,

‘There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.’

‘Working from home’

As an aspiring academic, I am highly aware that the deceptive mantra glosses over considerable difficulties and stressful situations. Much as I love the idea of immersing myself in my research to such an extent that the line between work and pleasure is blurred, I remember all too clearly the way my dissertation made my home into a work space so that every day was a work day. The fact that academia has a tendency to draw workers into a situation of which my experience during one stressful summer was only the merest hint is proven by diverse pieces of evidence, from the fact that my former tutors still don’t hesitate to respond to my emails at 11pm on a Saturday, to the statements of academics on how their quality of life has improved since they began consciously to work to contract, to testimonies by PhD students regarding the completely insufficient amount of hours their universities are willing to pay them for the marking they do. As the article goes on to explain,

‘Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit?’

Work should, where possible, be enjoyable for the worker – but the fact that we may enjoy our work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be justly compensated. It should also not be allowed to usurp our lives to the exclusion of every other source of pleasure – the kind we choose for ourselves. The ‘DWYL’ philosophy, through its individualistic cast, pretends that the need to work is a choice, and that our dedication becomes an obligation as a result:

‘According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.’

As it transpired, this article was directly relevant to the paper I had prepared for the symposium, and to another on the panel: ‘Secret Spheres: Images of work and gender in the homes of the mid-Victorian urban poor’ by the wonderful Emily Cuming. It made me recognise the striking similarities between the nature of the modern-day ‘DWYL’ mantra and mid-Victorian assumptions regarding ‘women’s work’, relating, in different ways, to both middle- and working-class women.

Victorian middle-class family scene: the home as a place of peace and comfort – and leisure

As the middle-class rose to prominence and laid down its largely arbitrary rules to distinguish itself from the decadent aristocracy and the lumpen proletariat, many families who were socially middle class did not have the income to match this social status. This created problems for the woman of the house in particular. The doctrine of separate spheres which was fundamental to the construction of the middle-class family home as ‘the basic unit of society’ (Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes, 1994: 115) was based on the removal of productive and profitable work from the home. This meant that the domestic work done in the house could no longer be recognised as work. Cue the invention of the ‘angel in the house’, a mythologised being whose work was supposed to come naturally to her because the care of her home, husband and family was her highest destiny. Thus, domestic labour could be made ‘culturally invisible’ (Jennie Batchelor, Women’s Work, 2010: 3) as being completely removed from the public sphere of profitable work, and depicted as the domain of a creature destined specifically to carry it out.

Practical reality, however, meant that a large number of middle-class families could not afford this lifestyle. Thus, in many cases the doctrine of ‘separate spheres’ not only ignored the stress a middle-class housewife was likely to experience in the running of her household, but also disallowed the entrance of these women into the world of profitable work to help support their families. This middle-class notion was also often imposed on working-class families, with working-class characters in industrial novels voicing opinions such as Mrs Wilson’s in Mary Barton, that,

‘I could reckon up […] nine men I know, as has been driven to th’ public-house by having wives as worked in factories; good folk, too, as thought there was no harm in putting their little ones out at nurse, and letting their house go all dirty, and their fires all out; and that was a place as was tempting for a husband to stay in, was it?’ (1994: 139)


A Victorian seamstress by Anna Elizabeth Blundon, 1854

In other words, a woman who works by definition neglects her womanly duties of providing comfort and a moral framework for her family, and if her own selfish impulse makes her fail in these paramount duties, she will be punished by the scorn and indifference of her family and community. This increased the pressure on working women to disguise their profitable work to seem a part of their ‘natural duties’. As Leslie Hume and Karen M. Offen show,

‘… many women found ingenious ways to supplement their family income through home-based cash-producing activities – sewing and washing for others, or writing advice manuals for sale to commercial publishers. These activities did not alarm the Victorian public since they remained centred in the private sphere and were considered supplemental to women’s primary domestic chores.’ (Victorian Women, 1981: 275)

Emily Cuming’s paper suggested that this same narrative of disguise was also imposed on working-class women working at home. She contrasted engravings of middle-class families clustered around the hearth with a working-class family of tailors similarly grouped around the window as being a source of cheap light to aid them in their labour. It is important to bear in mind here that working-class people in Victorian ideology were defined primarily through their work, unlike middle-class people whose work was necessary to support their ‘real’ home life. Many working-class women worked at home to allow them to look after young children and relatives who were aged or ill – needlework, matchbox-making etc. were commonly done at home under the auspices of a sweater who provided the materials and collected the finished product. Emily put her finger on an interesting distinction in the narrative of ‘home’ for these women, as opposed to middle-class women: often, working-class women made their home a workplace to keep them out of other ‘houses’, meaning the workhouse, a brothel, or the house of someone of a higher social class where they might be put to work as domestic servants.

Family making matchboxes

Thus, the notion of ‘Do What You Love’ unashamedly revives a Victorian narrative used simultaneously to devalue work and increase social and economic pressure on the worker whilst depicting this situation as something worth aspiring to as a mark of progress. If you do love your work, that’s wonderful, but you are not subservient to it – or, more importantly, to the person profiting from your supposed ‘pleasure’.