One peculiarity of the trade at which so many women earn their livelihood I have, as yet, hardly touched upon. It is this: that however arduous and exacting the labour that trade entails – and the rough manual work of most households is done by women – it is not paid except by a wage of subsistence. There may be exceptions, of course, but, as a general rule, the work done by the wife and mother in the home is paid for merely by supplying her with the necessaries of existence – food, lodging, and clothing. She is fed and lodged on the same principle as a horse is fed and lodged – so that she may do her work, her cooking, her cleaning, her sewing, and the tending and rearing of her children. She may do it very well or she may do it very badly; but beyond food, lodging, and a certain amount of clothing, she can claim no wage for it. In short, her work in the home is not recognized either by the State or by the individual citizen (except in occasional instances) as work which has any commercial value.
There must, of course, be some reason why such intrinsically important work as the rearing of children and ministering to the comfort of the community should be held in such poor esteem that it is paid for at the lowest possible rate – subsistence rate. (Which means, of course, that wages in that particular branch of work have been forced just as low as they can go, since human beings cannot continue to exist without the means of supporting life.) And the principal reason for this state of things I take to be the compulsory nature of the trade. Given a sufficiently large number of persons destined and educated from birth for one particular calling, with no choice at all in the matter, and with every other calling and means of livelihood sternly barred to them, and you have all the conditions necessary for the forcing down of wages to the lowest possible point to which they will go – subsistence point. In that calling labour will be as cheap as the heart of the employer could desire; and incidentally it will tend to become what ill-paid labour always tends to become – inefficient. Exactly the same condition of affairs would prevail in any other trade – mining or boiler-making, for instance – if immense numbers of boys were brought up to be miners or boiler-makers, and informed that whatever their needs or desires, whatever the state of the labour market in those particular callings, they could not turn their abilities into any other direction. Under those circumstances miners and boiler-makers would probably work for their keep and nothing more, as the ordinary wife has to do.
Cicely Hamilton, Marriage as a trade, 1909