“M” is for the Many hours she worked…

8 hours.jpg*

Just over 120 years ago, on May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago and other cities across the U.S. struck for the eight-hour day. Until that point, workers were commonly forced to work 10 or more hours in a day, without additional compensation. They had been organizing for nearly 20 years to build a movement to take back their own lives. Their slogan was "eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will." Their strike was met with violence, but it paid off–states started passing legislation limiting the workday, and in 1940 (I know, can you believe it took 74 years?), the US Congress finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set one workday standard for the entire country.

In the 1960s and '70s, women in the U.S. agitated for equal access to jobs and for equal pay. They demanded access to quality childcare programs and after-school care, so that they could be reliable workers. And while the struggle for pay equity continues, we've mostly won the access-to-jobs fight at this point–woe be to any employer who puts a 'girls need not apply' ad in the classifieds these days.

But where did it get us? And by us, I mean all of us, not just women, not just shift workers, not just working parents. Those things were good things to win, and they made our lives better–I don't know anyone who's interested in going back to the working conditions that existed in 1886. But they didn't go far enough.

The fight for the eight-hour day was predicated on the idea that a man should be able to feed his family on what he earned in eight hours in a day. It wasn't just that he should only have to work eight hours–it was that he should have a family-sustaining wage at his eight-hour job. The fight for equal access for women was fought not just to give highly educated women access to jobs at law firms that wouldn't hire them before–it was a fight to give women entry into jobs as welders, and race car drivers, and I don't know, hod carriers.

I don't think our forefathers and foremothers could've predicted where we've ended up as a result of their efforts. Now, instead of one job providing a family-sustaining wage, we've got two parents working just to get by. Now, instead of the eight-hour day, we're creeping back to the ten-hour day with no additional pay. We're juggling our kids, our jobs, our homes. It's not about keeping up with the Jones' anymore, it's about keeping ahead of the bill collector.

There are those who would say it's the workers who got greedy, that the dysfunction of our society is just about people wanting too much, wanting two cars, and a tv in every room, and expensive consumer electronics. I disagree. I think we didn't demand enough, didn't fight for the logical conclusion of the eight-hour day and equal access to jobs.

I think it's time for the four-hour day.

If we believed, as we did, that one man, working eight hours in a day, should be able to sustain his family, then it's time for the four-hour day. If we believed, as we did, that women should be able to have equal access to jobs, and to have equal pay for their work in those jobs, then it's time to demand the four-hour day. We've more than doubled our workforce by adding women to the mix–why haven't we seen a halving in the need for our labor?

Try to imagine what your life would be like right now, if feminists and the labor movement had joined this fight, together, thirty years ago. Imagine that you could spend time volunteering in your kids' school, or shopping to cook healthy meals, or hanging out and reading to your baby. Imagine if you weren't pressed for time every moment of your day, so that by the time Friday night rolls around, you collapse in a heap, too tired to do anything but watch Law & Order reruns.

As we approach this Mother's Day weekend, why not do something good for all the mothers in your life, and the fathers too. Call your Congressperson and Senator. Tell them it's time for the four-hour day. We might not win it for ourselves, but if we don't start now, we won't even win it for our grandchildren.

*To order this poster, go here. For more info on the economics behind the four-hour day, go here.


May 12, 2006. politically motivated.


  1. Elizabeth replied:

    I think my new office might need that poster.

  2. kdubs replied:

    LOLOLOL excellent thinking. Excellent.

  3. fidget replied:

    Always thought provoking

  4. Ro replied:

    Hi there.

    I ran across your blog thru Blog Explosion and the title rang a bell and then I realized I designed for your blogspot blog a while back (thru Ciao My Bella). I’m happy to have found you! 🙂

    Have a happy mothers day!

  5. Vicky replied:

    Well said.

    Happy Mothers Day!

  6. jackie replied:

    This is such an awesome post.

    Seriously. I’m all over the four-hour day.

  7. HeatherJ replied:

    The four hour day would work so well for our family. I would love to get that passed. But it would mean my husband going back to the workforce instead of the kid force.

  8. Anjali replied:

    What a wonderful post. The four hour work day would also allow those of us at home, to return to the work force without worrying about who’s caring for our children.

  9. Dave Dash replied:

    I know people are for the four hour day, I sure am, but it’s going to take more than phone calls to achieve it. I think a lot of people are content, or too busy to actually fight for anything. But you are right.

    There’s twice the labor force (sort of), but now moms (and in a few cases dads) are doing double duty with housework.

  10. guusje replied:

    Here here!

  11. ~d replied:

    Thank you so kindly for the Mother’s Day well wishes. Right back at cha, girl !
    I hope you had a nice day!

  12. Allie replied:

    Wow, I never thought of it that way. How interesting…

    Thanks for the mother’s day email. It was a very sweet thing to do. I’ve been enjoying your blog for sometime, now. I hope you enjoyed a nice relaxing mother’s day. 🙂

  13. jo(e) replied:

    Well said.

    Some countries in Europe mandate a minimum of six weeks vacation time. That would help.

    The other thing that would help is if we had government-sponsored health care. Right now, most people HAVE to work a full-time job to get health care. (And of course, as you pointed out, full-time often means 60 hours per week ….)

  14. alala replied:

    I love the four-hour workday idea, and you make some excellent points.

    And thanks for the Mother’s Day email.

  15. christie replied:

    Happy, belated, mother’s day!

  16. Jennifer replied:

    When you write about working four hours, then you need to write about the trade-off the family will make. I wonder how many Americans would be willing to give up their second car & all their toys (by which I mean TV, computers, cell phones, etc.).

    I loved the article you linked to. I like the idea of creating a market for leisure time. Or at least a perception that leisure does not equal lazy. Do you know how many fun things people can do for free? Without purchasing a bunch of gear? But it seems that one is considered poor or frugal if one does mostly free things, like visiting the library or going fishing, rather than ordinary.

  17. Mere replied:

    As a working mother, I’m all for the 4-hour work day.

    Hope your Mother’s Day was a good one.

  18. mommyontheverge replied:

    you said it Sister.

  19. Jay replied:

    I won’t hold my breath.

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