The military flyovers — staged in early May 2020 in major cities across the country — saluting healthcare workers couldn’t have been a more perfect symbol of how we treat the mostly invisible work of mostly women. Seventy-six percent of healthcare workers are women. They do the front-line work of administering medications, monitoring symptoms, comforting the sick, disinfecting rooms, and supporting patients and their loved ones through the worst moments of their lives. Women do this work all the time with little to no acknowledgement, but since there is a pandemic going on, this normally invisible work has made it into the public eye, and the Pentagon said “thank you” by launching “Operation America Strong.” What better way to appreciate the incredible challenge of the intimate, hands-on work of healthcare providers than to send four F-15 Fighter jets to swoop in 2000 feet over the rooftops of hospitals? What could be a more appropriate way to honor the day-in-day-out, round-the-clock nature of caregiving than to hold a tribute that lasts two seconds? What could be more fitting than to use the air force’s tools of death and destruction to salute those down on the ground trying to keep people alive? What could be more natural than to use four money pits (F-15s cost almost $30 million to make and have a per hour flying cost of $60,000) to show gratitude to the chronically underpaid and under-protected workers who are trying to function in a health system designed for the wealthy, leaving the majority to get along with little or no safety net.
What could be more rational than to deploy these instruments of war, which the U.S. regularly uses to kill (mostly) people of color in illegal and immoral wars abroad, to say thanks to healthcare workers watching people of color die in wildly disproportionate numbers here at home? It’s no surprise that the U.S. military — which sucks trillions of dollars out of the budget, contributes more than any other single entity to the destruction of the environment, and regularly (itself or by proxy) decimates people unfortunate enough to live in a country that has dared to cross the self-appointed policeman of the world — would come up with this idea to get everyone looking up in the sky. It takes effort to make women’s work invisible.
From 2000 feet, it would be hard to make out that it’s mostly women of color working as the Certified Nursing Assistants in the hospitals and as Personal Care Attendants (PCAs) delivering necessary, life-saving care to homebound people. For healthcare workers, and those who work in eldercare, childcare and our public schools, exposure to the contagious respiratory illness caused by the Corona virus is an occupational hazard – and even more so because of the shortages of personal protective equipment in the United States. The labor of these workers is essential but their heath, it would appear, is expendable. Here, in the richest country on Earth, some workers are risking illness and death to feed their family! Women of color, who are over-represented in the caregiving professions, are more vulnerable to Covid-19: African Americans, for example, make up 12.5% of the U.S. population but account for 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths, [i] and similarly, people of Latinx origin are disproportionately more likely to contract Covid-19 and disproportionately more likely to die. It’s all very well to make token grand (empty?) gestures with F-15 fighter jets to acknowledge the work of people who brave the risks associated with a potentially life-threatening virus, but, what about hazard pay and health insurance? How do we as a society support our caregivers beyond flashy fly-bys and a cacophony of pots and pans?
Directing our focus back to earth, we might ask who is doing the other essential jobs – harvesting fruits and vegetables, keeping the grocery stores open, taking care of the elderly in assisted living homes. Who does the work involved in maintaining our communities and under what conditions? Turns out it is again mostly women. Women make up most of the workforce in many of the sectors deemed “essential” in this pandemic: elder care, state and community-based services, retail, food service, and agriculture. According to the New York Times, “One in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential.” And “nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else.”
At the end of their paid work shift, essential workers come home to do the unpaid – but no less essential – work of caring for their families, neighbors and maintaining their homes. This “second shift” is a second workday for women and caregivers, [ii] and comes at huge costs in terms of foregone promotions and earnings, as well fewer hours of leisure as compared to men. [iii] Moreover, the burden of this unpaid work has increased during the pandemic due to the closures of schools and childcare centers, so that those who have jobs in this economy have to, more than ever, negotiate the tradeoff between earnings, childcare and eldercare. “Women in our communities have never been busier taking care of loved ones, provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time.” [iv] How can this work be both “essential” and at the same time, “undervalued”? Is there a connection between the preponderance of women in these jobs, and their persistent low pay, and low status in our society?
The Covid-19 global pandemic has illuminated the stark reality of whose labor it is that sustains our families, our communities, our clinics, our schools, our eldercare institutions, farms and food chains. While particular sectors of the U.S. economy have made record level profits since the lockdown (disaster capitalism at its best!), an increasingly dispossessed working class is struggling to reproduce their households, take care of the young and elderly, and raise the next generation. As large numbers of people face the prospect of long term unemployment, we’re seeing long lines at food pantries around the country, rent strikes, calls for a moratorium on evictions, and for divesting taxpayer funds from spending on policing communities, to spending on schools, social workers, and mental health clinics. In the following pages we describe the ways in which the organization of socially reproductive work is deeply embedded in power structures of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism to the detriment of societal wellbeing. To dismantle these interlocking power structures, we draw on ideas from participatory socialism and socialist feminism to offer equitable visions for reorganizing work in a Post-Pandemic Society.
1. Much of the work that undergirds the wellbeing of our families and communities is feminized and generally not even considered “work.”
It’s safe to say that every single one of us has been at the receiving end of women’s care. Whether it was the person who “mothered” us, the health care provider who tended to us, the office administrator who supported our work, or all the neighbors and community members who stepped up to cook meals and check on us when we were not well – that caring work was most likely done by a woman. We regularly benefit from women’s work, but we don’t see it or acknowledge its skill and complexity because sexist messaging tells us that this is work that women were born to do, that it isn’t even a skill, but more of a genetically programmed drive. When things are cast as “natural” however, they are often taken for granted (like unconditional love), taken as a free, infinite resource that can be extracted without cost – much like the way corporations extract natural resources and take ecosystems’ functions for free and granted. People-making work, the feminized work involved in maintaining our households, raising our children, caring for those who need care, and also attending to the relationships that nurture and sustain the social bonds that hold our communities together, feminists call social reproduction. Social reproduction includes domestic labor necessary for the provision of food and shelter, caregiving labor (physical and emotional) involved in caring for family and community members, along with the work of socializing the next generation through “the development and transmission of knowledge, social values, and cultural practices and the construction of individual and collective identities”. [v] Socially reproductive work is the foundation for all other activities in our socio-economic system, and yet, because of the feminized attributes of these tasks, this labor is either not considered “work,” or if it is acknowledged as work, it is under-paid and undervalued. If, however, we (re)define our economy as the site where we undertake productive, reproductive and distributive activities to meet our material needs, then work becomes a different thing altogether: work becomes the totality of all those activities we do to meet our needs, and unpaid, as well as paid socially reproductive work becomes visible as valuable and necessary to our economy. Of course, there will be things we do out of love for our family members that goes way beyond any monetary value, but the point is, we’d recognize the bulk of the feminized work being done to sustain, reproduce and care for our homes and communities, and reward it fairly.
2. Most people don’t even understand what women do or what “caring” work involves, or how it affects the worker.
One of us in used to teach ESOL in a hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts, and during one classroom discussion, it became clear that the Certified Nursing Assistants made less than the men who cleaned the floors with the big buffing machines. In what world do we rank polishing floors with a machine as harder or worth higher pay than the direct patient contact work of giving bed baths and managing bedpans? Apparently, in this world! The job requires upper-body strength and a large machine? Pay him more. Caring labor requires extensive skills and nuanced behavior to care for people who are suffering what could be their highest levels of stress, pain, and anxiety and require a level of careful attention that could mean the difference between life and death? Pay her less.
Caregiving labor does not manufacture a tangible product, it may not be cerebral, conceptual work, and may be rote and even deadening work (daily feeding, bathing, changing bed pans and so on). Nevertheless, it is work, and it is work that has its own occupational hazards. The affective nature of caring work is such that it can be emotional, and potentially distress-inducing, especially in a pandemic where frontline workers are dealing daily with illness, suffering and death. Those healthcare workers in high risk, high fatality areas are likely to face anxiety, helplessness, and a sense of burn-out or compassion fatigue associated with the medical condition known as secondary traumatic stress disorder. [vi] And during the pandemic, caregivers working in settings like care homes have had to isolate, sometimes for weeks, from their own families in order to care for their residents/patients; so they have to deal with the emotional distress of that too. On the other hand, a lack of concern on the part of caregivers – perhaps due to the overwork, long hours, high rates of turnover and low pay – may affect the quality of caring labor and therefore the quality of life for those who are chronically ill or elderly. The affective nature of caring work means that it is not like other forms of labor, and even when it is visible as paid work, the commodification of care work has immense implications for the wellbeing of both workers and care-receivers.
3. Women’s work is done for free or for very low pay because of the intertwined workings of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.
The continued devaluation of socially reproductive labor has brought into plain view the interconnected workings of our market-driven economic system and patriarchy: a hierarchical power system organized around male authority that values masculinity and masculinized attributes over femininity and feminized attributes. One manifestation of the intersections of capitalism and patriarchy is the way that the work-life pattern of the traditional male-breadwinner has become the norm. You enter the paid labor force when you are young, and you work continuously until you retire; as you gain work experience and build on your skills, you climb the job ladder, you work your way up the pay scale, attain power, status and build wealth for retirement. This normalized portrait of the average worker is based on the work-life pattern associated with the stereotype of the traditional white male-breadwinner; it does not take into account the life-work patterns associated with people who do the work of caring for the young, the elderly, the home and volunteer in the community.[vii] These workers have often have to balance paid work with unpaid work: they may take “time off” to give birth, care for infants (is childbirth a vacation?), raise the very young, attend to the daily needs of family members, care for the elderly, and those who are differently abled. They may spend considerable portions of their lives outside the paid labor force, and are considered to have a “weaker attachment” to the labor market. While the work-life pattern of the white male-breadwinner has come to be accepted as the norm in our society (that is, we now live in a universal breadwinner society where people are expected to work continuously in the paid labor force for about 40 or more years), the work-life patterns of (feminized) caregiving are considered to be outside the norm. If social welfare policies are designed around a “norm” where everyone in society is expected to continuously work in the paid labor force, then caregiving in the home, family and community, is cast as outside the norm, or “time off from work,” and becomes the exception, marginalized, and invisibilized, and caregivers may incur what Nancy Folbre calls a care penalty. [viii]
As more and more women have entered the paid labor force, caregivers today face increasing pressures in both paid and unpaid caregiving settings. Over-work, stress and exhaustion have all contributed to caregiving becoming dis-incentivized and “penalized” [ix]: women often work long hours their whole lives, into old age, without ever accruing social security or a pension plan for their work. Unpaid care-work does not accrue vacation time, or social security benefits, are not linked to a health insurance plan or a 401K pension plan, and does not lead to positions of power and status in our society. This means, unconscionably, that caregivers are particularly susceptible to poverty and destitution in old age. [x] Is there any wonder that fewer and fewer people are willing to take on this type of work, so that we as a society now face a shortage of care? [xi] To address this “care crisis” our white supremacist society has effectively outsourced our low-paid, low-status caregiving work and domestic labor to Brown and Black immigrant women.
As women in the Global North have made gains in the paid labor force and in political positions of power, they came home and found that the work involved in caring for the family and the community still remained. Many found themselves having to do this work as a “second shift,” and began increasingly relying on frozen dinners and fast food. Technological innovations helped to automate some of domestic labor, and computer games, TV shows, and iPads have come to stand-in as substitutes for time spent with family members. Moreover, in order to cope with the stresses of maintaining a work-life balance, women have increasingly turned to the market, not just for Grub-Hub meals and Merry Maids, but also for care services. To cope with the stresses of the second shift, women in the Global North have found a private, market-based solution to the care crisis in the family through immigration. [xii] For those who can afford it, one way to organize domestic and caring labor has been to shift it on to immigrant women from the Global South:
A woman with a professional career in a rich country hires a foreign-born nanny so she can work full time. The nanny from the poorer nation or region leaves one or more children at home, where an older daughter or female relative cares for them. These global care chains have many variations. The feature they have in common is that the flow of caring is always from the poor to the rich… The women at the end of this chain are in the unenviable and untenable situation of providing emotional support, affection and care to other people’s children, often at the expense of their own. [xiii]
Society-wide, immigrant women, mostly of color, have subsidized the “dead-beat” patriarchal U.S. capitalist state, absolving it from having to pay for the costs of raising children. Instead of taxpayer financed state institutions to provide quality daycare and eldercare, immigrant women, women of color and poor women have been hired to provide caring labor in informal settings and in formal for-profit institutions, where corporations can pay low wages to caregivers in nursing homes. Meanwhile, care-work continues to be low-paid, seen as less-skilled, less valued, remained feminized and also becomes racialized, reinforcing race, class and gender inequities. Today, Black and Latina women are over-represented in lower paying domestic labor jobs, home health care aides, home child care – occupations with little occupational mobility, access to health care or defined pension plans.
To an extent then, the globalization of child care and housework brings the ambitious and independent women of the world together: the career: oriented upper-middle class woman of an affluent nation and the striving woman from a crumbling Third World or post-communist economy. Only it does not bring them together in the way that second-wave feminists in affluent countries once liked to imagine – as sisters and allies struggling to achieve common goals. Instead, they come together as mistress and maid, employer and employee, across a great divide of privilege and opportunity. (xiv)
For feminists, this raises the troubling question: to what extent have the gains of women in the paid labor force during the neoliberal era relied on the low-paid, precarious, and often racialized care-work done by immigrant women? And who is caring for their children, parents and their grandparents? Looking at the economy through the lens of socially reproductive labor reveals the way that patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy work together to uphold longstanding inequities of race, class and gender. Addressing the invisibility, devaluation and demotion of the work involved in socially reproducing our families and communities is clearly therefore a matter of gender justice, racial justice and economic justice.
Proposals for Addressing Gender Equity in a Post-Pandemic Society
What would it look like if a society centered its policymaking around the care needed to sustain our communities? The first step would involve taking a full accounting of what constitutes work in our society and make the significance of feminized labor “visible,” bringing it out from the margin to the center. The second step is to rethink how we organize socially reproductive labor in our society, so that people of all genders can participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and so that the rewards and costs associated with people-making work are equitably allocated across society. Together, these two steps would help to refocus our priorities, promote the centrality of caring for our families and communities over capital accumulation, and de-link caring labor from femininity, giving everyone a chance to undertake this challenging, skill-building work that teaches empathy, humility and respect for life, death and all the living in between.
Step One: In the short run, our task is to make visible the significance of social reproduction as being integral to our economic and societal wellbeing
Almost 50 years ago, women fought a campaign for something similar to a Universal Basic Income (UBI). They called their campaign, “Wages for Housework” to compensate women for the unpaid work they do in caring for their families and communities. Socialist feminists such as Selma James and Silvia Federici argued that demanding compensation would force the State to account for this invisible work and acknowledge the value of this unpaid labor. At the time, some feminists debated the merits of commodifying this labor of love. Would wages for all the work that women were doing in their families somehow cheapen it? (Wasn’t it already cheap?) Would wages bring this affective, intimate labor into the quid-pro-quo, calculating sphere of capitalist relations? (Wasn’t it already an invisible part of the capitalist economy?) In response, Silvia Federici argued, “We wanted to call work what is work so that eventually we might discover what is love.” [xv] Would implementing Wages for Housework break out women and caregiving work from the “feminized ghetto”? Now, more than 50 years after the Wages for Housework campaign, feminists find themselves still fighting for gender and racial equity in US society – but perhaps at this critical juncture of a global health crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis and a racial justice crisis, the societal soil is better prepared to receive and nurture feminist seeds.
Hawaii’s Feminist Recovery Plan, Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs, offers for example, a visionary plan for a more equitable post-pandemic society, and addresses long-persistent gender inequities to counter “the systemic wage and wealth gender gap.” [xvi] Formulated through a process that included the participation of Native Hawaiian and immigrant women, the plan advocates policies such as raising the minimum wage $24.80 per hour for single mothers; adopting universal basic income, universal single payer health care, paid sick days and paid family leave; publicly provided child care for essential workers, as well as a public emergency fund for high-risk groups, such as undocumented women, and domestic and sex workers. The “recovery” plan’s explicitly feminist focus calls for building up the state’s social infrastructure in childcare, education and healthcare, and reorienting Hawaii’s economy away from the military, tourism and luxury development, sectors. These export-oriented sectors, the document notes generate mainly low-wage jobs, are linked to workers’ rights abuses, and contribute to environmental degradation. It advocates incorporating “gender-based violence prevention in the immediate response and long-term recovery” and points out that redressing gender inequity in economic policies, and promoting women’s financial independence “is a basic condition for recovery and liberation from gender-based violence.” The plan makes explicit provisions for commercial sex workers, members of the LGBTQ community, and caregivers, groups “whose already-precarious social and financial situations have been exacerbated by the [corona]virus.”
Hawaii’s Feminist Recovery Plan is far-reaching in its intersectional analysis connecting patriarchal institutions such as the military and the corporate tourism industry to environmental degradation, violation of workers’ rights and gender oppression. The Plan draws connections between the extractive nature of tourism to the sandalwood and sugar plantations of the colonial era, and advocates instead, for the right to “subsistence living and the perpetuation of land- and sea-based practices traditional to Hawaii’s ecological and food system.” Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs offers a hopeful and visionary model for a post-pandemic society that would help us support the people-making, community-sustaining work in our economy, and build toward longer-term changes needed to disentangle the constricting bonds of patriarchy and capitalism. However, as far-reaching as the vision in Building Bridges may be, without undoing the gender division of labor, chances are that caring labor and domestic labor will remain racialized and feminized. At the end of the day, wages for housework, or a universal basic income based on gender equity, is only an intermediary step – a short-term goal. In the long run, in order to de-link caring labor from femininity, and address the structures that enforce racial and gender inequity in our hetero-patriarchal capitalist society, we will have to rethink the organization of who does what work, so that people of all genders and all racial backgrounds are able participate in empowering, creative and caring work, as well as important decision-making processes. Examples of how we might change these hetero-patriarchal conventions are beginning to emerge through the efforts of grassroots movements such as the gay rights/liberation movement. By winning more rights for same sex couples and allowing them to adopt children, this movement has turned conventional gender roles on their head. There is no ‘mother’ in a couple made up of two gay men, there is no ‘father’ in a lesbian couple. Instead, there is parenting, both mothering and fathering from both members of the couple, and lots of love, which is really the most important ingredient when it comes to nurturing children.
In the process, we may in the long run, move towards more egalitarian social relations and enjoy other positive spillover effects. Given that patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy work together as interlocking systems of power and oppression, in the long-run dismantling white-supremacist patriarchy will also involve dismantling capitalism. In the next section we draw on a model of participatory socialism developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel to think about how to reorganize who does what work, so that people of all genders and all racial backgrounds are able participate in empowering, creative and caring work.
Step 2. In the long run our goal is to reorganize socially reproductive work in an equitable way through Balanced Job Complexes
Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of our priorities and allowed profit-making activities to take precedence over community-sustaining activities. How might we move the racialized and feminized socially reproductive labor that sustains our communities from the margins to the center of our decision-making consciousness? What if we designed policies where people who care for family, relatives and neighbors are not marginalized, and not penalized as they are in a market-focused society, but are the norm? What if the life patterns traditionally associated with those who care for the young, the elderly and those who need care in society, were normalized, fostered and actually valued? What would social institutions look like if they were designed around lifetime patterns of caregiving work? What if social policies promoted a society that values and rewards caregiving, so that we have a society of caregiving people? Societies that truly valued the caring labor associated with the human life cycle would integrate care into daily activities.
Albert and Hahnel’s concept of “balanced job complexes” describes a model for work where no one does mostly empowering tasks while others do mostly unempowering tasks.
Balanced job complexes mean no one does just surgery or just cleans up after surgeons. No one only teaches, or only sweeps. No one only digs resources from a mine, or only schedules the mine’s operations. All workers do a mix of tasks such that each job’s overall empowerment effect is like that of all other jobs. [xvii]
Adding to this model, we propose that balanced job complexes contain a third category: caregiving work. This would mean extending balanced job complexes across society, and not just in offices and workplaces, so that everyone participates in some form of caregiving. In a universal caregiver society, all jobs would be designed with caregiving in mind, so that childcare, eldercare, meal preparation in community kitchens would take their place on the daily schedules of organizational charts. Whether on workers’ councils, consumer councils, or perhaps neighborhood councils, people would choose how to allocate their designated hours of socially reproductive work: they might coach soccer, work in a kindergarten, accompany an elder to a doctor’s appointment, or shopping etc. Thus, the organization of work itself would militate against allowing any one type of task, such as caregiving, to slip into invisibility.
Furthermore, in the long run, architecture and design of dwellings and workplaces can facilitate rotating job complexes. Onsite childcare and eldercare at offices, factories and farms would facilitate people of all genders moving easily across tasks. Workplaces and neighborhoods designed with communal kitchens would allow for meals not just being prepared collectively, but also shared communally, promoting social interaction during dining, helping to build community among colleagues and among neighbors. These ideas are not new, they exist in contemporary co-housing communities, and they existed among 19th century Utopian socialists in the United States and Europe. [xviii] The physical designs of the built environment could allow social reproduction to be integrated into workplaces, by designing work-spaces to include onsite daycare and eldercare, cafeterias and clinics, as well as building in time during the daily schedule to allow community members to eat meals together, breastfeed during working hours and spend time together.
The long term positive spillover positive effects of designing policies to promote universal caregiving are likely to be numerous, including promoting economic democracy that allows women caregivers to participate more fully in decision-making settings, promoting more equitable economic outcomes, and restructuring social relations.
Social reproduction and the principle of economic democracy
The hetero-patriarchal gender order in our society, is a system of social control, and women’s bodies are a battleground, on which we are regularly robbed of decision-making power. How often have predominantly elite, male decision-makers passed legislation that would disproportionately affect the lives of everyone else, and especially the health of poor women? [xix] Now more than ever, the inadequacies of our democratic institutions are painfully obvious. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately more likely to contract Covid-19, suffer long term health effects and die from it. And yet our societal institutions are such that poor people have limited ability to affect access to reproductive health policies and now public health policies that could better manage the spread of the coronavirus, and are likely to have little say in how a vaccine might be distributed.
In a participatory society as envisioned by Albert and Hahnel [xx] economic democracy or self-management would involve decision-making structures that allow people to have power, or input in proportion to the degree one is affected by different economic choices. Currently, in our society, elites do empowering work where the decisions they make determine a great deal about how our institutions function. In Albert and Hahnel’s characterization of corporate workplaces, a segment of the workforce (about 20%) have a lot of decision-making-power, and are highly rewarded with status and money, while the majority of the workforce are relegated to rote, obedient labor. Most people, under capitalism, to one degree or another, follow orders, endure boredom, and spend a huge portion of the day doing unempowering work. “Markets,” the authors argue, “create a social environment in which a class of managers, professionals, intellectuals and technicians – who we call coordinators – increasingly dominate and ultimately exploit ordinary workers.” Not only are most workplaces not democratic, but even in our supposedly democratic political sphere, guided as it is by majority rule, it is possible that those more affected by a decision can find themselves overruled by those who are less affected.
In a participatory society, people would participate in numerous decision-making circles, such as workers’ councils that govern workplace decision-making and consumer councils that determine consumption levels. The extent to which women/caregivers will be able to participate in workers’ councils and consumer councils, however, will depend on the extent to which everyone shares in caring labor in the community. As long as women continue to do the majority of the work needed to reproduce the family and the home, they will have less time and energy to participate in decision-making councils and in the general civic life of their communities:
Just as there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are ill equipped to participate because they do unempowering work all day, so there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are sleep-deprived or overwhelmed by private caregiving responsibilities. [xxi]
Incorporating a feminist vision into rotating job complexes would require that we not only balance our societal roles for empowerment and desirability, but also balance jobs for care. In the long run, we would equitably share caregiving work, by designing rotating job complexes so that people have roughly equal exposure to empowering, rote, and caretaking work. Re-organizing work so that people rotate into and out of societal tasks would allow people to participate in decision-making processes that affect all of us in society. Balancing for care-work means everyone has to do their fair share of caring for family/community members, so that everyone has time to participate in the decision-making councils that affect all our daily lives.
This is not to say that everyone has to help raise everyone’s children, but they do have to participate in creating a safe, nurturing, educational space for the next generation to grow into. They have to be part of the web that makes sure that other people’s needs are getting met. Thus, they have to be tuned into and aware of the mechanics of caring. This will lead to better decision-making in the same way that if you experience rote and empowering work you make better decisions about how to organize work because you are more invested in fairness, etc. [xxii]
Social Reproduction, the principle of solidarity and reconceptualized social relations
Given that communities continue to draw heavily on people who are gendered as women for this care-work, one way to combat patriarchal norms is to promote and ensure that everyone, all genders, are all involved in care work. A better society that valued social reproduction would design social policies so that people who care for family, relatives, and neighbors are not marginalized, are not excluded from decision-making spheres, but are in fact the norm, so that we cultivate a society of caregivers.
If the feminized ghetto of care work is to be torn down, and society as a whole learns to value caring for the young, the elderly, and the vulnerable, men have to consciously change more diapers, make meals, feed children, and care for community members. Similarly, able-bodied individuals will need to participate in job complexes that involve caring for people with disabilities, veterans with PTSD, as well as children with autism, Downs and other developmental challenges, as well as care for elders with dementia, Alzheimer’s and the challenges that come with old age. Time spent in these forms of care-work might promote empathy for those who are vulnerable in society, building on our notions of solidarity. Moreover, for those needing care at various times in their lives, having access to a readily available pool of caregivers makes it more likely that various kinds of needs will be met in a rich and robust way. It also helps to cultivate a community in which a large number of people have an interest in supporting community needs, and allows “many hands to make light work” (as opposed to the overburdened caregivers that we are familiar with).
If the work that we do, day-in day-out, can have a transformational effect on who we become, years and years of practice in doing caring labor can help to cultivate our ability to be other-oriented, empathic, and hence build stronger communities of solidarity across generations, across genders and across levels of ability. In this way, the organization of care-work can help to restructure our social relations. If we define solidarity as not only a concern for the wellbeing of others, but an awareness that our own wellness is connected to the collective wellbeing of others, then cultivating a concern for the happiness of others can help us cultivate solidarity as an ethic. Feminized professions involving teaching, nursing and childcare, train workers to be sensitized towards meeting the needs of others and socialize them to cultivate an ethics of care (which may be why so many women are drawn to these professions, which remain predominantly female workforces). Mobilizing all genders to participate in caregiving can help to foster values of empathy, care, humility and cultivate an ethic of solidarity, and thereby become a key building block to building a more just and equitable society. Children growing up in this context would perceive nurturing as gender neutral, even if it is partly informed by biology (as in the case of breastfeeding) and people would come to experience caregiving “as a non-gendered activity.” [xxiii] Hence, teaching the values of caring labor may help us transform our ideas of gender, and help us to move past hegemonic notions of masculinity that have normalized misogyny, militarism, violence against women.
The same sensibility that extracts resources from the Earth with no thought to the wellbeing of other species, or pollution and degradation of the environment shares much in common with the sensibility that assigns caregiving to the “naturalized” realm of women. How do we work towards undoing this self-interested individualism? If the work that we do day-in and day-out transforms us as individuals, then the tasks that involve caring for the needs of others, orienting ourselves to the wellbeing of others, can play an integral role in instilling notions of solidarity and cultivate an awareness of “self-in-community.”
Caring labor, reconceptualized social relations and a Feminist Green New Deal
In the process of reconceptualizing how we relate to one another, we might also reconfigure our relationship to the environment. How do we work towards repairing the harms we have inflicted on the environment? What do environmental reparations look like, and how might they overlap with a feminist recovery plan for a post-pandemic society? We can draw lessons from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal era about how to put people back to work to repair and restore our social fabric. Models like the WPA show us how labor can be mobilized and trained as part of a state-led institutional strategy to create jobs and put people to work. Just as government programs can help to mobilize labor to rebuild our infrastructure of roads and bridges, artists to paint murals (as in the Federal Arts Project), similarly, the Green New Deal can mobilize people to work in the caregiving sectors for a Federal Feminist Recovery Plan. Just as the Green New Deal might create jobs to put everyone to work cleaning up our rivers, oceans, and detoxifying our soils and repairing ecosystems etc., it might also pay people, especially those who are gendered as men, to participate in care work as part of a new Federal jobs program, to support families, mentor children, and care for elderly community members. Neoliberal values promote private, individual gain and corporate wealth accumulation at the expense of collective wellbeing in terms of socialized health care, socialized child care, and the health of the environment. We want to turn this upside down, and prioritize people-making work along with environmental stewardship, care for our soils, water, air and ecosystems. As part of a Green New Deal, care work might be framed as part of life-sustaining work – a renewable, low carbon resource that sustains our communities, attends to relationships and nurtures social cohesion:
Shifting to an economy in balance with the earth’s limits also means expanding the sectors of our economy that are already low carbon: caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts and public-interest media…All this work, much of it performed by women, is the glue that builds humane, resilient communities – and we will need our communities to be as strong as possible in the face of the rocky future we have already locked in. [xxiv]
All societies have to figure out who will do what tasks needed to reproduce, raise, sustain and care for our communities. The question is, who will do what tasks, and how will we as a society organize care-work to address the racial and gender inequities that pervade our society? Feminists have long opposed militarism and the devastations wreaked by militaries on societies, on our bodies’ biological reproductive systems and on our environment and ecosystems. [xxv] That is one reason why a military flyover to thank essential workers for their service is so ironic. The other reason is that, from 2000 feet, this 2-second nod of acknowledgment actually reinforces the invisibility of caring work. It practically screams, “We can’t see you down there!” What would a true acknowledgment look like? If our aims are equity, diversity, and solidarity, we must bring our lens closer to earth and examine in detail the way that women’s work, particularly the work of poor women and women of color, has been systematically devalued and made invisible. In the short term, we must compensate these essential workers fairly and provide them with the benefits, supports, and dignity on the job that they deserve. And in the long term, we must envision a way of organizing work and society that shares the work of caring work, creating structures that ensure it is shared across genders, understood and practiced by all, received and given by all.
[ii] Arlie Hoschilde, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. (New York: Viking Press, 1989).
[v] Bezanson and Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006, p.4).
[vii] Fraser, Nancy. 1994. “After the Family Wage: A Post-Industrial Thought Experiment”. Political Theory 22(4).
[viii] Folbre, Nancy, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. (New York: The New Press, 2001, p.36-37).
[ix] Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie. Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2003).
[x] Francine Blau and Marianne Ferber, The Economics of Women, Men and Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[xi] Folbre, (ibid., p22).
[xii] Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie. Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2003).
[xiii] Barker, Drucilla and Susan Feiner, Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work and Globalization. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004; p.49-51).
[xiv] Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie. Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2003, p.11).
[xv] Federici, Silvia, “Wages Against Housework” in Revolution at Point Zero Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2012).
[xvi] Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19 (April 14, 2020) was collaboratively formulated by the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women and grassroots organizations such as AF3IRM ( http://www.af3irm.org/af3irm/) and the Micronesian Women’s Taskforce and Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies.
[xviii] Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution, (MA: MIT Press, 1981). Revisiting ideas from the experimental utopian communities of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hayden offers visions of innovative communal living spaces designed around caregiving. Utopian socialists, such as the Owenites and Fourierists argued that both men and women should help prepare food and care for children. They experimented with designing communal living spaces (what we might today call intentional communities or co-op housing), with community kitchens and dining halls, as well as nurseries where children were raised together. In these intergenerational communities, older people were to share in caring for children and household tasks, and members of the community share the responsibility of caring for the elderly.
[xix] For example, in January 2017, flanked by his cabinet of wealthy, powerful men, President Trump signed an executive order banning federal money going to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions (also known as the “global gag rule”). This was not the first time a group of predominantly male decision-makers had legislated a bill that would affect the lives of poor, less well-off women
[xx] Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, “Socialism As It Was Always Meant To Be”, Review of Radical Political Economics, 24, No. 3-4: 46-66
[xxi] Cynthia Peters, “The Art (and Serendipity) of Kinship: Ideas about Family, Sexuality, and Caregiving in a Better World”, in Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, Chris Spanos (ed.). (Oakland: AK Press, 2008).
[xxii] Ibid., 45
[xxiii] Ibid., 44.
[xxv] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990); Joni Seager, “Patriarchal Vandals: Militaries and the Environment” in Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment and Development. (Cambridge, MA: South End Press 1999)
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Cynthia Peters, Savvina Chowdhury | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]
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