Recently I attended a bridal shower that provided a rare occasion for chatting with girlfriends sans partners and kids. Upon returning to my seat from a second visit to the brunch buffet, I noticed two concurrent conversations going on either side of me. Although occurring separately, both conversations centered on cleaning- specifically, house cleaning and how these women’s conceptions of “clean” differed from those of their male partners. One set of women commiserated over the fact that their partners sporadically did dishes and laundry but the “real” cleaning, like bleaching countertops and washing baseboards were always left to the women. The other set of women were discussing the amount of housework they did during their “off” hours from their jobs as food servers at a busy local restaurant.
I could have used this as an opportunity to bring up the social construction of gendered labor patterns but instead sat dumbfounded and frankly embarrassed as I thought, “they regularly wipe down their baseboards and bleach their countertops?!? Wow, I’m never inviting these women over to my house without a week’s worth of deep cleaning beforehand!”
These conversations stuck with me in the weeks that followed. First because in a moment of increasing rarity where this group of women could all gather, chat, and relax we were still consumed by our domestic work. And second, why was it that we all felt it was our responsibility to really clean our houses? When I thought about deep cleaning for a potential girls’ night in, I didn’t immediately think I would have my husband clean the baseboards and bleach all surfaces. No, I envisioned the extra work I would have to do to make my house “presentable” to company and subsequently shelved the idea. It’s not as if we are all partnered with Neanderthals. I know these ladies’ partners. They proudly drive their children to school, vacuum floors, and had Bikini Kill on heavy rotation at one time or another in their lives. Yet this group of strong and energetic women still felt the need/desire/pressure to pick up the slack and do the real work around the house.
Feminist thinkers have explored the gendered dynamics of household labor, the care-work concerned with sustaining people on a daily basis. This work, known as “reproductive labor,” entails activities like washing clothes, obtaining food through shopping or gardening, cooking, socializing children, maintaining appliances and furnishings, and providing emotional support for kin and community. The shift from an agricultural to a capitalist economy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries relied heavily on women’s domestic labor in order to support the wage work of men. The necessary elements required to work for wages — food preparation, handmade clothing, clean bedding — were provided by wives, female kin, female servants, and slave labor. When family production shifted from a subsistence to a market economy, women’s labor became invisible, seen as a labor of love or a biologically determined role, as opposed to necessary work.1
A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on gender and employment finds that women still spend more time in unpaid care-work than do men. Even within heterosexual married couples where both partners have paid jobs, women spend more than two hours per day in unpaid work. Among couples in which the woman is the sole wage-earner, men do only as much housework as the women and spend significantly less time in child care.
A prime example of how unpaid care-work is rendered invisible and undervalued is written into federal welfare policy. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a component of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) stipulates that half of the families receiving TANF assistance must be engaged in a work activity for at least 30 hours a week (20 hours a week for single parents with young children), without systematically funding quality and affordable childcare. This codifies into law the social assumption that women’s domestic labor is not valuable in a market economy.
Poor women, disproportionately minority and immigrant woman, are therefore forced to enter the wage market and are funneled disproportionately into the service industry. This form of paid domestic labor includes its own set of racial, class, and gender divides. Minority and immigrant women are channeled into low wage, low benefit jobs in food service, cleaning, and healthcare support while men and white women are disproportionately found in managerial, administrative, and nursing positions. Low-income women are less likely to be able to pay for private or in-home care for dependents, increasing the demand for other women in their families and community networks to perform additional reproductive labor.
Scholar Evelyn Nakano Glenn defines the highly feminized and racialized realm of American care-work as a form of coercion. She argues that the American capitalist system partakes in forms of coercion that pressure women to shoulder responsibility for care-work and tracks poor, racial minority, and immigrant women into positions of caring for others. This has constrained women’s choices, which ultimately keeps care-work free in the case of reproduction and family care, and undervalued in the case of paid care-work.
Other forms of coercion pushing women to bear the brunt of reproductive labor consist of America’s complete lack of public paid maternity and paternity leave, paid leave for dependent care, or decent minimum wage standards to support families above the poverty level. Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and the private for-profit business model of nursing homes and elderly-care facilities leave a vast amount of care-work to women and family members, friends, or low-paid nurse’s aides and home health workers.
How can we reorganize and lessen the burden of women’s care-work? Some have suggested that shorter work weeks and universal childcare would ensure that women’s paid labor and domestic labor would become more balanced. Also, shorter work weeks would allow men to participate in reproductive labor.
Women’s Studies scholar Kathi Weeks suggests that women can only achieve social equality in regards to wage labor and care-work if the centrality of wage labor is uprooted. By devaluing work as a means of self-worth, there would be no need to relegate care-work to the female sex. Both genders would have the same amount of time and the same incentives, both altruistic and monetary, to participate in the care of loved ones and family members. Women and men would have the same amount of time to devote to other household chores like cooking, cleaning, procuring groceries, and other domestic responsibilities. Weeks is not merely suggesting a flex-time type arrangement but the overall social transformation of work itself. By denying the importance of work as a means of valuing self-worth, this radical transformation of society would allow individuals the time to collectively care for oneself and others.
To complicate Week’s argument, however, there is no direct indication that men would engage in reproductive labor on the same scale as women if the devaluing of work were to take place. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study proves, women still work more hours in unpaid labor even when they and their male spouse work full time. What would keep men from spending free time doing independent or male-centered activities and leaving all domestic and care-work to women, as has historically been the case? Underlying this debate are conceptions of biological determinism that prescribes certain traits to different genders: females to care, nurturing, and submission, and males to domination, power, and assertion. Socially constructed meanings of gender would therefore have to be altered.
One way to complicate issues of biological determinism is to queer our ideas of the division of labor. Without giving way to utopian or Sapphic ideals of domestic bliss, a lot can be learned from studies finding more egalitarian divisions of labor in gay, lesbian, and transgender relationships.2 This offers opportunities for resisting what theorist Judith Butler terms the performativity of gender. Queering reproductive labor creates alternatives for how the gendered division of labor outlines social lives. As conceptions of marriage, family, and gender continue to be malleable, ideas of biologically determined divisions of labor will undoubtedly become more contested.
Forty-five years after feminist Pat Mainardi wrote “The Politics of Housework,” it is still evident that domestic labor is a political issue, especially when the intersection of race and gender are examined. As for myself and the women mentioned above? John Stuart Mill wrote in 1869, “though women do not complain of the power of husbands, each complains of her own husband, or of the husbands of her friends.” It is evident that the queering of unpaid labor cannot happen in individual households alone. It takes collective action and the reaching across lines of gender, ethnicity, and race to ease the burden of care.
As for my dusty baseboards. . . who cares about them anyway?!
Nancy Folbre. Who Cares? A Feminist Critique of the Care Economy (Rosa Luxemburg Stiffung New York Office: NY, 2014).
Evelyn Nakano Glenn. Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2010).
Kathi Weeks. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press: Durham, 2011).
Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein. Caring For America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012).
- Jeanne Boydston, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There: Women’s Market Labor and the Transition to Capitalism in the United States,” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 2 (July 1, 1996): 183–206, doi:10.2307/3124245. Return to text.
- Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (Columbia University Press: NY, 2013), 149. Return to text.