There is a sector of the labor force that works long hours, provides necessary services, and goes unrecognized for their work. The work of raising children, caring for the sick and elderly, teaching, cleaning, and cooking—referred to collectively as “care work” or “reproductive labor”—is considered as something other than real labor in the capitalist political economy. Through the subjugation of women and people of color, this labor is rendered invisible. These tasks are treated as the natural function of the people who performed them and are subsequently stripped of their economic value.
American materialist feminists have fought for access to higher education, political office, and public workplaces, but they have not won validation for the economic function that women were already performing. As a result, feminists have perpetuated class divides and have fallen short of achieving economic parity for most women.
The free labor that women do has long been a part of feminist discussions. “The Second Shift” has been a part of feminist vocabulary since the Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung published their book by that title in 1989. Twenty four-years later, we have not made much improvement on this front. Last September, the OECD published research by Veerle Miranda in an article titled, “Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World” which concludes that—in all 29 countries in the study—women perform more unpaid work on a daily basis than men. Class-privileged working women have sought to remedy this gendered division of work by hiring domestic workers, nurses, day care workers, cooks, etc. While this has offered relief to some women, it has reinforced gendered notions of unpaid labor for others.
In post-industrial nations there is a phenomenon that Saskia Sassen calls the “professional household without a wife.” These households require hired work to fill the roles of feminized labor—the cooking, cleaning, a child rearing. According to the World Bank, In high-income countries that often include two income households, the service sector composed of lower income women of color who provide domestic care is in fact the fastest growing economic sector, making up a majority of these countries’ GDP. The fact that this work is in high demand and yet remains some of the lowest paid work is counter to basic economic logic. This seems to be rooted in a history of exploitation of these types of labor. Sassen argues:
The fact that these workers tend to be women and immigrants also lend cultural legitimacy to their non-empowerment. In global cities, then, a majority of today’s resident workers are women, and many of these are women of color, both native and immigrant.
While feminized labor is devalued—and continues to fall heavily on women, particularly women of color—there remains an influential group that believes we are post-gender. The Department of Labor and the CONSAD Research Group published a report last year titled, “An Analysis of Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and Women.” It opens with a statement by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Federal Contract Compliance, Charles E James SR, which states the following:
Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers. [emphasis added]
The report makes statements about how women “tend to” and are “more inclined to” choose lower wage jobs. It serves to argue that blatant sexism is not the root of economic inequality. Subsequently, the report naturalizes the non-empowerment of people performing feminized labor.
Organizers in the service sector have been working to combat exploitation, but not without challenges and backlash. Last year, hotel maids in New York City negotiated a contract that included $14,000/year raises. The wages reflected the success of the hotel industry and the cost of living in New York, but conservative economists were nonetheless outraged. It took six years for the National Domestic Workers Alliance to win a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in NY State. They are now working on a similar bill in California. International labor organizing on the part of unions, individual workers and student groups, works against exploitation that goes well beyond the borders of one nation. Anti-union sentiments, racism, and sexist notions about the value of labor have made these campaigns unnecessarily challenging.
While paid care work subsidizes professional lifestyles, and enables women to compete in the other fields, many people do not support these essential organizing efforts. Furthermore, I do not believe that labor campaigns are the only solution to gendered labor exploitation. We need to think critically about our political economy: where goods and services come from, what labor is erased by our current system, and how do we fill labor needs without exploitation. I believe that current feminists need to take on these questions about the economy. We need to think not just about glass ceilings and achievement in historically masculine fields. We need to consider equality for all people regardless of class, race or immigrant status.
–Nicole Hasslinger, Academic Editor, believes that her liberation is tied to yours.
 Sassen, Saskia. Global Cities and Survival Circuits in: Global Woman, 2002.
Featured image is “California Fashion Slaves”, by Alma Lopez