America Still Doesn’t Care About ‘Women’s Work’

The country would cease to exist without women’s reproductive labor, yet diminishes it at every turn.

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America Still Doesn’t Care About ‘Women’s Work’


Photo:MAURO PIMENTEL (Getty Images)

On Sunday afternoon, after speaking to yet another covid positive, triple-vaxxed friend, I decided to end my part-time babysitting job until this latest wave of the pandemic subsides. I’m disabled with a rare immune disorder and couldn’t take the risk. While I rely on my hourly caregiver wage to supplement the bupkis I make as a freelance writer, I’m privileged enough to forgo it without fear that I’ll lose my apartment or health insurance. I’m privileged to be the youngest daughter in a matriarchy of caregivers whose unpaid labor I can rely on when I’m in the throes of illness.

After I sent that dreaded text to the parents of the two girls I care for from 3 to 6 pm on weekdays, I sat down to read through the day’s news. I was livid, but not surprised, to see Joe Manchin’s confirmed “no” vote on the Build Back Better Act, to see that the Democrats we elected to serve us would likely fail to get even the most whittled down, milquetoast iterations of paid family and medical leave, childcare, and disability and eldercare legislation across the finish line. And while it’s tempting to direct ire squarely at the ogre from West Virginia, my rage stems from a much deeper place: If, in a democratic society, national public policy is a reflection of our social values, then our “social infrastructure” bill was predestined to fail. The latest news simply reaffirmed what this country has shown time and time again–America doesn’t give a fuck about “women’s work.”

Manchin’s middle finger to America’s paid and unpaid caregivers, most of whom are women, was just the latest in a long line of “fuck yous” that powerholders in our imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist, cis-heteropatriarchy (thank you, bell hooks) have been giving us for centuries. America would cease to exist without women’s reproductive labor, yet diminishes it at every turn.

By “reproductive labor,” I don’t just mean baby-making (although reproductive labor does include literal reproduction)—I mean the labor we engage in that creates, shapes, and sustains all other forms of work and production. It’s the pregnancies we carry, the childbirth we endure, the care we give to the sick and elderly, the cleaning, cooking, child rearing, organizing, scheduling, teaching, and nurturing we do—whether paid or unpaid, visible or invisible.

We’ve come to colloquially refer to reproductive labor as “women’s work,” but not because women are biologically hardwired to be great at organizing playdates, doing laundry, spending hours a day submitting health insurance reimbursement claims, or having babies, for that matter. American capitalism has always exploited the reproductive labor of women—disproportionately that of Black, Indigenous, and immigrant women—in order to maintain its status quo.

There are historically rooted social and political reasons why, in the year 2021, the United States has the worst maternal mortality rate of any wealthy nation in the world, provides no paid parental or family leave, has the most expensive private childcare system and home health care system with the lowest paid early childhood educators and home health aides. America gives zero basic labor protections to domestic workers, including sex workers. We feign outrage over the gender disparity in who remains out of work and yet fail to include those millions of unemployed women in our unemployment numbers, as though their return to unpaid care work inside the home was in fact what was always expected of them. It took school closures, health care workers dying by suicide, and wealthy white women and families losing access to the house cleaners, babysitters, dog walkers, nursing home attendants, and birth workers they outsourced their care to for us to finally, for a brief, fleeting moment, start to have a conversation about the value of reproductive labor. We valorize femininity, (white, wealthy) motherhood, and “family” on the one hand, and strip away the rights of birthing people to make decisions about their own bodies and families with the back of the other.

There were a few weeks in 2020 when I was heartened by all the conversations people were having about things like Wages for Housework, Reproductive Justice, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Universal Basic Income. I was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a government that maybe, just maybe, would enact policies that allow care workers to live with dignity and respect, or at least to survive. I was never excited about the prospect of our reproductive labor being commodified, or of reproductive laborers becoming pawns in the capitalist machine. As Silvia Federici put it in Revolution at Point Zero, “It is one thing to set up a day care center the way we want it, and then demand that the State pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and then ask the State to control them not for five but for fifteen hours a day.”

Of course, now, any glimmer of hope I’d had that my nephew’s pre-k teacher might get paid a living wage, that the home health aide who cares for my grandma might get paid leave, that this country might start to act like it cares about our reproductive labor instead of giving us Hallmark cards and one-off tax credits, has pittered.

Every stage and facet of my life has been marked by the care I’ve received or given, paid or unpaid, glorified or belittled. All of our lives have been made, shaped, and sustained by care to varying degrees and in disparate ways. But America has never cared about our care, even after a three year pandemic that’s bled us of all the possible care we can give and shown us how much care we need. Yeah, “fuck you,” Joe Manchin—but you too, America. It’s time you give a fuck about women’s work.

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