Women's Work

By Emily Dyson

Care in crisis: redefining the role of women in post-pandemic society.


Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism

Amelia Horgan, Pluto Press, 2021

The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It?

Emma Dowling, Verso Books, 2021


A woman’s work is never done!’ my grandma told me as I helped her hang up the laundry to dry. I remember being confused that she said this without an air of indignation. Instead, she was cheerfully initiating me into the cult of true womanhood. Housework was what made us women; it was our natural, God-given role. We should take pride in housework and in the sacrifices we make for those for whom we care within the home, just as we should take pride in our womanhood. Housework was, in fact, what made us better than our menfolk. We didn’t need political or social or economic power: our moral superiority was reward enough.


Given the dominance of liberal feminist voices in the UK public sphere today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that housework is a rather passé subject. Didn’t the cult of true womanhood die with the second-wave feminist consciousness-raising of the 70s and 80s? Self-described ‘TradWives’ are the curiously retro exceptions that prove the rule; recall the BBC story that blew up last year: ‘“Submitting to my husband like it's 1959”: Why I became a TradWife’. Betty Friedan’s Problem That Has No Name is no longer nameless, nor even a problem: women have been freed from domestic servitude, and have entered the waged workforce in droves, where they have found personal fulfilment and community.


Many liberal feminists acknowledge that the so-called ‘second shift’ (a term popularised by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1989) remains an issue: women continue to have to put in a ‘second shift’ of domestic labour at home after their shift at work. They claim that the problem lies with a culture of male entitlement, and not with legal or socio-economic structures. In fact, some liberal feminists have gone as far to suggest that we should depoliticise the matter altogether and approach the problem as domestic management consultants: conceiving of the traditional nuclear family as a malfunctioning small entrepreneurial business, and husbands as under-performing business partners. Friedan’s own recommended care fix — outsourcing housework by hiring domestic help — had become increasingly accessible before the pandemic, even to some working-class women. For example, Horgan notes that in 2013, one in three UK households reported hiring a cleaner, compared to one in 10 in 2004.


So when the UK government shut nurseries, closed schools, and banned professional childcare and domestic cleaning in the spring 2020 lockdown, liberal feminists drew attention to the temporary way in which women’s’ ‘second shift’ had become drastically more burdensome. ONS data shows that, ‘people with children in the household spent 35% more time on average providing childcare during lockdown than five years ago,’ and women in these households carried out two-thirds more of the childcare duties per day than men. Liberal feminists emphasised how the combination of this ban with the work-from-home imperative dissolved the temporal and spatial boundaries between women’s first and second shifts.


But they forgot that even this intensely stressful and unsustainable arrangement was unavailable to most workers who were unable to work from home, even during the peak of lockdown. They were left to choose between losing income or leaving their dependents without care. In contrast to the UK mainstream media’s portrayal of our working lives during lockdown, ONS data shows that only 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home in April 2020 and it was ‘occupations requiring higher qualifications and more experience [that] were more likely to provide homeworking opportunities than elementary and manual occupations’. After the UK government lifted its prohibition on professional domestic cleaning and childcare in the summer of 2020, and Friedan’s favoured displacement strategy became available once more, liberal feminist disquiet around housework subsided considerably. ‘Male entitlement’ was somebody else’s problem again the feared pandemic-induced regression in gender equality apparently reversed.

In the wake of the neoliberalisation of UK and US society — and especially in the very recent context of the lethal collision between austerity’s hollowing out of the state’s capacity to care and the global pandemic — the liberal feminist story is struggling to hold up. On the ‘new’ new Anglo-American left there’s been something of a resurgence in democratic socialist feminisms. These anti-capitalist Anglo-American feminisms often take their inspiration from the second-wave Marxist-feminist Wages for Housework (WFH) movement, which demanded the remuneration of women’s work within the home. WFH reimagined housewives as unwaged domestic labourers and potential agents of revolutionary class struggle. Today’s socialist feminists are also informed by Social Reproduction Theory (SRT), which is now enjoying a modest renaissance within small Marxist enclaves of the academy — a fact exemplified by Pluto Press’s Mapping Social Reproduction Theory series.


SRT asks who reproduces the human labour power necessary for the capitalist production of value. It peers behind what Marx called capitalism’s ‘hidden abode’ (the sphere of production, ordinarily concealed by the sphere of exchange) to the sphere of reproduction. In so doing, SRT contests the categories of ‘work’ and the ‘working class’ within and against traditional androcentric Marxist analytical frameworks. Informed by WFH and SRT, and precipitated by the international wave of women’s strikes in 2016 and 2017, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser’s widely publicised 2019 manifesto, Feminism for the 99%, is a prime example of the ‘new’ new feminist left. It calls on feminists to abandon once and for all the individualistic and assimilationist ‘lean in’ feminism of the 1%, to reject the latter’s promise of equal-opportunity domination under global capitalism, and to rebuild a truly transformative socialist feminist movement around women’s social-reproductive labour. Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism and The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It?, by philosopher Amelia Horgan and sociologist Emma Dowling respectively, have made important contributions to this anti-capitalist feminist revival in the UK context specifically. They both address the relationship between recent trends in care and work: who does care work? Who should do it? How should it be organised? How should it be resourced? The most pertinent question for feminists today is not whether housework is still ‘women’s work’. Instead, Dowling and Horgan argue, we need to ask which women can now partially avoid it (largely bourgeois and some better-off working-class UK nationals), and which women have to take up the slack (largely poor working-class migrants).


The care gap created by the decline of both the Fordist male breadwinner/female housewife model of household economics and the already feminised welfare state has been plugged by what Dowling aptly calls ‘care extractivism’. Against background conditions of international inequality, the UK’s rapidly growing care industry has been able to profit from the neoliberal gutting of public-sector care by extracting cheap migrant domestic labour. Care extractivism merely pushes the care gap further down ‘global care chains’ (again, Hochschild’s term, which both Dowling and Horgan borrow to discuss the global political economy of care), extending from more affluent households in the Global North to poorer households in Eastern Europe and the Global South.


Horgan’s account of feminised commercial domestic labour, however, stresses that what’s going on here is not merely the displacement of the same set of household tasks to other economically worse-off women. The introduction of the wage relation, and the distinctive boss-worker and/or client-worker power dynamics this sets in motion, changes the nature of the work itself. It’s one thing to look after your own kids; it’s another to be employed as a live-in au pair, subject to unrelenting surveillance, assessment, and often downright paranoia and resentment from the kids’ parents — all whilst the latter claim you’re simply ‘one of the family’, thereby demonising any kind of worker resistance as family disloyalty.


The commercialisation of care is an important part of the story of care’s privatisation. When the UK left talk about the ‘privatisation’ of social reproductive services, it’s usually pointing to the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state. Austerity cuts mean fewer women have access to welfare. The ideological justification for the state’s withdrawal of care privatises responsibility for care: care should be the responsibility not of the ‘public’ via the tax-funded welfare state, but rather that of ‘private’ individuals and their nuclear families. In practice, this responsibility still usually falls on women, who, as we’ve seen, are increasingly compelled to outsource at least part of their second shift to other women for low wages. But ‘privatisation’ also refers to a drastic shift away from in-house public-sector provision of care towards so-called ‘public-private partnerships’, where basic health and social care services for national government and local councils are outsourced to private companies. Whatever can’t be outsourced becomes a matter of ‘self-care’.


‘Self-care’, as it has been appropriated by neoliberal ideology, is the logical conclusion of the privatisation of responsibility for care. The ‘self’ in this neoliberal rebranding of ‘self-care’ is, of course, liberalism’s familiar atomised, self-contained, autonomous individual, existing apart from all other individuals. Self-care as a form of responsible self-management says: ‘look after yourself, because no one else will.’


The market, of course, has found its own inventive ways to monetise neoliberalism’s self-care imperative, with a booming wellness industry targeting young, white, professional women especially. For example, Dowling writes at length about how recent self-care trends in ‘clean eating’ and ‘clean beauty’ capitalise upon the neoliberal imperative to ‘take care’ of oneself by taking control of oneself. They exploit these relatively privileged consumers’ necessarily insatiable craving for certainty in an unstable, unpredictable, and confusing world. This neoliberal conception of self-care — maximising one’s health and wellbeing by ‘working’ on oneself — is self-defeating. In encouraging individuals to internalise the imperative to constantly self-improve, as well as an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility, neoliberal self-care ideology drives anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Perversely, neoliberalism blames the individual victims of the social problems it creates, then offers consumer ‘fixes’ that threaten to make things even worse.


Unlike many other anti-capitalist feminist authors writing in the UK today, Dowling and Horgan both resist the urge to reduce care and work to their capitalist and patriarchal functions. Work and care are the primary sites of meaning-making and sociality in most people’s lives. This cannot simply be chalked up to false consciousness. Women’s lived experiences of love and labour, in all their singularity and specificity, almost always exceed their political dimensions. If anti-capitalist feminism is to flourish once more not just as theory, but as praxis, it will have to take individual women’s deeply personal relationships to their labours of love seriously, in all their complexity and ambivalence. What’s more, it’s the intersubjective quality of care that is by its very nature resistant to the capitalist logic of exchange.


Our Marxist-feminist analytical categories shouldn’t erase the features of actually existent care work that are superfluous to, and sometimes even in tension with, their current socio-economic function. Dowling is especially strong on this point. She makes a clear distinction between care more generally, and care as social reproductive labour. Whilst she understands the latter as a ‘functional economic category’, she sees the former as encompassing ‘all the supporting activities that take place to make, remake, maintain, contain and repair the world we live in and the physical, emotional and intellectual capacities required to do so’. In this more general sense, care is a transhistorical, transcultural feature of human sociality, regardless of how the economy is organised. Care is more than just a fungible resource required to provide human fodder for the capitalist production line; it is an ‘ethical social relationship’. Care intimately ties the carer to the cared-for and vice versa. These ties are both expressive and productive of ethical commitments. Dowling thus makes conceptual room for the possibility of caring against and beyond capitalism.


But even as it holds the promise of a society that puts people before profit, the affective and relational nature of care also makes care work easier to naturalise and depoliticise. If care makes life worth living, how can it possibly be burdensome, and why does it need remunerating? The fact that care is an ethical social relationship makes care workers easier to exploit. They often care deeply about their work and the particular people for whom they work, to the extent that they routinely work unpaid overtime and sometimes even supplement their poorly-funded workplaces out of their own already meagre earnings. I can certainly attest to this generosity from my own experience working full-time as a Learning Support Assistant within a Special Educational Needs department in an ‘academy’ secondary school.


In construing care as necessarily relational, Dowling also importantly foregrounds the recipients as well as the givers of care. Dowling recognises that, just as it can be difficult to care, it can be difficult to be cared for, given the dependency that entails, and the potential for paternalism or manipulation therein. The cared-for — the products of social reproductive labour — were often left out of second-wave Marxist-feminist accounts of care under capitalist patriarchy.


Care recipients are still too often absent from contemporary feminist social reproduction theory — or rather, are only present as objects, not subjects. The cared-for are also vulnerable to domination and exploitation. This is especially true of children, who are socio-economically excluded and politically disenfranchised to the extreme, and commonly viewed — even in polite Guardian-reading company — as incapable of autonomous decision-making (either individually or collectively). Shulamith Firestone is a notable exception to the second-wave tendency to oppose the interests of women against the interests of those for whom they care; in ‘Down With Childhood’, in her notorious 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone argues that ‘we will be unable to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children’.


Dowling fails, however, to fully reckon with her problematisation of care from the perspective of those on its receiving end. She doesn’t do enough to push against the welfarist nostalgia that animated significant portions of the Corbynite left — and that has since mutated into a post-election welfarist melancholia. Given her acknowledgement of the exclusions and marginalisations of the mythologised post-war UK welfare state, with its incentivisation of ‘normal’ private care relationships and its penalisation of ‘abnormal’ ones, Dowling is surprisingly sanguine about the progressive prospects of rerouting our caring relationships through the state.


Whilst Dowling has a lot of time for the recent growth in and successes of anarchist mutual aid groups and care cooperatives, she treats them as primarily symptomatic of the neoliberal state’s incapacity to care, rather than prefigurative of radically democratic, post-capitalist, post-patriarchal care. Their attendant risk of market capture (‘social enterprise’), she thinks, outweighs the benefits they accrue from operating independently from the state (affirming queer kinship structures, or caring for undocumented immigrants, or shirking so-called ‘Prevent duty’, to name a few examples). She seems to think that social experiments performed by potentially cliquey activist groups are no match for the universal guarantee of care — regardless of which individuals happen to care about you — that only the welfare state can make.


Beyond her prescriptions, Dowling’s diagnosis of the care crisis (especially in her more empirical chapters) too often relies on a reactive anti-austerity stance that risks obscuring the contradictions between care and/as work that run through capitalism per se — not just its neoliberal iteration. Dowling’s The Care Crisis does not seriously consider how the supposed golden era of post-war UK social democracy also constituted a ‘care fix’, to use her own parlance: a treatment of the symptoms rather than the causes of the social-reproductive crisis endemic to capitalism.


Unlike Dowling, Horgan stresses the pitfalls of leaning on the capitalist liberal state to ‘fix’ care and/as work. Drawing upon new left countercultural experiments in care in the sixties and seventies, Horgan calls on the ‘new’ new left to cultivate democratic communal living outside of the nuclear family or the expanding care industry or the welfare state. Collectively self-determined social institutions, beyond both the capitalist mode of production and the liberal state that underpins it, are central to the utopian vision animating Horgan’s Lost in Work, and should, I think, be central to the contemporary UK left’s attempt to refuse the work society and the privatisation of care.


Whilst we’ve seen a renewed interest in debates around WFH, Horgan points out that second-wave Marxist-feminist calls to communalise housework, at the grass-roots level, outside of state authority, have been largely forgotten. If liberal and radical feminists were right that men won’t save us, Horgan’s Marxist feminism warns us that neither the market nor the state will save us either.


Emily Dyson is doing a DPhil in Political Theory at Nuffield College. She desperately wants a cat.


Art by Kathleen Quaintance.