Carrying the Load of Care Work

retro-housecleanerI’m writing this while hiding out in my bedroom from the very nice woman who is cleaning my apartment right now. As I have specialized my life as an economist, I decided to outsource some of the care work that is housecleaning (and laundry too, to be honest). This is the first time I’ve ever hired someone to clean my apartment. I believe I have officially, unquestionably, entered the ranks of the bourgeois. What would Marx think of me? Of course, Marx did have a housekeeper who he also slept with, so perhaps he would not judge me so harshly.

After years of a minimal state of cleanliness in my apartment while we focused on our professionalized careers, we reached a point where we realized we just wouldn’t give our apartment a real deep cleaning ourselves and it still needed to be done regardless. But of course this hinges on my family’s ability afford it and the affordability of this type of work. We were able to make a tradeoff between deciding we needed to specialize in our own work and perhaps, occasionally (I’m saying once a year), hire someone else who is a professional house cleaner to do this care work for us.

This gets at a common dichotomy that happens to professional women, coupled or not – when are able women empower themselves and break free from historical roles of housewife who spends her day doing housework, it is often on the backs of other less privileged women who instead do the housework for them. Betty Friedan wrote in the Feminine Mystique about the “problem with no name” – a phenomena where middle- and upper-class women who were often college educated were bored out of their minds due to their resignation to the life of a housewife. But many at the time and since extended Friedan’s worthy argument to draw attention to the ways in which the malaise of these smart, often college-educated women was reliant on an army of hard-working care workers of different races and classes who were not quite so bored because they were working so hard in these types of care work and reproductive labor for pay. This doesn’t negate the struggle of bourgeois women, but it should be framed within a larger picture of the entire spectrum of women’s experiences within the home and within the economy.

And thus I have become like many well-educated women before me, whose own ability to work toward the fulfilling life I want rests on other women doing traditional women’s care work around the home for me for pay. But this entry isn’t just about my own bourgeois guilt. My situation is part of a larger framework in which women’s work is polarized between those who are privileged to hire other women for services and these service workers who are often also women (and often the spectrum care job are disproportionately people of color, but I will discuss that in a later post). The spectrum of women’s work seems to become heavily weighted toward the two far ends. Those who can “lean in” and those who make it possible for them to do this.

Sociologist Rachel Dwyer writes about this phenomenon of the polarization of the care economy at the macroeconomic level, where the evolution of the care sector, largely the purview of women workers, has led to the polarization of the American labor force and increasing economic inequality experienced by workers. A common story told is that the decline of American manufacturing and the loss of good jobs for blue collar men is partly to blame for the rising inequality experienced by American workers. However, Dwyer convincingly demonstrates that the expansion of care work jobs at the high end and low end of the wage spectrum from the early 1980s onward has been a driving force in rising inequality. My own story is one among many that make up this economic trend – the more women becoming doctors or lawyers (which can be considered a type of care work) or getting PhDs (and spending too much time blogging while doing it), the more these educated professional women are hiring very nice women to clean their apartments for them. And so while the decrease in the gender wage gap may have stalled just shy of 80 cents earned by women for every dollar men earn, the inequality among women is also persistent and expanding.

Dwyer recommends acknowledging the importance of this sector of the economy and the real skills that go into this type of work. She discusses the concept of investing in the human infrastructure. By extension, we are investing in a type of infrastructure that can boost women’s economic opportunities across the spectrum. While my microeconomic example of increasing my discretionary time to spend on work by outsourcing housecleaning may be hard to picture within human infrastructure investment in the care economy, it is a worthwhile exercise to recognize the interconnectedness of the work we all do to make the economy and society function as it does and progress forward.

While Marx didn’t acknowledge this type of care work as “productive labor,” drawing connections between this work and other types of work made possible by the expansion of the care economy demonstrates just how much this work does contribute to the productivity of the economy. As such, we need to find ways to invest in this work and decouple it from the historical role as devalued women’s work. In doing this, we can appraise the value of the care work done to reproduce a diversified labor market.


Categories: Means of Reproduction, Means of Reproduction-1

2 replies

  1. interesting points. we too “realized we just wouldn’t give our apartment a real deep cleaning ourselves and it still needed to be done regardless” and I have definitely felt guilt over this.

  2. There is another solution – care work can be undertaken at one stage of life, and paid for at another. As a student, I supported myself with cleaning and babysitting jobs, and now I feel comfortable paying for a student (a boy as it happens) to clean my house once a week, while he completes his degree.

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