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10 March 2017updated 04 Oct 2023 9:54am

Does feminism need a new slogan – “care work is work“?

Looking after the young and old falls more heavily on women. Our society needs to acknowledge that prosperity is built on women's unpaid labour. 

By Glosswitch

Care work – be it mopping up bodily effluvia, getting up in the night for a crying infant, spending hours on end listening to the ramblings of a relative who doesn’t recall who you are – is not aspirational. It’s wearing, dealing with the demands of bodies, hemmed in on all sides by mess, exhaustion and an absence of mental stimulation. Most people who do this work are women, trained from the day they are born to feel shame at any lack of that mythical nurturing instinct. Men tell themselves women do care work because they want to; we tell ourselves we do it because every other woman wants to, hence there must be something wrong with us if we don’t.

It has been said, over and over, so many times it has become boring and almost meaningless, that austerity hits women hardest. Of course it does. It saves money if the work that goes into caring for bodies is taken from the state and offloaded on to women, by a Tory government that claims to hate dependency. It’s a government that doesn’t want 18- to 21-year-olds to receive housing benefit, or for families to “rely on the state” to care for elderly relatives, or for a bereaved parent with young children to get too comfortable outside of paid work. It wants people to stand, if not on their own two feet, then on the backs of unpaid carers. After all, we are supposed to think, if care work is kept in the family, it doesn’t really count.

Such thinking is of course classic Thatcherism. In a well-known 1987 interview with Woman’s Own, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there to be “no such thing” as society: “there are individual men and women and there are families.” Broader social responsibilities can be disregarded; the buck stops at your own front door, regardless of who is behind there with you. Thirty years on we have a more sophisticated version, which tells us there is no such thing as the body: there are individual men and women and there are identities. It’s a philosophy into which the left has bought even more eagerly than the right, seeing in it liberation from biology as destiny. Yet there’s a gaping inconsistency in getting angry at what the right are doing to bodies while simultaneously denying bodies have a political context at all.

“If the body was taken seriously as a starting point for the economy,” writes Katrine Marçal, “it would have far-reaching consequences”: “Hunger, cold, sickness, lack of healthcare and lack of food would be central economic concerns. Not like today: unfortunate by-products of the one and only system.”

Alas, we have a world in which the body is seen, not just as embarrassment, but as something entirely separate from our true selves. The work that goes into maintaining the body – gestating it, nursing it, feeding it, caring for it when it cannot function independently – is at best undervalued, at worst ignored. It demeans us to think of ourselves as dependent beings, faced with the inevitable decay of our mortal flesh.

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As Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, co-director of the Women’s Budget Group, argues, the current government’s combination of chipping away at social security while making tax cuts that benefit higher earners is effectively “a policy of transferring money from the purses of poorer women into the wallets of richer men.” That higher earners depend on the care work and flexibility of those women in the lowest-paid groups is ignored; we’re all individuals, aren’t we? The left will claim to be horrified by this, but any close-up analysis of why women remain so exploited will not be for the squeamish. There are some easy targets – so-called lean-in feminism, the Tories as the perennial “nasty party” –  but what we’re really dealing with is something more fundamental: the stigma attached to sexed bodies, dependency and care.

If we want to transform the way we see our economy, we need transform the way we see sex and gender in the context of work. “Sex work is work” has become a popular liberal feminist slogan; “reproductive work is work” sadly less so. We need to acknowledge that the work of gestation, birthing and nursing is real work, and that it takes place within a highly gendered context. We need to sever, once and for all, the association between femaleness and femininity, implying as it does the care work done by women is in some way attuned to their innate sense of self. We need to stop pretending that bodies do not have inevitable functions, needs and destinies:  growing, ageing, getting sick, dying. That it is becoming taboo to simply say “yes, your body does stop you from being exactly who you might want to be” is an indicator not of liberation, but neoliberal narcissism.

Because liberation – both economic and gender-based – does not mean being seen as the person you believe yourself to be inside. It means redistribution. It means everyone shouldering the weight of what it means to be a dependent, mortal human being. It means doing things you don’t want to do, taking on roles you don’t want to take on, for the sake of other people. Carers don’t just need to be valued more; they need to be every single one of us. 

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