As a social worker, I have experienced what it is like to work in feminized field of work, one dominated by women. Generally, it means being overworked and underpaid, and this is a direct result of patriarchy and sexism. I join with fellow feminized workers such as teachers, nurses, caregivers, domestic workers, sex workers, therapists, childcare workers, non-profit workers etc. in their struggle. Most of us choose this work because we want to help other people and are passionate about advocating for those in need. It is a valiant reason to pursue these fields, but at what cost?
Burnout comes when someone is overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and stressed to the max. I work with vulnerable populations who are high need and often distressed. The demands on me as a social worker are high, yet there is little support or acknowledgement. Social workers do this work because it is emotionally rewarding, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need other rewards like appreciation, proper training and support, fair wages, respect, and paid time off. I often feel taken advantage of.
The stress on women in our society is tremendous. Oftentimes care work falls on women, and this takes a toll. For me, my own mental illness, as well as the care I provide to family who are afflicted with both mental and physical illness, compounds the stress from work. The expectation that women care for everyone around them — emotional labor — is unrealistic, yet that pressure exists for most of us. Women are seen as “natural” nurturers, even though we were socialized like this and it is neither “natural” nor something we are born with.
Positions within feminized fields are not well compensated. A 2017 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that “women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women.” This just goes to show how insidious sexism is in our society. In order to change this, we need women to be seen as equals to men whether they do paid work or not.
Social Reproduction Theory
Socialists often talk about reproducing ourselves through our labor. What’s often missed in this concept is social reproduction, the theory that Tithi Bhattacharya in “What is social reproduction theory?” explains how work done at home, or care work, shows how the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process.”
It is capitalism that has separated these concepts and told us one is valuable and one is not. We need to wholeheartedly and resoundingly reject that false dichotomy. The truth is anything we do to survive is valuable and everything we contribute, to not just get by but also to add to the quality of life, has equal worth to anything else anyone else does.
Care Work Is Core Work
Care work makes all other work possible, whether paid or unpaid. Think about childcare workers, maids, and even dog walkers. These people make it possible for folks to go to work. The same applies to the mother caring for her kids while her partner works, or the daughter caring for her elderly parents so her siblings can work. Care work is so pervasive that an article from The Atlantic, “The Work That Makes Work Possible,” projected it would be “the largest occupation in the U.S. by 2020, with care-sector jobs growing five times faster than other large job sectors.”
As a society we need to recognize both underpaid and unpaid labor, and make a big change regarding it. I like the idea of the government compensating the labor, but also of men pitching in to do more of their fair share of that labor. It would take both socialism and feminism to make this happen.
Equal Value for Domestic Work
In 2017, women still do the majority of childcare and household chores, even though most hold down paid jobs as well. The “second shift” is a huge burden on women and compounds our stress and harms our health and wellbeing. Can you imagine what would happen if all women just stopped every form of work they do tomorrow? The world would grind to a halt. Yet we are taken for granted. I don’t know about you, but that makes me pretty outraged.
Many women are actually reclaiming something seen as a conservative idea — foregoing paid work to stay at home with their kids. This is a growing phenomenon within the millennial generation who are more okay with stay-at-home parenting than the previous generation, says Gabriella Paiella in “Millennials Are More Likely to Think Women Should Stay at Home Than the Previous Generation.”
I have no issue with a woman choosing to do this. However, Paiella’s article also highlights the idea that men, as breadwinners, would also be the primary decision makers. I totally object to this idea. The status of raising children and taking care of the home should be raised to the level of paid work. Whoever does the bulk of the child rearing and household duties should have equal power to the partner that does paid work.
Think about the value this work creates: producing a new generation of people to contribute to this world and supporting a family unit. The GDP of unpaid labor is enormous. In “Putting a Price Tag on Unpaid Housework,” Bryce Covert noted if unpaid domestic work was counted in the GDP, “it would have raised it by 26 percent in 2010.”
Our work should never be undervalued, period. We need also to open up the possibility of men staying home with their kids as a legitimate option.
Socialist feminism offers more flexible gender roles and empowers men to break from patriarchal norms. One way society can help both women and men raising families is by paying for things like childcare, eldercare, and paid family leave, and providing parents a guaranteed basic income and money to help raise their children. This would make parenting, an already taxing job, easier. Socialism strongly supports these ideas and they are important parts of the Socialist Party USA platform.
Standing Up Against Patriarchal Capitalist Exploitation
By using socialist feminism as a lens we can view feminized work and unpaid work as one and the same: patriarchal capitalist exploitation. Let’s stand up against the patriarchal capitalist system and work towards truly empowering women. But not how mainstream liberal feminists would do, through advocating “leaning in” and “climbing the economic ladder.” They can keep their pantsuits — we are interested in liberation. Socialist feminism offers an intersectional solidarity that can achieve our aims for all women, regardless of color, size, age, ability, gender, sex, or sexual identity.
Organizing Feminized Labor
Organizing for feminized labor needs to include demanding better wages, working conditions, and increased flexibility. Many in caregiving fields see the consequences of capitalism in our everyday work, for our clients and for our selves. Some unions are working on this. For example, the California Nurses Association is pushing for legislation that would not only help themselves, but also their patients . One piece of legislation they are advocating for is single-payer health care.
These are strong, positive examples of work we can be doing to help effect change around this issue. I plan to help a local women’s collective highlight unpaid work on May Day in conjunction with an immigrants and labor rights march in Oakland. There are many ways we can do this sort of work in our communities. In addition, there are many other unions, organizations, and grassroots groups fighting for similar measures that would increase the quality of life for themselves and for those they serve.
Socialists see the direct connection between how workers are treated and the ability to provide quality client care. That is why when we unite we are powerful and can take on the moneyed interests of corporations that look to make profit at any cost. We are here to stand up together and say: People, not profit!
Envisioning a Socialist Feminist Future
Wouldn’t it truly be a game changer if we could collectively own the means of production? Imagine what that could do for us. We could create horizontal power structures and have collective control over our workplaces. This is how socialism can work for women in particular and society in general. Socialism will compensate us whether we are working to produce goods and services or are at home caring for children and elderly.
Socialism recognizes the social value women are contributing and will reward that fairly. Socialism would offer me the ability to be a social worker, a caregiver to my mother with dementia, and have time for myself, too. Socialism would allow us to structure our lives for the benefit of people instead of for the profit of the few. Combining the efforts of socialism and feminism, we in feminized fields will be well supported, fairly treated, and highly valued. Indeed our fight for dignity and respect as working women will also help men, children, and everyone else too.
This May Day let’s remember the women who do most of the work, paid and unpaid combined, and show women we value their contributions by dedicating ourselves to doing what it takes to liberate us all.