My Beautiful Wickedness


What is work?
April 12, 2007, 11:43 am
Filed under: Arguing About Feminism, citizenship, Good to think, History

Aunt B, in her brilliant way, has again touched off a thoughtful conversation about the gendered reality of “save the world” work. She points out that most of the calls involve a “return to homecraft” (making more meals, whipping up homemade soap, clothing our own) that will fall disproportionately on women who have worked hard to reap the benefits of middle-class labor-saving technology. I’ll let others engage the literature on whether or not labor is saved (mostly not) or shuffled off to other lower-waged women either in our homes or in faux-domestic settings like child care centers or whatever…these are all interesting things to be talked about and feminist historians and sociologists talk about them all the time. Or maybe I’ll whip up a bibliography later if no one else takes that on.

What I think is being missed here, though, is an important point about the gendered definition of work and social value.

What is work? In my house (where the adults are a feminist socialist historian and a socialist labor/disability historian) we are probably sort of unusual in that we actually have sat down and discussed this at length. In our house, work is the entirety of what must be done — productive (outside the home, for wages) and reproductive (inside the home, usually not for wages) activity — to maintain our household, extended families, and community in health and moderate comfort. We try not to privilege productive activity over the reproductive labor in our ways of valuing time investment. We try — though it’s hard as hell — to make sure that we are thoughtful and careful in choosing to live in a way that will keep our commitment to a healthy family life at the center of our decision-making. That’s why I make many of my Kid’s summer clothes. I enjoy doing it and it is a kind of reproductive labor that reduces the need for me to work in the marketplace of ideas more than I wish. When the weather is good, I hang out my laundry. I’ll probably throw in some baking today and make some baked apples while the oven is hot rather than pay $3 a loaf for crappy sawdusty bread and eat store-bought cookies to satisfy my prodigious sweet tooth. He’s the energy saver, the home-fixer, the person who pointed out that we should move where we both could walk to work (and we do, though we do have a fuel-efficient sub-compact.)

I know that I’m in an unusual situation insofar as I work in a field that offers me a liberty in scheduling that most people don’t get and compensates me well for being thinky. Yet, even in a relationship where both people attempt to value all sorts of work equally and are down with the feminist cause, the reality of it is that our “big boy” and “big girl” jobs — the productive waged work — commands a considerable investment because it has to happen on someone else’s schedule. Our annual salary becomes a shorthand measure of how much we are valued by our society, what we have to contribute to society at large (either philanthropically or as an employee-citizen), and an (incomplete) predictor of our class status. It’s even a measure of inclusion in civil society and our ability to assert our rights — after all, one of the prevalent definitions of “disabled” is “economically dependent due to physical, mental, or emotional condition.” And economic dependency is measured not by one’s humanity or one’s important contributions to the wellbeing of the community one lives in, but rather whether or not one has an income.

The work to which B refers is important. But to be the person — especially if all the reproductive labor falls to only one person — in the household who cooks the meals, changes the lightbulbs, and hangs the laundry out to dry (besides the work being difficult, repetitive, and sometimes unrewarding) is to be the person hidden from view in a society that is trained to value things very strangely.

I don’t know. This is an incomplete thought, but now I have to go…you guessed it…and work.

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