The Care Deficit

National Domestic Workers Union members look on as then– Georgia governor Jimmy Carter proclaims “Maids’ Honor Day,” April 1972 (Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University Library)

In the early 1970s Gloria Steinem, an ally of the movement for domestic workers’ rights, hosted a fundraiser in New York City and hired members of the Household Technicians of America (HTA), the first national advocacy organization of paid private household workers, to cater the event. Some guests were shocked by the image of black women in uniforms serving the crowd of largely white women. At a moment when the women’s movement was grappling with the politics of race, this incident seemed to symbolize how feminists could recreate racial and class hierarchies.

For members of the HTA, however, the situation was more complicated. They saw their labor as skilled rather than subservient, something to be proud of rather than looked down upon. Carolyn Reed, a domestic worker since the age of sixteen and an HTA leader who was serving that night, lectured the attendees: “I don’t like you to think we’re maids—we are household technicians; we’re experienced; we are professionals. And we’re being paid—that’s very important . . . so you have to get it out of your head that this is a demeaning job. If you don’t want to do it, I’m glad you don’t want to, because we will gladly do it for you—but for a salary, and with respect.”

Founded in 1971, the HTA’s central goal was the revaluation of household labor. It sought professionalization and training, specified work tasks, written contracts, higher pay, and federal labor protections. At a time when many African-American women were fleeing paid domestic service as greater work opportunities opened up with the passage of civil rights laws, members of the HTA stayed and fought to reclaim housework as important work. And although there were deep-seated divisions between middle-class women and household workers, this movement nonetheless managed to build an important, if short-lived, alliance with middle-class feminists like Steinem to push for federal minimum wage guarantees. Unlike other kinds of labor organizing, the domestic workers’ rights movement saw employers, many of whom were women, as potential partners in transforming the occupation—and with good reason. Reaching out to female employers fostered a common understanding that all women, regardless of class, are invested in and responsible for work in the home, and that this labor needed to be recognized and protected like any other kind of work.

Over the past twenty years a new movement for domestic workers’ rights has claimed victories on the local, national, and international level. It has also built bridges with employers. But, in a significant departure from the organizing of the 1970s, recent campaigns have fostered alliances by emphasizing the value of care work. While centering care is a critical component of rethinking domestic work, it can also be limiting. Much of the work of social reproduction is not based on care, but includes other household activities like cleaning and cooking. Moreover, the language of care pivots around the needs of consumers, rather than the rights of workers. For these reasons, a movement for domestic workers’ rights cannot be built primarily on care and mutual dependence but must instead be rooted in the notion of entitlement—that workers should be guaranteed basic rights and protections. The campaigns of the HTA combined revaluing domestic labor with a politics of rights, which became the bedrock of their feminist alliance with employers.

Uniting around housework

Paid household labor is an occupation that has always divided poor and middle-class women. The essence of middle-class femininity, rooted in cleanliness, beauty, and leisure, has since the nineteenth century required that someone else do the dirty work. The status, opportunities, and identity of middle-class women were inextricably linked to their access to domestic workers, who attended to the time-consuming and unpleasant tasks that made for a well-run home. Women of the household were usually responsible for hiring domestic workers; they established work expectations, set hours, and supervised the completion of tasks. Consequently, they were also the source of ire for household workers. Geraldine Roberts, a domestic worker and organizer with the HTA in Cleveland, explained her perception of her boss this way: “I got kind of an opinion that she was like a white mistress or something over black workers. . . . I felt as if I was probably the size of an ant or something. An ant, say, talking to a person who’s standing in the door of a fifty or a hundred thousand dollar home and I had absolutely nothing, and to tell this person something was pretty hard to do.”

The rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s had a contradictory impact on paid household labor in the United States. Some strands of the women’s movement, including welfare rights activists, socialist feminists, and the Wages for Housework movement drew attention to the unpaid and gendered nature of labor in the home and, among other things, demanded compensation for it. They argued that the work of social reproduction was absolutely essential to the functioning of American capitalism and that without women’s labor, not only would current workers be unable to sustain themselves, but there would be no next generation of workers.

At the same time, strategies adopted by the mainstream women’s movement that sought to free middle-class women from the confines of the domestic sphere widened the gulf between household workers and their female employers. Feminist liberation in the post-war period promised middle-class women greater freedom to pursue employment opportunities outside the home. But as they moved into the paid labor force, they had to grapple with the dilemma of what we today call the “work-family balance.” Since publicly-funded daycare failed to become a reality and men, in most cases, simply didn’t take up the slack, the work of social reproduction for which women were responsible was generally outsourced to other, poorer women.

In addition, the claims of middle-class feminists for paid employment was often premised on the degradation of household labor. In 1963 Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, a path-breaking book that prompted many middle-class suburban women to reconsider their decision to become full-time mothers, described housework as boring and repetitious. As she explained: “Vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”

Domestic worker activists mediated the conflicted interests of female employers and household workers by arguing that it was in both their interests to ensure that domestic work was a well-paid and respected occupation. They tapped into middle-class women’s dilemma of housework and sought to build an alliance around the common devaluation of the work of social reproduction, whether paid or unpaid, uniting women across race and class differences.

Strategic alliances

In the 1970s the HTA collaborated with middle-class feminist organizations to push for amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that would have assured federal minimum wage protections for household workers. Domestic workers, along with agricultural workers, were excluded from many of the labor laws passed during the New Deal because of racist Southern congressmen who didn’t want black workers to have labor rights and because of national labor leaders whose idea of labor was limited to white men working in factories. In the postwar period, legal protection of excluded sectors became an important goal to rectify this historic injustice.

The HTA mobilized support among women by arguing that housework, whether paid or unpaid, was usually defined as “women’s work” and questioned why women of the household were the ones responsible for hiring domestic workers. They claimed that devaluation of household labor had negatively affected all women and argued that congressional legislation to ensure adequate pay and labor protections would benefit both middle-class women and household workers.

Carolyn Reed was deeply committed to building a labor movement of domestic workers and seeking out feminist allies. She lived in New York City and on her time off organized workers in the laundry rooms of high-rise apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. Reed linked paid and unpaid household labor and insisted that this work be properly compensated whether completed by the woman of the household or a paid employee. To drive home her point, she supported Social Security for housewives as a way to recognize their work, claiming, “they can all become household technicians.” HTA activists drew parallels between the plight of domestic workers and the middle-class women who hired them. Both were responsible for housework. Both understood what maintaining a home entailed. Both also experienced the devaluation of domestic work by society.

Congressional debates about the FLSA amendments are especially revealing for their gender politics. Male legislators and policy makers realized that recognition of paid domestic labor meant recognition of housework as work, including the labor performed by housewives. When he testified before Congress, Secretary of Labor Peter Brennan presented the problem this posed for husbands who relied on women’s unpaid labor: “That means that you or I or we have to pay her. So we have to be very careful unless we are ready to do dishes.” Household workers similarly argued that if women left domestic service because of low wages, the burden would fall on men, not their wives, particularly in light of the women’s movement’s demands to be unshackled from household work. Geneva Reid, a leader in the HTA, explained to a House committee in 1973 that if the shortage of domestic workers continued apace, “it may come to this, the affluent and Congressmen cleaning up after themselves because the women of the household have become liberated and have joined the workforce and will not have time to cook, clean, wash, iron, and take care of the children.”

The congressional debates provided a platform for domestic workers to speak publicly, reach out to other women, and share their stories of domestic labor. Their testimonies suggested that household labor, whether paid or unpaid, united women of different backgrounds. With the support of multiple constituencies, including the National Organization for Women, they were successful and won, after nearly forty years of exclusion, federal minimum wage protection for domestic workers in 1974.

Domestic worker organizing today

Today the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA)—a nationwide organization of over fifty affiliates and 20,000 mostly immigrant workers—has also attempted to mobilize employers. NDWA’s strategy is multi-pronged. It has launched a home healthcare organizing project, initiated a new effort to ensure enforcement of labor regulations, and fought for and won state bills of rights that offer greater protection for household workers, such as notice of termination, overtime pay, and paid sick leave. The bills of rights campaigns, led by grassroots organizations, were in most cases mobilized with support from employers committed to labor rights for domestic workers. More recently, however, the organization has shifted strategy and reached out to employers using the rhetoric of mutual dependence and care.

NDWA was instrumental in the formation of Hand In Hand, an employers’ network, and has partnered with Care.com, an online marketplace that connects employers and caregivers. With both Hand in Hand and Care.com, NDWA asks employers to voluntarily take a Fair Care Pledge and do their best to ensure adequate pay, clear expectations in the workplace, and paid time off. Like the HTA, NDWA has highlighted the mutual interests and common concerns of employers and employees in both campaigns. But, unlike the HTA, NDWA has framed those shared interests around care. Care has become an avenue to build coalitions and make a claim for our collective investment in improving the occupation of domestic work because it appeals to a desire to ensure the best for our loved ones and invokes a nonthreatening, feminized ethic. In promoting its agenda “to change how we value care, women, families, and our communities,” NDWA has won several victories including raising awareness about the home as a workplace and, in collaboration with allies across the globe, the passage of an International Labour Organization Domestic Workers Convention that establishes international standards of pay and living conditions.

Recognizing care draws attention to the emotional labor performed by many household workers, and the way in which the love and energy they devote to their charges is often at the expense of the same for their own family members. This emotional labor has filled what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called a “care deficit” in developed countries, where in a growing number of two-parent households, both parents are employed and therefore are unable to provide care for their loved ones.

But the language of care also shifts the focus to employers’ needs, which often revolve around hiring someone who truly does care, who will act as a surrogate family member. Such a focus misrepresents the reasons why people enter this occupation. While loved ones may engage in this labor because they care, paid workers engage in this labor because they need a job. And they may or may not care. But the love of their labor should have no bearing on their rights as a worker. A McDonald’s worker who doesn’t smile when offering a Happy Meal is entitled to the same rights as someone who does. Their work needs to be valued, not because they care about the customer, but because they are individuals who are trying to earn a living and getting the job done. We should recognize domestic labor as socially necessary work, not measure it by a workers’ emotional investment in their labor or an employer’s emotional investment in their employee. Workers’ rights cannot be premised on the notion of care alone.

The future of working women

Over the past forty years, the class divide among women has widened. While the corporate sector has provided more family-friendly benefits, such as flex time, on-site daycare, or prepared meals, for some skilled and professional workers, the lowest-paid workers have seen their rights, wages, and benefits erode. Neoliberal policies dismantling welfare and criminalizing and cutting food stamps and housing assistance has meant that poor women have few alternatives to low-wage employment. Despite the many successes of the domestic workers’ rights movement—especially the powerful way a marginal workforce has palpably influenced public policy—the occupation over the past few decades has expanded and the level of exploitation intensified. Middle-class families who receive less support from the public sector and are working more hours than ever are turning to paid household labor. Under tight economic circumstances, it has become all too easy to place family needs and budgetary interests over that of easily replaceable and relatively cheap and vulnerable workers. Poorer and wealthier women encounter distinctly different economic and political circumstances.

At the same time, popular opinion equates feminist success overwhelmingly with the economic advancement of professional women. Although the feminist movement is diverse and includes competing voices, mainstream critics have overemphasized women’s lack of representation in the highest positions, gender socialization that encourages women to be less competitive in their jobs, and household responsibilities that serve as a barrier to women’s professional success. Self-identified feminists such as Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and policy analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter have encouraged women to either “lean in” or “lean back”—that is, become more assertive or reprioritize personal and family needs. This, however, assumes a level of power in the workplace that simply doesn’t exist for most working-class women.

The corporate feminist or “lean in” approach masks the multiple economic barriers poor and working-class women face and the ways in which professional women’s advancement is dependent upon the labor—and often the exploitation—of poor women to carry out the work of social reproduction. For most professional women (and men) their success is determined not only by workplace conditions, but by support in the domestic sphere. That is, it requires someone else doing the laundry, cleaning the house, preparing meals, caring for the elderly, and minding the children.

Revaluing household labor—both paid and unpaid—should be a feminist priority. As we mark the first time a woman has been chosen as the Democratic Party presidential nominee (although this is not the first time a woman has run for the position, an honor that goes to Shirley Chisholm) we should also remember that Hillary Clinton is an exception. Few women have Clinton’s wealth or power. Over half of women are employed in sales, office, and service occupations. While service and care work is associated with women’s work in the home, a disproportionate amount of this work in institutional and public settings is also done by women and is similarly devalued. Indeed, the biggest economic challenge for women is not the narrowly defined gender-pay gap that compares male and female salaries in the same occupation, but labor market segmentation, and the confinement of poor women and many men of color to low-wage service-sector jobs. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women hold two-thirds of all low-wage jobs. The labor of daycare providers, nurses, food-service workers, and janitors is essential, and, like domestic labor, must be part of a larger project to uplift and upgrade the work—by ensuring a living wage, the right to organize, and benefits such as paid leave. But such a project must be built on mobilizing workers at the grassroots, and premised on the idea that the work they do is socially valuable. All workers, whether they care or not, deserve basic labor rights.


Premilla Nadasen is an Associate Professor of History at Barnard College and author of Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Beacon Press, 2015).



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