Women have been fed up with listening to, comforting, and nurturing the men in their lives probably for as long as they have been expected to do it for free—which is to say, since time immemorial. In consciousness-raising groups in the sixties, feminists famously traced the disproportionate amount of caring performed by women back to sexist notions of women as natural caregivers. The expectation that the “fairer sex” constantly radiate sugar and spice while men could be moody or taciturn without social recrimination, they argued, was a pernicious double standard.
Lately some feminists have returned to this age-old problem and given it a name: “emotional labor.” The term, like the problem, isn’t new—it’s been in circulation at least since sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 1979 book The Managed Heart. But Hochschild was describing the rise of waged work contingent upon the manipulation of feeling—the smile of the “service with a smile” performed by workers such as flight attendants or waitstaff. In more recent discussions, feminists have refocused this concept on the everyday caretaking that women perform in their interpersonal relationships with men. That care, they insist, is work and so should be paid.
“Men like to act as if commanding women’s attention is their birthright, their natural due, and they are rarely contradicted,” wrote author Jess Zimmerman in the Toast. “It’s a radical act to refuse them that attention. It’s even more radical to propose that if they want it so fucking much, they can buy it.” The piece was an instant sensation that generated a flurry of responses in other outlets from women registering their agreement. “Unpaid emotional labour,” Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren wrote in its wake, “is being hailed as the next feminist frontier.”
To most women today who find themselves exhausted by unwaged, unappreciated emotion work, receiving payment for it probably seems like a pretty delightful idea. Why continue to coddle and counsel men without getting something in return? Why work as therapists without charging therapist rates? When pop anthropologist Wednesday Martin introduced the world to the “wife bonus”—an annual sum of money paid out by Manhattan’s richest men to their wives for a year’s worth of wifely duties such as child-rearing, grooming, and sex—plenty of feminists cheered the concept. It was only fair, they insisted, that all men benefiting from women’s work—husbands, boyfriends, friends, and strangers alike—finally pony up for the service of being cared for.
Yet, while the idea of women billing the men in their lives for emotional services rendered may succeed on some level as a rhetorical provocation regarding gender roles, treating emotional labor as a commodity—or a previously untapped resource to be monetized—suggests that the market is the solution to, rather than a cause of, gender inequality. Conceiving of unwaged emotion work as a new opportunity for women’s entrepreneurialism further misses the fact that waged emotional labor is already very much the norm in a way that fails to benefit the majority of women. And touting payments between individuals as a lever for gender equality obscures the expansion of what Hochschild has called the “commercialization of intimate life,” or society’s increasing reliance upon paid services to meet the demands of social reproduction.
In The Managed Heart Hochschild estimated that a third of men and half of women in the work force performed emotional labor on the job. Now, nearly three decades later, almost all occupations require some form of it. This ranges from being “positive,” “proactive,” or a “team-player”—behavior expected of employees across most industries—to the care work undertaken in burgeoning pink-collar sectors like nursing, childcare, and domestic work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2024, nearly 95 percent of all new job growth will be in the service sector, constituting over 9 million jobs. The rapid growth of these emotion-work industries, as Hochschild and others have pointed out, is partially a consequence of women’s entry into the paid work force en masse. While feminists have long celebrated women’s participation in the labor force as a rejection of traditional gender roles, the rise of the double-income household is also the result of the decades-long stagnation and erosion of real wages, which has made it impossible for all but the wealthiest households to subsist on a sole breadwinner’s income. Affluent families now outsource much of their domestic labor to nannies, housekeepers, and nursing assistants. But even as paid emotion work grows more and more common, it has failed to curb gender and racial inequalities; most emotional labor-heavy occupations, such as food service and domestic work, continue to be poorly paid and disproportionately staffed by women of color.
Meanwhile, those who can’t afford to outsource their domestic duties instead find themselves increasingly strapped for time. In the last issue of Dissent, political theorist Nancy Fraser observed, “Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our ‘caring’ energies to the breaking point.” For the vast majority of women, this “crisis of care” has imposed an emotional labor speedup both at home and in the workplace. Advances in technology and the post-recession labor market have empowered employers to wring new forms of emotional labor from employees on the job such as the inflexible customer-service standards required of low-wage service workers. Pret-a-Manger, for example, notoriously dispatches secret shoppers to rate their counter staff on their perkiness; likewise, in September 2016, a New York City Trader Joe’s fired an employee whose smile was deemed insufficiently “genuine.” At the same time, working women (and, to a growing extent, men) are forced to squeeze caring for family, friends, and themselves into ever-shrinking “second shifts” after (or between) paid jobs.
Given these mounting obligations to perform more and more emotional labor, both waged and unwaged, it comes as little surprise that feminists have renewed the call to upend the still-unequal distribution of such work. But these calls—which largely position transactions between individuals as the solution for lessening women’s share of the load—have failed to account for how they intertwine with the market’s unprecedented colonization of the social sphere and interpersonal interactions.
According to the journalist Paul Mason, the 2008 financial crash further accelerated the growth of the service sector, birthing a variety of new peer-to-peer services such as Uber and TaskRabbit in order to plug the holes left by what was, for many years, a jobless recovery. If left to its devices, he warns, this latest evolution of capitalism will drive the monetization of the social sphere “to its extremes, creating new forms of person-to-person micro-services, paid for using micro-payments, and mainly in the private sector.” Lately, we’ve seen Silicon Valley extending the micro-payment model into areas like the long-underfunded arts through platforms such as Patreon and Flattr, which allow consumers to “tip” or otherwise monetarily support artists and other “content creators” whose works they enjoy. Developers have also begun rolling out apps like Talkspace, which allows users to text a therapist on demand, and Happy, a service that connects people experiencing low-grade malaise (breakups, loneliness, job changes) to an anonymous “happy-giver” who lends a sympathetic ear and dispenses comfort and encouragement for 40 cents a minute.
In conjunction with our current crisis of care and the steady erosion of traditional employment, it’s not inconceivable that the precipitous rise of micro-payments might eventually allow increasing numbers of women to collect payments from men every time they bestow them affection. (In the Toast, Zimmerman even offered a hypothetical itemization of such a tab: “Acknowledge your thirsty posturing, $50. Pretend to find you fascinating, $100. Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150.”) But while such an exercise might be entertaining, it’s difficult to find it particularly inspiring, since the individualized nature of such transactions, especially at a time of extreme (and worsening) economic inequality, is likely to simply reproduce a system where the wealthy can benefit from pay-for-play affection while the poor get left behind.
While simply putting a pro-women gloss on an economic crisis does nothing to end that crisis, there does exist a different kind of feminist demand for compensated caring that could help point a way forward. Wages for Housework, the 1970s international Marxist feminist movement, sought to unmask how women’s unwaged reproductive labor in the home provided the basis upon which capitalism subsisted. Tending to men’s emotions free of charge very much figured into this scheme: Silvia Federici, one of the founders of the movement, wrote in 1975, “To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking.” Capitalism, in other words, has relied (and continues to rely) on a work force that in turn depends on invisible, unwaged domestic labor to stay fed, soothed, and reproducing new labor power.
Yet, for Wages for Housework, the end goal of demanding remuneration for such work was not the money in and of itself. “Wages Against Housework” was the title of Federici’s influential text, and therein she wrote, “To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it.” According to Federici, wages for housework would not only expose women’s hidden work in the home as labor, but would also begin to unite the working class, which Federici believed would remain divided under capitalism so long as this labor remained unwaged. It was furthermore the state, Federici clarified in 2011, “the representative of collective capital—the real ‘Man’ profiting from this work,” that should pay wages for housework.
Federici’s insistence that the state compensate women for the work of social reproduction is an important point that is missing from the liberal feminist conception of charging for caring. But a social wage is an important first step—it could help alleviate our crisis of care and the wide-scale immiseration associated with the disappearance of traditional work. Instead of asking men to transfer us dollars for smiling at them, what if we demanded a civil servant’s salary from the government in return for the labor required to keep each other emotionally healthy under capitalism? Feminist theorist Kathi Weeks, for example, has traced the connection between Wages for Housework and a modern, living-wage universal basic income. Such a program, she argues, would not only reduce our dependence on waged work for survival, but would also serve as a kind of support for and recognition of people’s unpaid reproductive labor inside the home.
Other large-scale programs that could compensate unwaged forms of emotional labor might include injecting new funding into existing yet inadequate public initiatives. One example is the Cash and Counseling provision of Medicaid, which essentially pays family members to care for elderly or infirm relatives, but is presently limited in scope and varies wildly from state to state. A generous federal paid leave program is a closely related measure. Several states already have them—including New York, which allows up to twelve weeks of parental leave following the birth of a child—but why not ask for even more paid leave than that, like the forty-five weeks granted to new parents in Norway? Likewise, reinstating and expanding cash welfare, and offering robust child allowances, would help compensate people—women in particular—for the work of social reproduction.
In other words, there is no shortage of opportunities to ask for money. And unlike the wife bonus, the personal concierge, or the paid friend, robust public services are the kinds of payments that would benefit all women, not just the few who have figured out how to make capitalism work for them.
J.C. Pan is a contributor to Dissent, Jacobin, the Nation, and other publications.