Production, Reproduction, and the Problem of Home for Work


“Rural women are often the most forgotten participants in the economy,” responded economist Lourdes Benería to a 1977 internal report on efforts by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to implement U.N. declarations on women’s equality.1 “Rather than being ‘marginal’ participants in the stream of economic activities,” she asserted, “they are an ‘integral’ part of it.” After all, “they work long hours in domestic and agricultural jobs, and… perform essential activities to the economic system, namely those related to production of foods and services, either in the fields or at home, and those related to the reproduction of the labour force.”2 In recognizing the role of women from the “Third World” in economic development as spanning production and reproduction, Benería underscored a central problematic that is with us yet: the relation of home to work, the meaning of such terms, and their implications for the practice of care.

The ideological split between home and work in the industrialized West has obscured the ways that each realm shapes the other. It also shaped social policy toward “women in developing countries.” Contemporary political debate maintains an opposition between “mother” and “worker” as well as “work” and “care.” This division reflects a pervasive intellectual and political impasse pervading the organization of knowledge – our scholarship – as well as legal rules, government regulations, and union organizing. “Separate spheres” or “the cult of domesticity” long dominated histories of U.S. and European women, especially for the 19th century, even though most women had to labor hard, sometimes in the home, often outside of it, to maintain themselves and their households. They were subsistence farmers, wage earners, and housewives; some were domestic servants and slaves. Even when buying and trading through markets, they had to transform purchased materials into consumable goods. They aided in childbirth, nursed the ill, looked after children, soothed the afflicted, and watched over the dead. Care was interwoven into the fabric of daily life, whether or not they went out to work.3

But industrial capitalism and, in the case of the United States, its racialization, obscured interdependencies in celebrating individualism, promoting male breadwinners, and structuring inequality through gender, race/ethnicity, and class hierarchies. However, transformations in the larger political economy made the male breadwinner inadequate even for those classes, which included families with unionized men, that in the post-WWII years seemed to obtain this ideal. By the 1970s, the beginnings of neoliberal reordering, the dual breadwinner/female caregiver model came to the fore, which left poor single mothers with having to make due on their own with increasingly meager social assistance. Wage earning women began to employ migrant mothers to take up their slack in a new international division of (re)productive labor.4

In this context, by the 1980s, the deconstruction of women’s labors became central to a larger feminist project of dissolving these social constructions, especially the dichotomy of public (work) and private (home). Feminist scholars, especially those writing out of a left tradition, simultaneously set about to revalue work that appeared to be done out of love or obligation (and racialized when coerced out of slaves or ethnic minorities), and thus became underpaid when performed for a wage and devalued in the market economy.5 But whether care is really work continues to confound, shaping social policy and driving political movements.

Care certainly is a narrower concept than reproductive labor. As we learned from the Marxist domestic labor debates of the 1970s and 1980s, reproductive labor consists of activities that produce labor power – activities that transform raw materials and commodities bought with a wage to maintain the worker daily and generate future workforces through the feeding, clothing, caring, educating, and socializing of children. It is performed usually not for a wage and by a woman (as a housewife, though she might also be a wage worker at the same time).6 Care, thus, is one component of reproductive labor, not the same as housework but often performed with other domestic activities – and where the line is between care and housework isn’t so clear. Carework involves personal services for other people: activities that tend to the physical, intellectual, affective, and other emotional needs of partners, children, and elderly, ill, or disabled people. It includes tasks for daily life, including household maintenance (cooking, cleaning, washing, even shopping) and personal existence (bathing, feeding, turning over, ambulation). Sex-affective production can be part of care. It need not be heterosexual or homonormative. Such labor requires, feminist theorists across disciplines argue, “‘caring for’ while ‘caring about.'” To tend the environment of the abode or the body is to care for but perhaps also to care about.7

Who cares varies, and we might even imagine care as disruptive to a hegemonic order rather than central to its functioning. After all, care suggests interdependency, intimacy, and species worth. Nevertheless, the interdisciplinary literature on care still reflects the equation of domestic labor with oppression. It explains women’s responsibility for unpaid family care in terms of labor market segmentation (sexual division of labor), psychodynamics (women mothering reproduces women who give care), and social status (men don’t want to do it.). Some have addressed the movement of care from the home to other workplaces (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and factories), especially in terms of the structure of welfare states and racial division of labor, while others consider care in terms of the work and family dilemma associated with “the double day.” These scholars ask how we as a society should organize care – who should care and who should pay for care, does care remain in the family or move outside of families, is it an individual, family, community, state, or national obligation? A few emphasize the relationship between employers of care and their employees, distinguishing between spiritual and menial housework in terms of mothers, servants, slaves, and low-paid laborers, highlighting the contradictions of immigrant women cleaning and caring for the affluent.8

The skills necessary for cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, nursing, and other tasks appear to be natural, their economic value obscured. Some would claim that such labor has use value, but not exchange value, and thus is valueless in a Marxist meaning of value. Others, notably Leopoldina Fortunati, would argue that care already is part of exchange, that the housewife (and the prostitute) both work for capital in reproducing the labor power of the male worker.9 But because of the way we in the West, notably the United States, generally regard such labor, when it moves out of the home into the marketplace, it loses status as a labor of love and becomes classified as unskilled work that anyone can perform, because women have undertaken such activities without payment. It becomes stigmatized for two reasons: first, it involves dirt, bodies, and intimacy; second, those who have performed such paid jobs are of lower status, often men and women of color and/or recent immigrants. Though such jobs need not be women’s, or immigrant women’s work, they have been historically. Characteristics of the worker still define the skill and value of the work.

This essay will proceed in three parts. First, I discuss the dismissal of domestic labor by liberal feminist Betty Friedan in her influential 1963 The Feminine Mystique as an ironic continuation of a Marxist project that equated women’s emancipation with leaving the home for employment outside of it. Second, I analyze a feminist blog discussion over the meaning of care in the United States as indicative of a continuing denigration of domestic labor. Third, I turn to struggles of home care and other domestic workers, whose invisibility hegemonic understandings of home and work have fed into. In their organizing campaigns for recognition as workers under the labor law, we find the equation of reproduction with production. Thus, finally, I end with thoughts on the primacy of production as our paradigm for progress, which leads me back to the prescriptions of Lourdes Benería and the ILO through the lens of Kathi Weeks’ critique of “the work ethic.”

“The Problem that Has No Name” Was a Problem

The Feminine Mystique reinforced, even as it reflected, the devaluation of reproductive labor. Its influence had a pernicious impact for those women who went out to work to perform care and other domestic occupations because it dismissed the worth of the housewife’s labors at precisely the moment when service industries began their economic ascent and so fed into the undervaluing of the women who dared to call themselves “Household Technicians” rather than domestic servants, who rejected the designation, “the help.” Friedan’s understanding of women’s emancipation – employment outside of the home – and silence on care – indicative of her limited concept of work – became prevalent by the late 1960s, just in time to maintain middle class consumption in the U.S. In the aftermath of global economic reorganization and the decline of the (white) male family wage in the subsequent decades, women needed to become breadwinners. Friedan offered a vision fitting for the times, even if that was hardly her intent.10

Liberal feminists like Friedan recast work as liberation in offering employment as the solution to “the problem that has no name.” Women had to become more than “just a housewife.” For housework, which Friedan equated with fit work for “feeble-minded” girls, was unworthy of adult women with “average or normal human intelligence.” While she does not speak of “care,” Friedan equally denigrates such activities through association: “wife, mistress, mother, nurse, consumer, cook, chauffeur; expert on interior decoration, child care, appliance repair, furniture refinishing, nutrition, and education” defines the “modern housewife” who is exhausted so she can’t “read books, only magazines” (25). Caring gets folded into “a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home,” all of which signify limits to women’s horizons (30). “Having babies,” physical reproduction, appears as the antidote to the housewife’s emptiness – nothing more, not the production of future labor power or a product of mother love.

Such a portrait captured the position of the white middle class who, more than other women, were at mid-20th century able to remain outside of the labor force and found paid work away from the home an attractive alternative to boredom within. These were the women whose access to education and other resources (including a white male wage) made it more likely that their work could be interesting and creative. But Friedan neglected the lives of most women who even in the 1950s and 1960s found that they had to work (often part-time) at a job, not a profession, not for joy but to make ends meet or to cement that middle-class life style.

Here lies the irony. Friedan was a woman of the left, a reporter for the progressive United Electrical Workers and the Federated News Service.11 But she learned the wrong lesson from the Communist and labor milieu she lived in during the 1940s and early 1950s. She embraced the dictum of Friedrich Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife” and second, that “if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn”; and third, “the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry,” that is, women had to go out to work in order to join together in social struggle and work for the common good.12

Another Communist analysis existed, one eventually embraced by women’s liberation, but discredited publically and loudly during the time when Friedan was involved with left politics. In the 1940 In Women’s Defense, California activist Mary Inman asserted that housework, like factory work, was productive labor. Inman prefigured much of the later domestic labor debate by claiming that “widespread denigration of housework and child rearing” was what led to women’s subordination, not the economic function of the work itself that produced future and present labor power. Indeed, Inman contended that professional and business women – those who held the kinds of jobs that Friedan would tout as liberating – faced discrimination as women precisely because of the way that housewives were incorporated into capitalism, that the “subjugation” of the latter shaped the discrimination towards the former. Housewives engaged in “necessary social labor,” but they were indirectly related to production, with “no direct contact with their exploiters” because they “work only at home, and the means of exploiting them is clear only when we take into account the entire system of production.” As “a bearer and trainer of children,” that is, as a caregiver, she creates profits by producing future labor. It wasn’t a question of biology but one of economy. The work of all the separate households was “the pivot of the system.”13

Friedan offered a contrasting view that, in devaluing the labors of the housewife, denied the worth of the domestic servant. The logic becomes, if this labor is so worthless, so routine, why pay decently to not have to do it? The “Help” in The Feminine Mystique are in the background to the main action, the woman who employs them. Paid household workers are referred to as “cleaning help” (227, 234). Friedan sees that women can get along without such help, noting that “in the absence of servants,” when they were in short supply, during WWII, women figured out how to rearrange domestic labor to enter the labor force; they “pooled” resources, organizing work shifts so someone was around to watch the children, or they relied on nursery schools. But child care centers withered away and even those who could afford a “full-time housekeeper,” whose supplies were up, took on all the home labors themselves (176-177). So, while Friedan understood the significance of social supports for labor force participation, her solution was “a new life plan for women” (326), the (re)production of women through education, and not bringing carework and other forms of domestic labor into social production, away from their privatized position. Instead she pushed for some women hiring other women to fulfill home labors while leaving home for jobs.

Given these assumptions – that domestic labors aren’t really work and that women should go out to work – it isn’t surprising that even in the 1990s, Friedan insisted that the National Welfare Rights Movement was not feminist because it sought adequate income for poor single mothers, disproportionately black, to enable its members to reject the coercion of low waged work and government work programs (workfare) to stay home and engage in motherwork.14 For historically, black women were to be workers, not mothers, or the caregivers of other women’s children and homes, undertaking the work that no one else wanted to do, which by the 1970s increasingly took place in the service sector with the movement of reproductive labors to other workplaces. Black women’s refusal of such work opened up the use of immigrant women for home labors when more privileged women went out to work.15


How does the current generation of feminist commentators regard domestic and care labor? Blogging on The Feminist Wire in March 2012, English and Women’s Studies professor Sara Hosey challenged the feminist framing of care as work by “Rejecting the Rhetoric of the ‘Second Shift'” as a move toward “Insisting on Equity.”16 Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously referred to daily tasks undertaken for family – such as dropping off and picking up from daycare, cleaning the house, shopping for and preparing food, getting children to bed, washing clothes, packing lunches, and making ready for going off in the morning – as the “second shift,” hours of labor after (or before and sometimes as snatches of time during) employment.17 Much social science literature shows that, decades into the new feminism, women still put many more hours than men into these activities of self-care and social reproduction, so that in all kinds of heterosexual households they work the equivalent of an additional part-time job.18 On the basis of her own experience with a male partner who does half the tasks, Hosey rejected the term “second shift” as an inappropriate, indeed, degrading classification of care activities.

Hosey, of course, is not alone in wishing for an arena outside of capitalism, free from the market, where we can be who we wish to be and where “interpersonal relationships, caregiving, and cooperation” reign supreme. Notable feminist theorists of the welfare state, such as Nancy Fraser and Ann Orloff, have approached the commodification of care as part of a larger critique of neo-liberal privatization and its displacement of social responsibility to families and the market.19 Additionally, for many care theorists, the very term “carework economy” represents an oxymoron. For these philosophers and policy analysts, care and economy stand in for the “hostile words” of love and money, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer has critiqued this strand of thought, an inscription of separate sphere ideology with gendered attributes repackaged: women give care, men earn money.20

These feminist theorists bemoan an increasing commodification of aspects of life that they find should be private, intimate, and personal, such as tending to dependents, usually defined as the frail, ill, and young.21 Philosopher Virginia Held typifies such arguments in regarding “caring work as enabling those cared for to know that someone values them” and for “expressing social connectedness… contributing to children’s development and family satisfaction, and… enabling social cohesion and well-being,” all outside of market norms. Likewise economist Susan Himmelweit defends caring labor as a special kind of work involving relationship and emotional attachment so that “much of the quality of our lives would be lost if the imposition of inappropriate forms of market rationality turned such work into mere labor.”22 Policy analyst Deborah Stone notes that the rules and regulations of caring in the public sphere “promote disengagement, distance, and impartiality,” while discounting the love, partiality, and attachment that many develop toward those cared for. Most caregivers, she concludes, feel demeaned by the label “’worker,” for that implies managed, bureaucratic concepts in contrast to their own “relational and personal concepts of care.”23 In short, as historian Alice Kessler-Harris has charged, these complaints assume “that incorporating women into its [the economic market] competitive value system would negate female nurturing values,” thus, negating “the affective components of life.”24

Hosey joins those who ignore both the history of intimate caring labors and the consequence of state incorporation of care as central to the organization of production, reproduction, and inequality. Her concern is not with the commodification of intimacy, as documented by theorists of sex work, but rather with the negative consequences of care as work. As a consequence, by omission, she, like Friedan, belittles the struggles of care workers for respect and dignity. Hosey thus reinscribes class and race hierarchies even as she argues for gender equity.

This recoiling from the language of exchange and investment, which Hosey connects to the economic, occurs just as she links work with the economic (though these associations are not the only ones that work evokes). This move to the economic erases positive meanings of work. We don’t embrace economic man or woman; instead we think of the economic as cold, calculating, or unfeeling. Hosey couches the act of understanding “parenting as ‘work'” with the verbs “misconstrues” and “demeans.” Labeling care as work, she contends, willfuly misreads “an otherwise complex relationship that is, at its best, definitively loving and mutually-rewarding.” She refers to “larger rewards” than the monetary to explain time spent with family.

Hosey discusses parenting and housekeeping together as two aspects of the second shift. She demotes the significance of housekeeping by relegating it to “a quotidian part of life” and taking it away “from the realm of the serious.” She asserts, “there are better, more empowered ways to spend one’s time and money than scrubbing and polishing.” Here she replicates the division between spiritual and menial housework that black feminist theorist Dorothy Roberts found in the distinction between parenting and cleaning, the first performed by the white mistress and the second given to the black or brown maid, the first justified as mothering and the second devalued as toil. This separation reserves care for only some forms of intimate labor and justifies low pay for those aspects that remain as work – and the further stigmatization of racial/ethnic women that perform the less privileged tasks.25

It isn’t that Hosey has a narrow definition of work, though. She goes on to contrast housework with real forms of work outside of employment: “consciousness-raising and political lobbying, the thinking and writing and organizing that many of us have done and continue to do, often in addition to holding down paying jobs, picking up after ourselves, and spending time with our families.” These are activities that feminist theorist Kathi Weeks might lump under “Hours for What We Will,” but others might name community and creative labors.26

There are consequences to such thinking, the equation Care≠Work. Midway in her essay, Hosey admits that she is talking about “cleaning one’s own home” and doing other household tasks “not for pay.” Focusing on unpaid forms of care and housework, nonetheless, obscures the relationship between unpaid and paid forms of care. The first informs the second and its devaluation. As sociologists Cameron Lynne MacDonald and David A. Merrill explain, careworkers suffer from “institutional misrecognition that defines care work as nonwork, as unskilled work, or female workers as nonworkers; as well as intersubjective misrecognition that bars them from equal access to social esteem by the accumulated psychic harms inflicted on them in interactions with others.”27

The Rising of the Domestic Workers

Such obscuring of the carer as a worker is particularly detrimental, then, not only because it offers a rationalization for poor compensation but also because it throws roadblocks against worker rights and unionization. As one domestic worker organizer explained during the 1970s battle in the United States for legal inclusion, “This is a gut woman’s issue. The reason we haven’t gotten our rights as a paid person in the labor force is because men think they can get their wives or girlfriends to do the job without pay.”28 This conflation has justified discrimination.

The law in the United States is particularly challenging in this regard. Unpaid carework garners no social security because there are no wages or recognized income taxed separately. Dependent housewives can gain husband’s pension benefits; after 1970s reforms and court cases, divorce transfers some social security funds to them if the marriage lasted long enough, but divorce no longer comes automatically with any compensation for intimate labors, including housework and childcare. The call for wages for housework never reverberated politically in the U.S., even though it exposed the economic relation involved. But an unintended consequence of the end of coverture, a demand of legal feminism that came to fruition in the late 1960s, was the end of alimony because men’s rights groups supported such and the monetary valuing of housework failed.29

Paid domestic work also stood outside of the labor law. In 1940, the law classified nurse-companions and other in-home care workers hired directly by clients as domestic servants and thus made them ineligible for old age insurance, unemployment, collective bargaining, minimum wages, maximum hours, or other labor laws.30 The extension of women’s work for the family into the market created an arena easily cordoned off as impossible to regulate.31 More important was the lack of powerful advocates for domestic workers and the racialism of New Dealers and their dependence on Southern votes. Professional women had a vested interest in a cheap supply of servants and most housewives did not view themselves as employers.32 Not until the 1950s would some domestic workers gain coverage under Social Security.33

Inclusion under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act proved more difficult. This was, in part, because, as one “manpower” expert explained in 1971, “the minimum wage is… needed as a floor to express the socially recognized ‘value’ of the labor rather than to meet the income needs of all family heads,” but home labor lacked value.34 Congressional myopia over the worth of such labor – along with the political economy of the South that benefited from depressing African American wages – prolonged the political work of inclusion. In both claiming housework as work and struggling against discrimination in the employment of women, organized feminism allied with domestic workers cleared the way for finally placing domestic work into labor law.35 In 1974, two years after professional women gained access, Congress included domestic servants in the wage and hour law.

These same amendments to the labor law ended up removing home health aides and attendants from coverage if hired by a third party, like a for-profit home health care agency. A definitional ruse, a designation as “elder companions” who were like casual babysitters, reduced the home aide to a friendly visitor, an interpretation of Congressional action by the Department of Labor at the time. The Supreme Court ratified what amounted to wage theft over thirty years later in 2007. The Obama administration in late 2011 proposed new rules to supplant this definition of home care as not work.36

It took twenty-one months, but finally on September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor announced final rules that ended the exclusion of home care workers from overtime and marked their recognition as workers.37 Significantly, this change considered care as work. It embedded definitions of care as assistance of individuals with “Activities of Daily Living” (i.e., “dressing, grooming, feeding, bathing, toileting, and transferring”) and “Instrumental Activities of Daily Living” (i.e., “tasks that enable a person to live independently at home, such as meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances, assistance with the physical taking of medications and arranging medical care”). Whereas the 1970s regulations exempted from the category of “elder companions” those who spent over 20% of their hours in housekeeping and other domestic tasks, the Obama-era ones mandated FLSA inclusion of those who perform care for more than 20% of their time. Companionship services then became restricted to “provision of fellowship and protection.” These could include “engag[ing] the person in social, physical, and mental activities, such as conversation, reading, games, crafts, accompanying…” and being there with someone in their home “to monitor the person’s safety and well-being.”38

In attempting to distinguish care from companionship, the rules replicated the strand of feminist thought that separates physical labors from relational ones, reinforcing the division between spiritual and menial housework. But as any care provider knows, the two can’t be so easily parsed. The percentage of hours represents an attempt to quantify that which overflows such frameworks. The complexity of the rules, and their careful designation, reflected the attempt by administrations to come to grips with the dual nature of care as relation and labor.

As of the writing of this essay in June 2015, it is not clear whether the Obama change in definition would ever come into effect. Just in time for Christmas 2014, at the behest of the Home Care Association of America, the International Franchise Association, and the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon (a George W. bush appointee) struck down the extension of FLSA to these employers of live-in home care workers. Immediately, California delayed its state-level extension of overtime to its MediCal funded workers and a second employer suit right after the New Year led the same judge to vacate the entire new rule. Home care workers face perpetual low-wages, enhanced by the prospect of continuous litigation delaying their inclusion in the labor law, as the Department of Labor appealed. Whatever side prevails, the other probably will take the case to the Supreme Court.39

Like other discourses, legal constructions matter. Home care workers had internalized their non-worker status. Surveys concluded that many saw “their work more as service than as employment.” Rather than workers, they were caregivers, a role “rooted in deep feelings about their religious or cultural traditions.”40 Unionization would come to offer “an identity as a worker’s part of a giant work-force, doing important work that merits recognition, respect, and decent standards.”41 One of the biggest challenges was to make visible an occupation hidden in the home and rendered illegible by the law, but during the last third of the 20th century, that is precisely what the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions managed to accomplish by winning enabling legislation and gubernatorial orders in various states that created mechanisms for collective bargaining with government agencies and put pressure on private employers who were reimbursed through public monies.

Today’s domestic worker movement – internationally as well as in the United States – similarly has sought recognition as workers. With passage of ILO Convention #189, “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” in 2011, South African Myrtle Witbooi, Chair of the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), declared, “we are free – slaves no more, but workers.”42 Activists understood the role of domestic work in social reproduction. As Tanzanian trade unionist Vicky Kanyoka has explained, “It is our work in households that enables others to go out and be economically active… it is us who take care of your precious children and your sick and elderly; we cook your food to keep you healthy and we look after your property when you are away.”43 This sentiment parallels the one expressed by Sarita Gupta, the Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, who has insisted that home care “workers are an invaluable part of our economy – they make all other work possible.”44

Unionization of home care workers has hit an impasse with shifting political winds in the United States, as I have explained elsewhere. The momentum today is with the National Domestic Worker Alliance and its affiliates, who have pushed for bills of rights. Passed in New York, Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Connecticut, these bills vary in scope, but all seek to extend labor protections, especially overtime, to private household workers. They seek to recognize care as work and propel immigrant women of color, the majority of those involved in domestic worker associations, into economic citizenship.45

Domestic workers are creating a new care movement to bring the needs of care receivers and providers together, those who do household labor and those who use such labor. The Caring Across the Generations initiative, begun in 2011, joins rights and respect with love, “to build a more caring economy for all of us.”46 It calls for decent work and a sensible immigration policy, socialized services and attention to human dependencies, with training, labor standards, and participation by families and paid workers alike. This coalition calls for establishing a pathway to staying for immigrant care workers, that is, adequate visas for careworkers.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance with its coalition partners offers hope. This movement is trying to re-signify the meaning of love away from mammy’s natural feelings to a social justice goal. The affect evoked is powerful. For success, the movement is taking advantage of our valuing of production by claiming that household labor, that is social reproduction, is central to the organization of home and work.


That domestic and care workers partake in the language of production makes them legible. They do so trying to shift the discussion by re-connecting production and reproduction. In some sense, over thirty years ago, Benería was pushing the world of development experts to understand this interrelation. She came to root women’s subordination in various modes of reproductive labor. But on the ground, the ILO technical assistance programs sought to redeploy family labor into income generating activities, as with milk and handicraft cooperatives. Care became work.47

Are there other ways to consider care? Feminist theorist Kathi Weeks critiques the tendency to regard “the ethic of care… as an ethic of work.” Demands for inclusion – into employment and wage labor, like Friedan, or by renaming care as work, as by unions and domestic worker associations – “risks contesting the gendered organization of a capitalist work society by reproducing its fundamental values.” The refusal to work need not be a refusal to care but rather to be caught in family values, queer or not, rather than in the activities that enhance “as the autonomist Marxist tradition might have it – of making some space for the collective autonomy that might alter some of the terms of such choices.” Such a reconceptualization might move us from care as a relation of dependency to care as a struggle for social interdependence. Ending naturalized notions of reproductive labor, Weeks suggests, is a first step.48

Perhaps considering care as work isn’t “capitulation to capitalism” – or its mystical thinking. A respondent to Hoey on the blogosphere offered an alternative reasoning by insisting that “unpaid care lets the rest of society, especially capital, off the hook.” To be utopian about care would then mean recognizing that the existence of care work “declares that paid work is possible without a capitalist, without exploitation, without wages, and without commodities.” This position refuses to see the making of people – “our bodies, our reason, and the gifts of language, culture, and the social organization of the world they give rise to” – as reducible to commodities. That is, “to name care as work that must be remunerated cries out for an alternative economic theory that recognizes the economic value of the human connections and practices about which we care most deeply.”49

We all may desire a realm of freedom, but care work by its very nature responds to a world of constraint. It exists because of inabilities, otherwise known as the limits of the human condition. To speak of independence and care is to obfuscate the relationship between care provider and receiver. The goal of social programs to free frail elderly or disabled people from dependency too often have valued the needs of the receiver by ignoring the provider or turning the performer of care into a tool, an appendage, a means of the independence and freedom of the other, whose status is of utmost concern and so the work of care becomes obscured with a focus on the results of such labor. The conditions of the care worker can be rightly ignored because the focus is on the taker, receiver, client, customer, all names for the one who is cared for. But to embrace dependency and the need for community, to celebrate interdependency, now that might just form the basis for a utopia that works – embracing production, reproduction, home, and work or dissolving the distinction as we reveal in our personhoods together.

  1. This is a revised version of a paper presented at “Trabalho E Gênero,” University of São Paulo in October 2013 and subsequently published as Produção e reprodução, casa e trabalho. Tempo soc. [online]. 2014, vol.26, n.1:101-121 at I thank Helena Hirata and Nadya Araujo Guimarães for inviting me to participate in their seminar series. 

  2. Lourdes Benería to Mrs. Ahmad, Mrs. Korchounova (Femmes), “Comments des Progres Intervenus dans l’Application du Principe de l’Egalite de Chances et de Traitement pour les Travailleuses Inventaire des Donnees a Rassembler,'”Minute Sheet, 6.6.77, WN-1-1-02-1000, ILO Archives, Geneva. 

  3. This paragraph and the next draws upon Eileen Boris, “The Home as a Workplace: Deconstructing Dichotomy,” International Review of Social History, 39 (December, 1994), 415-28; Eileen Boris and Carolyn Lewis, “Caregiving and Wage-Earning: A Historical Perspective On Work and Family,” The Handbook of Work and Family: Multidisciplinary Perspectives and Approaches, edited by Pitt-Catsouphes, Kossek, and Sweet (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006), 73-97 

  4. Silva Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, Ca: PM Press, 2012). 

  5. My book with Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), may be said to belong to this effort. 

  6. Ellen Malos, ed. The Politics of Housework (London: New Clarion Press, 1995); Jocelyn Olcott, “Introduction: Researching and Rethinking the Labors of Love,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 91 (February 2011), 1-27. 

  7. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Creating a Caring Society,” Contemporary Sociology 29 (January 2000), 84-94; Viviana A. Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).  

  8. Paula England, “Emerging Theories of Care Work,” Annual Review of Sociology 31 (2005), 381-99; Nell Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (New York: New Press, 2001); Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, Servants of Globalization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Dorothy E. Roberts, “Spiritual and Menial Housework,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 9 (1997) 51-80. 

  9. Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction (New York: Autonomedia, 1989). 

  10. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1963). All subsequent quotations (embedded in the text) are from the Sixth printing, October 1972, paperback edition. 

  11. Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).  

  12. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: Penguin Classics, 2010), 104-6.  

  13. Mary Inman, In Women’s Defense (Los Angeles: The Committee to Defend Women’s Advancement, 1940), 137, 145. 

  14. Friedan comment at the Woodrow Wilson Center when I was in the audience, c. 1994. 

  15. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ” From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs, (Autumn, 1992), 1-43; Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002). 

  16. Sara Hosey, “Rejecting the Rhetoric of the ‘Second Shift’ and Insisting on Equity,” The Feminist Wire, March 26, 2012, at, last accessed May 10, 2012. 

  17. Arlie Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003 edition). 

  18. “Men vs. Women: How much time spent on kids, job, chores?” USA Today, March 14, 2013 at; Suzanne Bianchi, “Family Change and Time Allocation in American Families,” Focus on Workplace Flexibility, Working Paper, 2010, at 

  19. Nancy Fraser, “The Struggle Over Needs: Outline of a Socialist Feminist Critical Theory of Late Capitalist Political Culture,” in Women, the State, and Welfare, 199-225; Ann Orloff, “Gender in the Welfare State,” Annual Review of Sociology 22 (1996), 51-78. 

  20. Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy, 20-6. 

  21. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Joan C. Williams and Viviana A. Zelizer, “To Commodify or Not to Commodify: That Is Not the Question,” in Martha M. Ertman and Joan C. Williams, Rethinking Commodification: Cases and Readings in Law and Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 362-3. 

  22. Virginia Held, “Care and the Extension of Markets,” Hypatia, 17 (Spring 2002), 21-2; Susan Himmelweit, “Caring Labor,” ANNALS, AAPSS, 561 (January 1999), 37.  

  23. Deborah Stone, “Caring by the Book,” in Care Work: Gender, Labor, and the Welfare State, ed. Madonna Harrington Meyer (New York: Routledge, 2000), 110. 

  24. Alice Kessler-Harris, “In Pursuit of Economic Citizenship,” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State, and Society 10 (Summer 2003), 171.  

  25. Roberts, “Spiritual and Menial Housework.” 

  26. Kathi Weeks, “‘Hours for What We Will’: Work, Family, and the Movement for Shorter Hours,” Feminist Studies 35 (Spring 2009). 

  27. Cameron Lynne MacDonald and David A. Merrill, “‘It Shouldn’t Have to Be a Trade’: Recognition and Redistribution in Care Work Advocacy,” Hypatia 17 (Spring 2002), 75. 

  28. Quoted in Premilla Nadasen, “Citizenship Rights, Domestic Work, and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Journal of Policy History 24, no.1 (2012), 85. 

  29. Lisa Levenstein, “‘Don’t Agonize, Organize!’ The Displaced Homemakers Campaign and the Contested Goals of Postwar Feminism,” The Journal of American History, 100 (December 2014): 144-1680. 

  30. Mary Poole, The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 2006). 

  31. “Extension of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance to Additional Groups of Current Workers,” Report of the Consultant Group, in U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Hearings Before the Committee on Ways and Means on H.R. 7199, Social Security Amendments of 1954, 83 rd Congress, 2nd Sess. (Washington DC: GPO, 1954), 875. 

  32. Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 118-35; Vanessa May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 

  33. “Extension of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance to Additional Groups of Current Workers,” 865. 

  34. Sar A. Levitan, “Statement Prepared for the Subcommittee on Labor, Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare,” U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and the Public Welfare, Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1971, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare on S. 1861 and S.2259, 92nd Congress, 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1972), Part 5, 1788. 

  35. Phyllis Palmer, “Outside of the Law: Domestic and Agricultural Workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Journal of Policy History, 7, no.4 (1995), 416-40; Nadasen, “Citizenship Rights, Domestic Work, and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” 74-94. 

  36. For this story, see Boris and Klein, Caring for America

  37. Steven Greenhouse, “U.S. to Include Home Care Aides in Wage and Overtime Law,” New York Times, September 17, 2013. 

  38. Wage and Hour Division, Fact Sheet #79A, September 2013, at 

  39. United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Home Care Association of America, et al. v. David Weil, et al, Case No. 14-cv-967, December 22, 2014; United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Home Care Association of America, et al. v. David Weil, et al, Case No. 14-cv-967, January 14, 2015. 

  40. The Feldman Group, Inc., “Focus Group Memo Homecare Workers,” Prepared for the Homecare Workers Union, April, 1998, 2, 7, 8, Janet Heinritz-Canterbury Papers, in author’s possession. 

  41. “Organizing Homecare,” 3, SEIU Organizing General 1984-92, box 42, folder, “Health Care Organizing, 1992,” SEIU Papers, Reuther Library, Wayne State. 

  42. International Domestic Workers Network. “A Message from Myrtle Witbooi, IDWN Chair,” IDWN News, October 2011.  

  43. Statement of Ms. Vicky Kanyoka, International Labour Conference Proceedings, 99th Session, 2010, 8/41.  

  44. Statement in Press Release, PHI, “In Response to Federal Lawsuit, Workers, Consumers and Advocates Call for Federal Minimum Wage and Overtime Protections for Nation’s Two Million Home Care Workers,” May7, 2015,, last assessed June 22, 2015. 

  45. On this movement, see; 

  46. Talk by Ai-Jen Poo, March 11, 2015, Santa Barbara, CA. 

  47. Lourdes Benería, “Reproduction, Production and the Sexual Division of Labour,” Cambridge Journal of Economics (1979), 203-225; Eileen Boris, “Difference’s Other: The ILO and ‘Women in Developing Countries,'” in West Meets East: The ILO from Geneva to the Pacific Rim, Nelson Lichtenstein and Jill Jensen, eds. (Palgrave, ILO Century Project Series), in press. 

  48. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 67-8, 168. 

  49. Joseph de la Torre Dwyer, “Gender Equity Still Requires a Focus on the ‘Second Shift,'” thefeministwire, April 4, 2012, at, last accessed May 13, 2012. 

Author of the article

is the Hull Professor of Feminist Studies and Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She teaches on Marxism and Feminism, writes on home labors and is an active supporter of the self-organizing of domestic workers.