Care Work Is the Next Feminist Frontier
Women are being impoverished, knocked out of the labor force, or working themselves to death caring for others — because that’s ‘just what women do’
The work of caring for someone is not natural. No one is born knowing how to do it; no group of people naturally excels at it. In point of fact, care work, with its focus on mess and need and domestic tedium, is often hard, and very unpleasant; it’s not something people do without a compelling reason.
We need to state all of this up front, because — here in the Year of Our Lord 2019 — we are finally having a conversation about our society’s obligation to support the child care workers, home health aides, and family members who have to perform this work. These people are often marginalized, exploited, and, in all cases, desperately underpaid. This is because nearly all of them are women, and they’re doing work that we think women “naturally” want to do.
We would rather believe that women are simply tenderhearted creatures, born knowing how to wipe noses and make recalcitrant toddlers take their medicine.
In a recent article in The New York Times on unpaid care work, we learn that women are disproportionately likely to drop out of the workforce, or at least radically scale back their participation, to care for sick or aging family members. That work is causing a statistically significant dent in women’s workforce participation; the Times cites figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which states that the United States ranked 30th among industrialized countries in the “participation of prime-age women in the workforce.” (That’s a big decline: In 2000, the United States ranked 17th.) Women who hop out of the workforce to care for aging relatives often can’t hop back in, or can’t get jobs of the same quality once they rejoin the workforce, which creates snowballing generational poverty and economic insecurity. Not only are these women unable to pay for their relatives’ end-of-life care, in the future, they will be unable to pay for their own.