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  • Affect, Race, and ClassAn Interpretive Reading of Caring Labor
  • Drucilla K Barker (bio) and Susan F. Feiner (bio)

Over the past two decades the relationships between women’s roles in social reproduction, women’s subordinate position in paid labor markets, and the marginalization of caring labor in capitalist economies have emerged as central concerns in feminist economics. This attention is warranted because the transnational feminization of the labor force and the neoliberal policies associated with globalization impinge on the types of activities that have come to be called caring labor. Women have increased their participation in the paid-labor force but on a highly unequal footing. When relatively affluent women enter the labor market, they are able to use some of their income to purchase the domestic services no longer produced in the home, services provided mainly by poor women from minority, working-class, or Third-World immigrant backgrounds. The pressures created by the neoliberal policies accompanying globalization leave these women with few options other than to participate in the poorly paid, insecure, and devalorized segments of the transnational market for domestic labor, often forgoing the care of their own children and families.

At least since the nineteenth century, caring for others has been associated with feminine identity. Caring labor—attending to the physical and emotional needs of others—has been considered the quintessential form of “women’s work.” But just what sort of work it is has been a matter of debate since at least the eighteenth century. This debate was part of the larger question concerning the appropriate way to specify the construction of the “economy” by drawing a boundary between those human activities that were part of the economy and those that were not. As the heterodox economist David Brennan has argued, the classical political economists began by narrowing the definition of what counted as economic activities to include only those activities for which people were paid a wage or those that created goods or services for exchange.1 Activities undertaken for their own sake, such as gazing [End Page 41] at a sunset or writing a poem (unless it was for sale) were not considered economically productive; thus they were not considered work. To paraphrase Adam Smith, they make no contribution to the annual product of an economy. The feminist economist Nancy Folbre has shown that by the middle of the nineteenth century this work/nonwork, productive/unproductive dichotomy was firmly entrenched in both the United States and the British system of national accounts.2 The myriad of economically necessary activities that took place inside the household but outside monetary exchange were officially expunged from the realm of the economic.

Boundaries are, however, permeable. The importance of non-market activities—such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, and caring for dependents—to the functioning of the economy was apparent to many concerned scholars. In the United States during the years between World War I and World War II, institutionalist economists, mainly women in Midwest land-grant universities, turned their attention to activities within the household and developed the field of consumption economics.3 During the 1960s Marxist feminist scholars in the United States and in Britain turned their attention to women’s work in the home, coining the term reproductive labor to describe it and analyze the ways in which it contributed to women’s subordination. The legacy of the institutionalists’ work is somewhat unfortunate; it was absorbed by home economics and lost its critical edge.4 The Marxist feminist work followed a much different trajectory. The concept of reproductive labor engendered considerable debate and laid the foundation for what came to be called caring labor. Caring labor, as stated above, is considered distinct from other types of reproductive labor; whether paid or unpaid, the quality of care received depends in part on the quality of the relationships connecting the givers and the receivers of care.

We will argue, however, that the ways in which the concept of caring labor has been articulated blunts the critical edge of the concept of reproductive labor for at least two reasons. First, the association between women and care is a controlling image reflecting feminine/masculine, public/private, market/nonmarket, selfishness...


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pp. 41-54
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