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Feminism for Working-Class Women Is the Best Feminism


Anca Gheaus is a moral and political philosopher at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She is mostly interested in gender justice and in justice in childrearing. One of her current projects is to write a book about gender norms: what is wrong with them and how to change them. To find out more about her research visit

This must be one of the most animated debates amongst feminists: how to find the best remedial policies for women who are disadvantaged because they serve as main care-givers for their children, elderly parents, sick relatives or friends. They are disadvantaged in many ways. Some are economic: lower lifetime earnings and fewer work-related benefits compared to people without care commitments – hence more dependency on spouses. Others are social: part-time workers take a hit in status, stay-at-home mums even more so. Finally, there are the relational and psychological disadvantages: women who are economically dependent on their partners have less negotiating power than their partners, and many face tremendous difficulties when they want to leave abusive relationships.

The gendered division of labour – women’s assignment to the hands-on care that we all need at different periods of our lives – explains, to a large extent, not only the gender pay gap but also the feminisation of poverty and the private domination to which many women are subjected. No surprise, then, that feminists have two distinct aims: to protect women from the risks of being a care-giver, and also to do away with the gendered division of labour, which is a main source of the problem. I am one of these feminists; I would like to see women and men equally engaged in the labour market, and looking after anybody who needs care.

But I’m also adamant that we should pursue these two aims in the right order: we should give priority to protecting women from the worst consequences of the gendered division of labour over the abolition of the gendered division of labour itself. Moreover, we should be aware of the unavoidable tension between the two aims, and keep this in mind when advocating for particular gender policies.

Here are the things that we can do to prevent women’s dependency and poverty – or, if not downright poverty, economic disadvantages that are not quite as bad as poverty, but which are unfair given that care work is every bit as essential to society as is participation in the labour market:

  • We could have cash transfers to the people who serve as primary care-givers of the children in their families, as suggested by Anne Alstott in 2004, in No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents.
  • Or we could advocate for more comprehensive policies because they’d allow women to raise families without risking poverty. This is what a universal basic income would do.
  • Further, we could legally require employers to protect the workplaces of parents who need to interrupt paid work after birth or adoption, in order to bond with their children. We could ensure these periods of leave are long enough and reasonably paid. We could require employers to let parents work flexible hours, or to take care leaves when they need them.
  • We could nudge employers to create a number of decent part-time jobs, and maybe give priority to parents when hiring for these jobs.
  • And we could also create and subsidise day-care places and after-school care – to allow primary care-givers to work for money outside the home. Indeed, many of these measures have been adopted by Scandinavian states.

The trouble with all but the very last kind is that they also entrench the gendered division of labour. A lucid explanation why is to be found in Gina Schouten’s recent article in the Boston Review, “‘Flexible’ Family Leave Is Lousy Feminism”: Cash transfers give their recipients incentives to stay out of work, and since most men don’t rush to be the primary care-givers of their kids, cash transfers will mostly keep women out of the labour market.

The same effect is to be expected from a universal basic income and from long paid leaves. When employers are required to provide leave, flexible working hours and part-time jobs, they’ll be more reluctant to hire people of parenting age in positions where staff turnover is costly. And since it’s women who usually avail themselves of leave periods, flexibility and part-time work, it is also they – not men of the same age! – who will be the primary victims of this sort of statistical discrimination. Policies compensating the disadvantages that women incur as a result of the gendered division of labour encourage them to carry on with care work and hence risk perversely entrenching the very cause of the disadvantage.

And so, feminists like Schouten want to resist some of these measures, or else to reshape them, in order to avoid unintentionally widening the gap between women’s and men’s participation in the labour market. But if proposals such as Schouten’s backfire against the worst-off women there is a choice to be made about whose interests should come first.

One type of policy need not be controversial at all: Plenty of day-care and after-school places – good and subsidised – as well as proper and subsidised institutional care for the elderly, are part of a solution that can make everybody in this debate happy. These are ways to outsource care. The problem is, not all care can be, or should be outsourced. New parents still have to find ways to deal with sleepless nights and sick children – that is, if they want to be parents at all. For children older than one, usually, it is great to be in day-care for part of the day; this at least is what we learn from Jane Waldvogel’s survey of the literature in What Children Need (from 2006). However, children also need to spend some time with their parents. And as for the elderly, while care homes may be an ideal solution for some, they are far from ideal for many others. So, improving the quality and availability of institutional care is a great idea, but a limited solution to the problems at hand. Other measures are indispensable.

Caregivers’ allowances, or a universal basic income, are off the list for Schouten and other feminists because they can’t be made to work for women without also encouraging the gendered division of labour. And yet, such measures would mostly benefit the worst-off women – those who don’t have jobs, who’ve always been unemployed or precariously employed, or else employed in terrible jobs. If one could live off a basic income, or a caregivers’ allowance, the first beneficiaries would be women who can only hope to hold badly paid, exploitative, demeaning, boring jobs. To oppose caregivers’ allowances or other cash transfers is to fail to attend to the interests of the worst-off women. Feminists with egalitarian commitments should be squarely in the supporters’ camp for these measures. (Unless they have reason to think the measures are going to eventually backfire against the interests of the worst-off.) Feminism for poor and working-class women isn’t lousy feminism.

Let’s look at other proposals for policies that are meant to resist the gendered division of labour. Schouten suggests “relatively short leave provisions with relatively generous day care subsidies to encourage more families to opt for substitute care rather than for mothers to spend extended periods of time out of the labour market.” These surely would help professional women, who incur high economical and career penalties in case they don’t return to work as soon as possible after they give birth. Depending on how short is “short”, such leaves won’t hurt children. However, making paid parental leaves short won’t help unemployed women or other women whose breaks from paid work don’t cost them career opportunities, simply because they don’t have careers but boring, exploitative jobs.

One lesson from Joan Williams’ book from two years ago – Williams spent her career thinking of how to get men to care more! – is that, in America, what serves the legitimate interests of working-class women is not the same as what is good for women of the middle class. The dream of the working-class women she describes in White Working Class is to escape their awful jobs. Whatever would allow them to do this to some extent – be it cash transfers, or flexible parental leaves – would drastically improve their lives.

Another proposal is to make one parent’s leave at least partly dependent on the other parent’s, in order to encourage men to take their share. For instance, by making the mother’s entitlement to an additional month of leave conditional on her partner’s taking two months of leave immediately after her medical leave ends. Perhaps this would foster gender-egalitarian lifestyles among those who already want to be equally involved in childrearing. (Although it may be cruel to some women to end their maternity leave as soon as they recover from childbirth. Postpartum depression is a reality.)

But for couples where at least one partner is starkly opposed to gender egalitarianism – another class issue – this would be a disaster. Women whose partners prefer to forfeit their entire parental leave rather than take their share would end up with a choice between hiring a full-time nanny for the new-born and resigning from their jobs. The first option is just one more instance of professional women’s reliance on the work of women less fortunate than them – an old feminist trope – and can’t be good for the baby, or for the parenting relationships. The second backfires against the very aim of the policy – that of limiting women’s withdrawal from the labour market.

Finally, Schouten proposes to pay high wage-replacement rates to parents who take leave, in the hope that this will make high-earning men more inclined to stay at home and look after their babies. There’s even less to like here. Assuming the policy can successfully bribe high-earning men to become hands-on parents, such a welcome result will inevitably come at an unpalatable price: It will look like their care is so much more valuable than that of women – or men – who work for low wages and who would get paid a lot less during their leave periods. It’s unavoidable for this message to come across, even though this is not the intention of the policy; according to the ideology of our time, the amount you are paid for doing something reflects how much the payer values your service. This policy would convey to the more modest earners the message that their care is less important. This would be wrong.

A long-lasting feminist aim – as Schouten herself acknowledges – is to revalue care, to send the message that care-giving is the bedrock of social cooperation. You, and I, and all of us, need it, at the very least during the first quarter of our lives, usually more often. Without caregivers, there wouldn’t be any citizenry and workforce, let alone competent ones – indeed, there wouldn’t be any functional families and meaningful relationships. Adopting a package of measures that fails the most vulnerable caregivers because of the worry that this will result in women caring, on the whole, too much, is not a promising path towards giving due recognition to caregiving.

Schouten wants states to fund high wage-replacement rates through strongly progressive taxation. No doubt, this would be the only fair way to pay for nudging men into care. The obvious problem here is that progressive taxation doesn’t enjoy popular support; every tax rise is an electoral liability. If high levels of taxation and redistribution were feasible, and if, as a result, we could build a much more equal society, that society would be the context in which some of the measures advocated by Schouten might be desirable.

But the egalitarian transition must come first. And one step in that direction is to prioritise the interests of caregivers who are poor and dependent, many of whom are women. Attending to their interests efficiently may mean that most parenting will continue to be done by women, and may fail to improve their chances on the labour market. For now, this is a price worth paying.

For sociologists the takeaway homework is to understand the relationship between care-supporting policies and the women's withdrawal from paid employment.

This post was orginally published on Justice Everywhere.