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Fighting the alt-Right with feminist economics: reproductive labor in the spotlight

Matt Lester recently asked Savvina Chowdhury to talk about gender inequality in the US economy, especially considering the alt-Right claim that it doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. Chowdhury teaches feminist economics at The Evergreen State College.

ML–Instead of wading into the debate over the best method to challenge white supremacy in its alt-Right form, I want to ask you about how to oppose a particular aspect of the alt-right program. Certain alt-Righters like Milo Yiannopoulos deny that gender inequality exists in the workplace. If they acknowledge it, they blame the victim. How does a feminist economist see patriarchy and gender inequality in the economy?

SC–Well, when I started learning about economics, I was struck by how economists tell the story about the economy. I started thinking about what is defined as “the economy”, what activities are considered economic, what activities are considered productive, and the other side of that: who or what is then seen to not be part of the economy or of economic well-being? If you look at what is called the dominant paradigm in neoclassical economics, much of the story focuses on how households and firms interact with markets. Well, in most of the world, especially in the global south, many people do not necessarily interact through markets.

If you look, women are involved in work on a non-market, non-monetized basis: taking care of the household, neighborhood, and community. It is unpaid work.

So I started questioning why the dominant paradigm doesn’t talk about this part of the economy that is necessary for capitalism to function. The work involved in taking care of people, taking care of family members, neighbors, and the community—feminist economics literature calls this reproductive labor. As a feminist economist, I see reproductive labor as the fundamental basis for all other activity. It is the daily and generational work involved in caring for people who work.

ML—What is reproductive labor?

SC—The economy produces goods and services, but it also produces people; so reproductive labor is done on a daily basis. When the worker comes home, you have to feed, clothe, and take care of that worker. To work we need a place to sleep, warm meals, but also we need affection and nurturance, so that is the daily reproduction of labor.

Then there is the generational reproduction of labor—the raising of children. Someone needs to take care your children, to socialize them in the customs of your society and your culture. Primarily women do that.

Much of this work is not accounted for in formal measures of the economy such as Gross Domestic Product or the unemployment rate. In fact, women who are doing all this work in their communities, neighborhoods, and families are not considered part of the formal workforce. Because they are balancing this non-market work, this unpaid work, with their formal sector jobs they have to balance what is called a “second shift.” For example, a working woman works 9-to-5, a full day of work in the formal economy, then comes home and has to work another 5-hour shift. In the evening she has to pick up her children, make them meals, help them with homework, put them to bed, pack a lunch for the next day, clean the kitchen, and so on.

ML–I think this is a great introduction to how a feminist economist looks at the economy differently than your average economist. More importantly, this is an insight into how we can challenge people on the alt-Right when they say there is no wage gap. What you’re saying is that there’s a disproportionate amount of unpaid work done by women, so it’s not just comparing “person a” with “person b” within a profession. Still, there is a difference in the wages of men and women, right?

SC—For every dollar that a man makes women make about 81¢. A number of factors drives this: one factor is that women tend to work fewer hours so they can balance their family responsibilities with their paid jobs.

If you look at the statistics on part-time job holders the majority of them are women. If you look at the statistics on minimum wage workers 2/3 of minimum wage workers are women. Not only are they more likely to work part time, but they’re also more likely to be working in lower paying jobs.

I wanted to clarify and emphasize that the gender pay gap is driven by the fact that women exhibit part-time work patterns because they are balancing reproductive labor with paid jobs. Feminist economists call this the gendered segregation of occupations, whereby women are over-represented in what is called the caring economy.

Child care workers, receptionists, preschool teacher, secretaries, nurses, domestic work are overwhelmingly women. Men, on the other hand, are over-represented in higher paying masculinized professions such as auto mechanics, truck drivers, firefighters, airline pilots, mechanical engineers, and computer software engineers. Lastly, there is discrimination in the workplace, so that even within the same occupational categories, women are paid less than male workers.

ML—How would you respond to the claim that if you look at how unhappy women are since entering the workforce it’s clear they should go back to the kitchen and family?

SC—What I am struck by is how difficult it is to condense all of this. It is like what Noam Chomsky said, “It takes one minute to tell a lie, and an hour to refute it.” The truth is complex.

Milo Yiannopoulos would say that it is women’s choice to try to balance reproductive labor at home with their paid jobs. But this misses the context. In the post-World War II era the structure of the economy changed towards what we call neoliberal capitalism. There was a decline in blue-collar manufacturing jobs, and a concurrent downward trend in the percentage of men who are in the paid workforce. On the other hand, the service sector of the economy expanded and became the dominant sector of employment. Service sector jobs tend to have this bi-modal distribution, which roughly means they can be separated into high paying service sector jobs—management consultants, financial analysts, hi-tech jobs—and low-paying jobs—maids, nannies, wait staff in restaurants, and retail jobs.

If you look at big cities like New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle, women who have entered these higher-paying jobs have to modify a lot of their reproductive labor: more meals out, hiring Merry Maids, house cleaners, hiring live-in nannies because they work 60 hours a week. So now, we no longer live in a context where you have the male breadwinner/female caregiver roles—well-defined gender roles that we associate with the nuclear, heteronormative, patriarchal traditional family. Now we live in a society that is more accurately described as the universal breadwinner society where everyone is expected to work and we take it for granted now that both parents are working. For Milo to say that women should go back into the care giving role overlooks the fact that even if some women want to—and I think some women do want to—I don’t think they have that luxury because we have to make ends meet. Secondly, there is a history of the caring economy seen in a feminized way that ghettoizes that sector of the economy.

ML—I think your point is that people on the alt-Right have taken a grain of truth about dissatisfaction with the economy and put forth a solution that would make our situation worse. Maybe a way to challenge the alt-Right is to expose the full truth of how reproductive labor is a necessary component of any economy but is particularly frustrating and exploitative under capitalism. Maybe social movements can anchor their activity by sharing reproductive labor as they attempt to create a better future and build toward an economy that is not capitalist.

SC—Not only is reproductive labor not seen as a valuable part of the economy, it is not seen as part of the economy at all! It is often seen as a private sector— hidden in the privacy of the family, even though it is the bedrock on which all economic activity rests.

I think we need to move toward a universal caregiver economy where everyone participates in taking care of the community, the neighborhood, the family, and the home. That means gender roles have to change so we socialize young boys to learn how to empathize with others, take care of others, spend time with grandparents; and we design work places with on-site daycare.

We need to consider organizing our economy along the lines of what are called balanced job complexes. Everyone takes turns doing reproductive labor whether it is preparing communal meals, arranging collective daycare facilities, or making elder care arrangements. If we look back at history, early socialist communities designed homes and work places with communal kitchens and daycare

Early socialists, like Robert Owen said both men and women have to take care of our children and our elderly. If elders live with us, they can also participate in taking care of our communities—not being lonely and separated from family members

There is a grain of truth to what Milo Yiannoplis is saying: our families and communities are under duress in the neoliberal period.

But he doesn’t address the fact that if we continue to feminize reproductive labor it will continue to be devalued in a sexist patriarchal society. We need to break the gender binary, in part by changing gender roles. This means rethinking masculinity. We need to move society away from a self-centered individualistic way of being a man into one where caring for others, empathy, and solidarity is also part of masculinity. If we address the reproductive sector according to the prescription of the alt-Right, then we will continue to exclude women from important participation in the public sphere of society where many decisions are made—in city councils, political institutions, and in the workplace. Understanding and addressing reproductive labor through balanced job complexes and communities will help guide us toward an equitable society and a more humane one where we value caring for each other–where we all participate in this work because we think it is important.

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