Today is Labor Day.
Instead of thinking about how Americans work for a living, though, I’ve been thinking more about women’s work, the unpaid kind.
This isn’t another discussion about gendered divisions of labor within our own household, though.
The reality is that, on a much larger scale, our society and societies around the world are predicated on women’s labor and the way in which it is used to compensate for the impossibilities of our modern lives, especially as governments withdraw from the social contracts that have provided the foundation for family supports necessitated by changes in women’s work and family patterns.
It goes like this: Women provide more care for older relatives when services funded by the Older Americans Act are cut. They have to spend more time in labor-intensive meal preparation and shopping when food prices go up. They have to scramble for decent childcare when subsidies are reduced. They have to worry about health care for themselves and their children when fiscal strains and outright attacks on women’s health become commonplace in the political discourse. They work more hours (at unequal pay) as male wages stagnate in the global economy.
In many ways, then, even budget cuts that look “gender-neutral” on their face fall the hardest on women, and exact the highest price from women whose labor will inevitably fill in the cracks that surface as services are slashed. In Kansas, we’ve cut public schools and expected mothers to make sure that their children are still making “adequate yearly progress” by spending more time on homework in the evenings. We’ve reduced funding for mental health centers, both necessitating more caregiving for those with serious mental illnesses and denying those who need mental health care (including low-income women) an affordable way to access it. We’ve slashed funding for the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, whose work includes many programs for children and families, but we’ll make sure to get out to investigate the mothers who aren’t adequately able to hold it all together without these supports.
This isn’t just about current American political currents and an ideological attack on women.
In my class on global poverty, my students learn about how research in economies undergoing structural adjustment programs finds that women’s unpaid labor increases significantly, in many of the same ways experienced by American women. Indeed, while the impacts on children, seniors, and other vulnerable populations are often dire, the evidence is clear that they are not nearly as catastrophic as they would be without women stepping up and, in many cases, sacrificing themselves.
Today, let’s not just celebrate the labor that has built this country, and the proud traditions of labor unions that continue to fight for every working person.
Let us remember the work that isn’t even dignified by being called such, the work that policymakers are subtly depending on when they target working families for budget cuts and service reductions, knowing that women will try to keep the sky from falling down.
And let us avoid the platitudes about “a woman’s work is never done”, and instead call this kind of accounting what it is: unjust, unsustainable, and unacceptable.
Women the world over deserve an “un-labor” day, and a movement that will deliver the public infrastructure and investments that will secure it.