BCRW @ 50

Ethics and Politics of Care

From the earliest years of BCRW’s existence, critical engagement of the ethics and politics of care has been woven through projects, public lectures, workshops, symposia, and conferences. “Care work” and wage/salary labor are deeply interwoven with each other, as the section of this exhibit on work and economic justice makes clear. In the words of Ai-Jen Poo, the cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, care work is “the work that makes other work possible.” Whether involving childcare or eldercare, domestic and reproductive labor, labor in support of the disabled or the economically and socially precarious, critical engagement with the conditions and demands of care work—work that has historically and traditionally fallen to women in the contexts of households and families—has been a perennial concern for feminist analysis and activism. 

Older debates around the status of care work often circled around the public/private divide and anxieties around the status of the family as a social institution. What is the status of housework? How are its demands engaged, negotiated, or answered—and by whom? Likewise the status of childcare and, more recently, eldercare: whose responsibility are these forms of care? How are the demands associated with them addressed? If both housework and the work of care have long been coded as “feminine,” as (in older formulations) “women’s work,” the correlate is that they have also long been devalued, underrecompensed, and rendered invisible in the market economy. 

One historic response to this devaluation was to demand that reproductive work be paid for—hence, the Wages for Housework movement of the late 1970s (discussed in the Work and Economic Justice section of this exhibit), a movement whose radical critique met resistance from both the traditional left and the new left (which viewed labor in its relationship to production, rather than reproduction) and the feminist movement (which tended to view women’s liberation as tied to women’s entry into the paid workforce and which worried about the commodification of reproductive and affective labor resulting in the relegation of women to the home). Another historic response grew out of the movement of women (especially mothers) on welfare—poor women whose community building and analysis was rooted in the lived experience of trying to care for their children outside of the framework of wage labor. 

The era that followed the election of Ronald Reagan to the US presidency, built on a campaign of small government and personal responsibility, accompanied by severe cuts to a variety of social safety-net programs, increased the economic and social precarity on a scale so sweeping that precarity has become the perduring backdrop of social life in the United States, as the rate of income-inequality has soared. The resulting pressures on individuals, families, and communities to cobble together the resources to assure the care of children, elders, and others who fall outside the frame of economic productivity are the hallmark of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century life in the US.

Several BCRW conferences, workshops, and publications took up the challenge of theorizing and strategizing around these issues of the politics of care. In 2007, the Center collaborated with A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center of New York, along with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California at Hastings, and the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, to organize a summit bringing together scholars, advocates, and labor, business, and elected officials in New York City in the service of a comprehensive work-family policy advocacy agenda for the city. The major findings of the summit appeared in the report, The Work-Family Dilemma, A Better Balance: Policy Solutions for All New Yorkers, in BCRW’s New Feminist Solutions series. This summit placed a particular emphasis on the class differentials embedded in the work-family dilemma—not just income differences, but also access to paid leave for family care, flexible work schedules, affordable childcare, and protections against discrimination.   

While the 2007 summit framed the question of “care” as a matter to be balanced with “work,” a multiyear project in collaboration with Domestic Workers United (DWU) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) emphasized the reality that care-work is itself work, and those who perform that work are often particularly vulnerable to abuse, isolation, and precarity. The BCRW New Feminist Solutions report on this collaboration, Valuing Domestic Work, written by Premilla Nadesen, Professor of History at Barnard and Tiffany Williams from the Institute for Policy Studies, documents the work that emerged from this scholarly and activist partnership. This report historicizes ideologies of domestic labor, especially as they intersect with class inequality and global patterns of transnational migration, diagnoses the most pressing challenges for contemporary domestic workers, and provides concrete tools for advocating for legislative and policy changes. This project also generated a series of organizing videos and Valuing Domestic Work, an issue of BCRW’s peer-reviewed online journal, Scholar & Feminist Online, edited by then-Associate Director Gisela Fosado and then-Director Janet R. Jakobsen. 

In a multiyear collaboration between BCRW and Queers for Economic Justice, the horizon for critically engaging the politics of care expanded beyond the framework of the conventional family and outside of traditional domestic spaces. This project, which produced a New Feminist Solutions report and an issue of the Scholar & Feminist Online, sought to explore the ways in which the affective modes—“care” and “desire”—are central and necessary to the projects of social justice, not ancillary or secondary elements in the struggle to create a more just world. Queer communities have long cultivated rich networks of affinity and care, in contexts where “family” can be vexed and punitive in both concept and experience and where many social policies and institutions do not recognize the relationships formed outside of conventional models. As queer communities have nurtured alternative models of kinship, friendship, and intimate relationship, more expansive and imaginative styles of care come into view. The Desiring Change project and the New Queer Agendas framework offer compelling creative and critical interventions into the broader framework of theorizing, advocating, and living out the ethics and politics of care. 

Most recently, BCRW’s engagement with the ethics and politics of care has been staged in a series of online workshops and seminars devoted to the cultivation of mutual aid as a framework building community solidarity and support. This ongoing project, grounded in the theoretical and practical work of BCRW Scholar-in-Residence Dean Spade who collaborates with BCRW’s Creative Director Hope Dector, seeks to make the tools of mutual aid available to a decentralized network of communities experimenting with horizontal and democratic organizing of care work. This project carries the critique of family-centered social policies into practice and experiments with the distribution of goods and care outside of state-sponsored systems and beyond what some have called “the non-profit industrial complex.” The work of theorizing and experimenting with models of mutual aid has become especially urgent in the era of the global coronavirus pandemic which began in late 2019 and continues to constrain and transform the lives of people around the world.    

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