Uncovering the Value of Reproductive Labor

Reproductive Labor, as defined by Mignon Duffy in “Doing the Dirty Work: Gender, Race, and Reproductive Labor in Historical Perspective” (2007): • Work that maintains daily life (physical or mental health, food preparation and service, cleaning, personal care) or • Work that reproduces the next generation (care of children and youth)

Hey there! I’m Trisha Harms – TakeAction Minnesota’s new communications director.

I’m thrilled to be joining the incredible team here at TakeAction. In this time of uncertainty, finding meaning and sparking change couldn’t be more important – and I’m already finding that purpose and inspiration here.

The other day, I learned from author and activist adrienne maree brown’s powerful interview with Aja Taylor that the word “apocalypse” comes from the Latin for “uncover.” This resonates. I came into grassroots organizing with a mission to uncover – and overthrow – the broken systems that have kept so many of us struggling on the margins for so long.

As a caregiver for an 8-year old and a disabled parent, I’ve been paying close attention to the ways in which this public health emergency is uncovering the historic exploitation of feminized labor in our society. Caring work traditionally has been done by women and has always been taken for granted. As noted in our blog last week, the facts that our system is broken and that our democracy is built on misogyny and racism are not news to many of us.

It’s not news that women and people of color get left behind. It’s been long established that there’s a gendered division of labor in the home: women take on the bulk of childcare and homemaking tasks. Nor does it come as a surprise to most of us that in the capitalist workforce, women are paid less than men. That fact is common enough knowledge to have its own hashtag holiday. And we know the gender pay gap has compounding impacts over time – meaning that as women age, wealth inequality hits them even harder.

Invisible reproductive labor: the work that makes work and life possible

As we face a global pandemic, truths about society are being revealed.

For the first time on such a massive scale, views around traditionally feminized occupations – eldercare, childcare, teaching and nursing – and “women’s work” are changing. Invisible labor that has long been exploited, undervalued, and underpaid is finally starting to be seen.

The longer this public health crisis goes on, the more impossible it becomes to ignore the systematic erasure and exploitation of this critical work in our society. Without question, we must harness this moment to disrupt the status quo so that everyone has the care they need and all labor is valued.

Leaving us behind

Scientists and public health policymakers have known for years that pandemics have deep and lasting impacts on structural gender wealth dynamics and equity. At the federal level and here in Minnesota, we’re seeing decisions being made right now that will impact our reproductive labor force for decades to come. Low-income families – particularly those headed by women of color –  are being left behind by politicians who refuse to budge on COVID-19 relief bills.

So far the GOP state Legislators, who are predominately white men, have blocked emergency assistance and relief for the lowest income families with children in the state and left out approximately 70,000 Latinx folks from economic protections.

The COVID-19 crisis is also sending people who work in hospitality, administrative, teaching and caregiving jobs – historically undervalued and underpaid feminized occupations – back into the realm of the invisible and completely unpaid: the home.

In Minnesota, that shift in labor is reflected in our unemployment rates: women have jumped from making up 33% of unemployment applicants to 63% in just a matter of weeks. And according to new data from Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, 26% of people of color have applied for Unemployment Insurance in Minnesota since the pandemic broke out, compared to 12% of white Minnesotans.

One in three women of color work in the service or hospitality industries, earning substandard wages and often without access to paid sick time or health insurance. Almost one in four full-time moms are already reporting that on top of their normal caregiving responsibilities, they’re also taking on eldercare duties as a result of the COVID emergency.

We can do better – together.

Our society is built so that women and femmes will be forced to bear the weight of this global pandemic now, and for years to come. Women of color and trans women will experience this crushing burden even more sharply.

However, this public health emergency can be a catalyst for change. This is a once-in-a-generation moment in history – an opportunity to institute permanent, universal, people-centered policies that reflect our needs and values.

We need Universal Family Care: paid sick and safe time, paid family & medical leave, child care, and long-term care. Health care for everyone, including abortion access and affordable medicine. And a Green New Deal.

Together, we can turn this moment into a stepping stone to change who decides and who benefits in our democracy and economy.

Thank you for reading and wrestling with us. We can be in community and build solidarity across physical distance. We can find new ways to make meaning, to lift one another up. We can find joy in being alone – together. That’s what we’re doing here at TakeAction Minnesota, with our 100 Days of Justice, Joy and Solidarity campaign. I hope you’ll join us.