Could ‘Caregiverism’ Be the New Feminism?

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Photo: Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images

The modern woman would seem to have a complicated relationship with child care and housework. She’s supposed to split the workload with her progressive male partner but usually ends up doing more anyway. If she complains about the imbalance, she’s asked to lower her standards. (Cleanliness is a social construct!) Or maybe she’s a feminist stay-at-home mom who loves caring for her children but also sees doing so as a full-time job. Perhaps she pays an immigrant woman to do her domestic work for her — even as straight, white, upper-middle-class couples remain the focal point for housework debates.

Those debates can be maddening. And yet doubling down on the value of domestic work itself — apart from how women feel about doing or not doing it — might be feminism’s most promising path out of the rhetorical cul de sac of “having it all.” In a New Republic debate with Rebecca Traister, Judith Shulevitz recommended ditching the word feminism altogether. “If I had my way, we’d replace it with something less gender-specific, like ‘caregiverism’,” she wrote. Shulevitz is quick to admit caregiverism isn’t the most elegant term. But it does accomplish something important: It reframes feminism in terms of the domestic drudgery that can prevent women from “leaning in” and also acknowledges the paid workers who actually do the household labor for people like Sheryl Sandberg.

Slapping a gender-neutral term on issues that have historically affected only women throws into question women’s status as the default caregiver. Focusing on the work (care giving) instead of the people doing it (women) draws attention away from wealthy, mediagenic women and toward the women doing domestic work for low pay and with minimal protection — often at the expense of caring for their own families. The MacArthur Foundation awarded a genius grant last week to Ai-Jen Poo, a leader of the domestic-workers-rights movement. Despite recent setbacks in the Supreme Court, Poo has won state-level legislation to extend New Deal labor protections — living wage, benefits, paid leave — to domestic workers. She told Businessweek that the domestic-workers-rights movement has only gained traction as more women attempt to have it all — waged work and children, plus aging parents — creating a greater demand for caretakers.

There are other proposed labor reforms with explicitly feminist ends. In the New Republic, Shulevitz argues for limiting work hours, making “work-life” balance a structural issue and not a question of individual will. In a recent New York Times debate, UCLA law professor Noah Zatz said we must change the way the government measures income and poverty to include the cost and work of child care. (Having a full-time caregiver in the home should count as an economic asset, and doing child care should meet the work requirement for some government assistance.) But none of these issues has quite become part of mainstream “War on Women”-style politics, and Poo is hardly a Sandbergian feminist celebrity. Considering the mix of mobilization, condescension, and backlash that meets all so-called women’s issues, it’s hard to say whether that’s a good or bad thing. And even if caregiverism addresses gendered issues, gender might be beside the point.

Shulevitz’s idea has roots in the second-wave feminist agenda called Wages for Housework, whose intellectual renaissance (among men and women) n+1 editor Dayna Tortorici chronicled last year. In the 1970s, Marxist feminists like Silvia Federici and Selma James drew attention to the invisible labor undergirding the economy (birthing and feeding and listening to and cleaning up after the workers), arguing that it was not a natural expression of feminine love but a long capitalist con to keep women subordinate to wage-earning men and men subordinate to the ruling class. According to Tortorici, this rings true to millennials, a generation of unpaid interns and intermittently paid freelancers who have found themselves writing placating emails or slinging coffees with a smile.

“Under these circumstances, the longstanding critique of the exploitation of mothers, wives, grandmothers is felt with new force, among a much younger and much wider population of women and men, with children and without,” she writes. In other words, we’re all somebody’s wife now.

Could ‘Caregiverism’ Be the New Feminism?