Hours for What We Will

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Women workers demand shorter work week in the May Day Parade in New York City in 1936

By Johanna Brenner

Mainstream and social-democratic feminists seem to agree that something has to be done to ease “work-family conflict.” Women will never achieve equality without universal child care and certainly the United States is woefully behind the most advanced capitalist nations, particularly the Nordic countries, which provide well-paid parental leave (mandated in some instances for fathers to use) and publicly funded child care. Yet, I am concerned about the political arguments that are currently circulating to defend initiatives such as universal pre-kindergarten or paid parental leave. I’d like to see us develop a politics of care that not only supports the limited changes we might win today, but also connects to a vision that reaches far beyond the horizon of what capitalism will allow.

Here are some of the main arguments I hear for social policies that “ease” work-family conflict: first, parental leave that enables women to participate in wage work raises the GDP, fully utilizing women’s talents instead of “wasting” them. This argument is often put forward by feminist economists like Heather Boushey (who will be chief economist in Hillary Clinton’s transition team) or women in business like Sheryl Sandberg. Another argument suggests that supporting women’s wage work breaks the cycle of welfare “dependence.” Single mothers should receive child care subsidies rather than caregiver subsidies so they can become “self-sufficient.” This was, in essence, Bill Clinton’s pitch (and Hillary’s) during the era of welfare reform. A third argument made by the New York Paid Leave Coalition among others goes that most women—even married women—are now “family breadwinners” who must work outside the household. Finally, a popular argument among advocates for universal pre-kindergarten programs is that they help all children get “college ready”—that is, preparing kids to succeed in elementary school puts them on track for the regimes of testing that are the gateway to college.


Celebrating paid work as independence for single mothers reinforces patriarchal neoliberal discourses that define freedom in highly individualistic terms and denigrate interdependence as burdensome.

The notion that equal opportunity in access to education can compensate for a steeply unequal occupational pyramid is one of the most important mystifications of class inequality in the United States. Sure we should equalize access to quality schooling—but because all children should have quality pre-school care as a social good, not because we think it will solve income inequality.

To rely exclusively on the argument that women must work for pay elides the reality that many women, including working-class women, find satisfaction in their paid work. And it can leave the impression that a family wage for men remains the ideal.
The idea that when women “only” do unpaid work they are “lost” to the economy, overvalues paid work as a social contribution and erases not only the value of unpaid care work but the ways in which caregiving for children, for sick and disabled adults, and for elderly people is fundamental to keeping everything else going. Time spent giving care should be recognized and valued as a social contribution—and this is worth pointing out in a world where caring labor in general is unrewarded, the skills involved unrecognized, and indeed, its fundamental necessity disregarded.

In addition to making this point, we should move beyond a “productivist” rationale that focuses solely on care work’s value as a social contribution to highlight the ways that caring is also valuable for the people who do it.

The challenges and rewards of caregiving develop our human dispositions and capacities in very particular and important ways. Human physical contact—holding, touching, grooming—is pleasurable (although yanking a brush through a three-year-old’s hair when you are late getting them out the door can be quite the opposite). In a world where we were not always on the clock, the rituals of maintaining family and community might shift from being burdensome to being fulfilling. In our contemporary capitalist economy, people engage in this important activity at great cost to themselves.

We can argue for more pleasure in care without romanticizing a golden age when women had no other role than to provide care. Too often when the “joys” of caring for children are put forward, we end up suffocated by notions of intensive mothering that meld the competitive spirit of corporate America with a sort of earth-mother veneer.

Focusing exclusively on what children need rather than what women and parents need is not liberation—time is past due to acknowledge that there are a range of “good enough” child-raising styles available. And we should argue that parents and other caregivers have the right to enjoy their own time, beyond the demands of both caregiving and paid work.

The context within which we do care work makes all the difference. Like any worthwhile activity, its potential for conferring pleasure and satisfaction depends on how much control we have over the work itself and how much control we have over the time within which we do it. Capitalism as a system is in general hostile to the enjoyment of care work and especially so in the current economy, where caring must be squeezed in between paid working hours that are not only expanding but increasingly capricious.

A politics of care that revalues care work could be an entry point into a broader challenge to the logic not only of neoliberalism but of capitalism itself. For the key to class exploitation, as Marx pointed out, is capitalists’ control over our labor time. Struggles over time have emerged in response to capitalist corporations’ colonization of our lives. While many schemes for paid parental leave do not force employers to foot the bill (although employers should), campaigns for paid sick leave and for fixed schedules do constrain employers’ behavior. Although some of the arguments for paid sick leave were rather pragmatic (sick employees make other employees and customers ill), workers’ testimonies contained an undercurrent of outrage about the pain of having to choose between caring for an ill child and earning a wage. That same moral outrage was present in testimony I heard about the extreme hardships imposed on working mothers by flexible scheduling. We should draw on this outrage, this sense that corporate profit-making denies working-class women (and men) access to their fundamental right not simply to give care but to enjoy doing it.

We should continue to argue for taxes on the wealthy to pay for high-quality public services that provide care not only for children but for ill, disabled, and elderly adults. We should also begin to advocate for more paid days off so that our work weeks are shorter and our time for care—and other avenues for self-expression—expanded. “30 for 40” (thirty hours work for forty hours pay), a demand that was raised by radicals in the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, might seem so impossible to win today that it is not worth talking about. But I remember when $15 seemed beyond the pale for the minimum wage. We should be emboldened by the success of this movement and put the right—and the time—to care in the center of our political vision.


Johanna Brenner is the author of Women and the Politics of Class (Monthly Review Press, 2000). Her recent articles have
appeared in Socialist Studies, Jacobin, Against the Current, and Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

This article was originally published in Dissent.

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