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Production, Reproduction, and Feminism

Feminist Perspectives on Reproductive Labor

Studies in feminist theory at Indiana University make a specific effort to discuss issues relevant to people around the world. The larger critique, which is incredibly appropriate, is that mainstream feminist and gender studies in the United States focuses only on the plight of American women—many of whom live with much more privilege than the majority of the world. To balance this, IU's Department of Gender Studies requires majors and minors to take at least one course with non-Western emphasis.

For one of those courses, I read articles about women and the labor they do around the world, both paid and unpaid. One that stuck out to me was about Filipino domestic workers, both in their native country and in the surrounding areas. Their situation is especially unique because of a series of legislative maneuvers (the specifics of which are not relevant for this conversation) that resulted in a push for the nation towards exporting labor. 

Women make up approximately 71 percent of Philippine’s export labor, and the majority of those women perform domestic service work. This domestic service work, which Lindio-McGovern calls “reproductive labor,” is what I will be analyzing here. I will first define “reproductive labor” and analyze it using an intersectional lens, and then I will argue that a Marxist feminist would critique reproductive labor, pointing out that capitalism actively supports the oppression of domestic workers. Still, I think it is important to recognize the larger critique of Marxist feminism, which is that it often ignores or avoids issues of gender, and thus does not consider the ways in which capitalism negatively affects women specifically. I would also add that Marxist feminism largely ignores race in the same way. It is for this reason that I have specifically chosen to also analyze reproductive labor through an intersectional lens—that is, considering the intersections of gender, race, and class in the lives of domestic workers.

First, I should explain exactly what reproductive labor is, and I will try to use an intersectional lens to do so. Reproductive labor is the “care of the young and elderly and the maintenance of the household that involves domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning” (26). This type of labor is composed of a wide variety of activities that generally involve maintaining the people of the household. The majority of domestic workers are indeed women. Male domestic workers do exist; however, their work is often different from their female counterparts. Men are more often hired for elder care—which often includes heavy lifting—or to be drivers, not the “more tedious” chores that women perform (38). In addition, sexual violence is a common form of reproductive labor control that primarily affects women, extending the boundaries of their domestic work to also include sexual labor (35).

When analyzing the intersections of race and reproductive labor, it is important to consider who is demanding (if you will) the labor and who is performing it. The study I am referring to focuses specifically on migrant workers from the Philippines, who are, therefore, (obviously) people of color. Specifically in Italy, for example, domestic workers are referred to as laboro subordinato (which literally translates to “subordinate worker”), and their positions are “largely open only to migrants from non-EU-member countries” (38). Lindio-McGovern (2012) also cites that Italian men just don’t want these jobs, which to me seems very similar to American men and women. Because the Italian men do not want the subordinato positions, they are left open to migrant workers, male or female.

Finally, the intersections of class and reproductive labor are particularly interesting to me. Lindio-McGovern references a “status inconsistency” between the migrant worker’s lives in their host country and their lives in their home country (38). This inconsistency manifests when “the migrant domestic worker hires other poorer relatives or poorer women in the Philippines to help care for their own children and pay them with lower wages” (38). Although the migrant worker may have “low prestige and low pay in the foreign household by hiring a domestic worker… she and her family gain a higher status” in their home country (38). So while they are often living in extreme poverty and sometimes homelessness in their host countries, their families in the Philippines are considered better off because they have a domestic worker in their own home. But their family’s domestic worker—the worker working in the Philippines—is living in the same conditions as the migrant worker is in the host country.

Now that we have an understanding of reproductive labor and how it affects people intersectionally, I want to turn now to a Marxist-feminist critique. As Tong elaborates, capitalism requires that women’s household work—“the production of people”—be viewed as inherently unproductive because it is in the home (105). In addition, misogyny has deemed women’s work as less valuable in a capitalist society, and because domestic labor is often just seen as a woman’s duty, it is, therefore, unworthy of compensation. So with the evolution of reproductive labor, previously unpaid labor has become cheaply paid labor. This forces domestic workers—which are, again, largely women—into the “informal service economy that is largely unregulated,” which aides in the oppression of the workers (26). Capitalism is based on the idea of producing the maximum amount of goods and services at the cheapest cost to the employer. Marx (1848) argued that every system of production also involves the reproduction of labor power necessary for the production. Social reproductive labor is inherently “linked to productive labor and is necessary for the maintenance of capitalism” (28). Therefore, because the domestic workers are the tool for the labor, “it is not just reproductive labor power—as the property of the person as if separable from the human being—that is sold or bought, but the whole person,” (28). Consequently, the commodification of domestic workers has created a new capitalist elite, whose products are the workers themselves (31).

As I have stated before, domestic labor is largely unappreciated in our culture and receives little compensation in a capitalist society. Workers who go through agencies or government programs often have to pay more fees, and their money goes back to the state instead of back to their families. This leaves them with less money than their salaries, while also giving their earned money back to the capitalist elite. Migrant workers move overseas often in order to send money back to their families, but in their new jobs, women are underpaid, neglected, and abused. Meanwhile, their families are still poor, and also are now living without a parent, or are living with their own domestic worker. Because she still needs to send money back to her family, workers often stay with difficult jobs until they become unbearable, even to the point of sexual abuse, negatively affecting the woman’s mental and physical health. In addition, children of domestic workers seem to take on the culture of their host country, which creates dissonance between parents and children. Their children are also being raised, almost without even realizing, to be domestic workers, and thus the cycle continues. It is because of this endless cycle that I argue Marxist feminists would find reproductive labor to be largely oppressive in the hands of the capitalist elite. By analyzing reproductive labor with an intersectional lens, feminists are better able to understand how capitalism oppresses people uniquely.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1993. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:1241-1299.

Lindio-McGovern, Ligaya. 2012. Globalization, Labor Export and Resistance: A study of Filipino migrant domestic workers in global cities. New York: Routledge.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Retrieved from the Marxist Internet Archive, February 2017.

Tong, Rosemarie Putnam. 1998. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

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