Women’s Care and Domestic Labor: Invaluable, With a Price Tag
Written by Ranaa Cheaito
As the world economy struggles to stay afloat amidst complications associated with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, economists are forced to revisit longstanding economic systems that govern our lives. This unforeseen hit to the global economy has only further proven how current policies and practices fail to adequately cater for the vulnerable and the marginalized; bringing to broad daylight persisting class and gender struggles.
Since the 1960s, extensive research efforts have been employed into better understanding gendered socio-economic disparities and how to eradicate them. The world has made substantial progress in addressing the economic injustices that women endure, but is still far from properly appreciating their labor, especially domestic labor.
Marxist Theory of Value: Unpaid Labor Yields Higher Capitalist Profit
The Marxist theory of value provides insight on how economic exploitation of women under capitalism is perpetuated. The main premise is that all workers are exploited under capitalism. However, some tend to suffer more exploitation than others. Labor produces a certain value of output measured by the amount of labor-time. The capitalist seizes this value in the form of surplus. When women are poorly compensated (lower wage) and uncompensated (domestic labor), this is directly translated into higher surplus value and higher capitalist profit. Thus, it is within the interest of a capitalist society to preserve the patriarchal social relations and uphold lacking labor compensation of women.
“The relationship between men and women is similar to the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.”
Friedrich Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, Private property, and the State, explains how the shift from feudalism to private ownership society has had a detrimental effect on the inclusion of women in paid labor contexts. Under private ownership order, individuals who lack ownership of land or any other means of production are doomed to a destiny of enslavement; they must work for the owners of the land. This has inevitably led to the creation of the public and private spheres relegating women to homes and apportioning access to waged labor unduly to men. In this manner, oppression of women served the ruling class and rendered the relationship between men and women similar to the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
The convergence of patriarchy and capitalism, which has systematically and structurally furthered the subjugation of women, was historically facilitated by acts of colonialism. Expansion into economically challenged countries and the colonization of their land, people, and resources have led to the exploitation of women’s labor– particularly “third world women”. In colonies, sexual division of labor was instated as a means of control over reproduction and thus labor. Maria Mies explains in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale Labor that the intentional relegation of women to the private spheres of their homes was perpetuated to lower women’s wages and exploited their domestic work. Mies coined the term “Housewifization” to describe the oppressive economic exclusion of women and the exploitation of their labor in direct external colonies, as well as the internal colony of their own homes. Silvia Frederici corresponds in her book Caliban and the Witch and says, “(there is)… a direct causal connection between the global extension of capitalist relations and the escalation of violence against women, as the punishment against their resistance to the appropriation of their bodies and their labor.”
POWER OF WOMEN- “whores, wives, and dykes”
A number of movements rose over time in response to gendered economic injustices; most notably, the International Wages for Housework Campaign led by the International Feminist Collective in 1972 originally in Italy and later on in the US and Britain. Demanding wages for reproductive and housework was revolutionary and enlightening on many fronts. It acknowledged women, who were not part of the waged labor force, as workers. This would mean that there is a possibility for them to negotiate the quantity and quality of their services and even refuse to work altogether. This was a unifying moment in the history of the feminist struggle in which women in waged and non-waged labor contexts, women of all colors, nationalities, sexual orientations, social classes, and walks of life realized they share a common struggle.
A more recent strike named “Day Without A Woman”, which was inspired by the “Day without Immigrants” strike, took place in over 50 countries and 400 cities on March 8, 2017, coinciding with the International Women’s Day. Angela Davis and Linda Sarsour were among the political activists who endorsed the strike. On that day, women were encouraged to take a day off paid and non-paid work in anticipation of better valuation and validation of women’s labor. Participation took other forms as well such as wearing red in solidarity and shopping exclusively from small businesses and businesses owned by women and minorities.
The Dichotomy of Exploitation and Condemnation : Can Lebanon Survive a Day Without Women?
According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, Lebanon ranks 145 out of a total 153 countries. The said index is gauged by looking into health, educational, economic, and political disparities among women and men in a certain country. Despite the improvements Lebanon has made in the most recent years to remedy the gender gap, most notably the appointment of six women as ministers including a Deputy Prime Minister and a Defense Minister, there is still a long road ahead. Women in Lebanon face legal, social, and institutional impediments that put them at a great economic disadvantage. In addition to the lack of compensation for care and domestic labor, Lebanese women are also subjugated in the paid labor arena through limited access to credit, land, and financial products.
In 2015, the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon launched a national campaign to encourage breastfeeding under the slogan: “No substitute for a mother's milk". The campaign is revitalized yearly as a reminder of the importance of the care act. It relies mainly on emotional abuse and threats of legal pursuit of baby milk formula manufacturers and providers (Law 47 in the Lebanese constitution tackles the organization of marketing nutrition infant, newborn, and means products: Article 8 of the law depicts that "It is prohibited for the factory or distributor or any person or representative to promote any classified product at the point of sale or at health care centers"). The campaign accuses women of defaulting on their duties – which when performed, are unappreciated. The campaign is a simple reiteration of the options women are presented with: (1) Perform domestic and care work and be exploited / (2) Not perform domestic and care work and be indicted of negligence.
This is not a unique incident, the Ministry of Education headed by Minister Akram Chehayeb issued an announcement earlier in 2019 that allows women to submit termination of employment requests in-order to attend to familial and marriage duties. While breastfeeding as an act can only be performed by women, there is a wide array of domestic and care labor that is expected of women which both men and women can perform. Essentially, the goal is to end the stigmatizing notions and rigid gender roles which lead to women being expected to do the housework and eventually being exploited for it. The emancipation of women from the shackles of patriarchal expectations is vital to their economic justice.
“Saving the historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.”
Rana Cheaito completed her BS in Economics at the Lebanese American University in 2018. As a growing economist and researcher, she makes a point to dedicate her career to challenging exclusionary economic systems and policies that perpetuate injustice.
1. Benston, M. (1969) “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review 21, no. 4
2. Engels, F. (1820-1895). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
3. Frederici, S. (1998) Caliban and the Witch
4. Marx, K. (1844). The economic and philosophical manuscripts.
5. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1967). Capital: A critique of political economy
6. Mies, M (1986) Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale
7. Vogel, L. (1983) Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory