Reproductive labor

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Young Housewife, oil painting on canvas by Alexey Tyranov, currently housed at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, Russia (1840s)
Part of the housework of a London housewife, 1941

Reproductive labor or work is often associated with care giving and domestic housework roles including cleaning, cooking, child care, and the unpaid domestic labor force.[1] The term has taken on a role in feminist philosophy and discourse as a way of calling attention to how women in particular are assigned to the domestic sphere, where the labor is reproductive and thus uncompensated and unrecognized in a capitalist system. These theories have evolved as a parallel of histories focusing on the entrance of women into the labor force in the 1970s, providing an intersectionalist approach that recognizes that women have been a part of the labor force since before their incorporation into mainstream industry if reproductive labor is considered.[2] Some Marxist anthropologists[3] and economists such as George Caffentzis[4] have gone as far as to suggest that reproductive labor creates value in a similar way to the way in which productive labor creates value, by increasing the value of labor power.


The division between productive and unproductive labor is stressed by some Marxist feminists including Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton.[5] These theories specify that while productive labor results in goods or services that have monetary value in the capitalist system and are thus compensated by the producers in the form of a paid wage, reproductive labor is associated with the private sphere and involves anything that people have to do for themselves that is not for the purposes of receiving a wage (i.e. cleaning, cooking, having children). These interpretations argue that while both forms of labor are necessary, people have different access to these forms of labor based on certain aspects of their identity.

These theories argue that both public and private institutions exploit the labor of women as an inexpensive method of supporting a work force. For the producers, this means higher profits. For the nuclear family, the power dynamic dictates that domestic work is exclusively to be completed by the woman of the household thus liberating the rest of the members from their own necessary reproductive labor. Marxist feminists argue that the exclusion of women from productive labor leads to male control in both private and public domains.[5][6]

The concept of reproductive labor as it relates to cleaning, cooking, child care, and the paid domestic labor force has been written about and discussed in writing and history prior to the term being codified. This includes works like Virginia Woolf's essay, "A Room of One's Own".[citation needed]

A distinction has been made between nurturant and non nurturant reproductive labor. Nurturant reproductive labor jobs include positions in childcare, domestic work, and healthcare. Non nurturant reproductive labor includes jobs in food preparation and cleaning. Minority men, specifically black and Hispanic men, make up the majority of non nurturant reproductive laborers.[2] Nurturant reproductive labor jobs are more likely than non nurturant to have women fill the positions for low wages.[7] There is a gendered division in nurturant labor. In healthcare men are likely to be seen as surgeons while women are likely to have the positions of medical assistants and registered nurses.[8]

Wages for housework[edit]

Focusing on exclusion from productive labor as the most important source of female oppression, some Marxist feminists devoted their activism to fighting for the inclusion of domestic work within the waged capitalist economy. The idea of creating compensated reproductive labor was present in the writings of socialists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898) who argued that women's oppression stemmed from being forced into the private sphere.[9] Gilman proposed that conditions for women would improve when their work was located, recognized, and valued in the public sphere.[10]

Perhaps the most influential of the efforts to compensate reproductive labor was the International Wages for Housework Campaign, an organization launched in Italy in 1972 by members of the International Feminist Collective. Many of these women, including Selma James,[11] Mariarosa Dalla Costa,[12] Brigitte Galtier, and Silvia Federici[13] published a range of sources to promote their message in academic and public domains. Despite the efforts beginning with a relatively small group of women in Italy, The Wages for Housework Campaign was successful in mobilizing on an international level. A Wages for Housework group was founded in Brooklyn, New York with the help of Federici.[13] As Heidi Hartmann acknowledges (1981), the efforts of these movements, though ultimately unsuccessful, generated important discourse regarding the value of housework and its relation to the economy.[6]

Universal Basic Income has been proposed as a possible solution.[14]

Sharing reproductive labor[edit]

Another solution proposed by Marxist feminists is to liberate women from their forced connection to reproductive labor. In her critique of traditional Marxist feminist movements such as the Wages for Housework Campaign, Heidi Hartmann (1981) argues that these efforts "take as their question the relationship of women to the economic system, rather than that of women to men, apparently assuming the latter will be explained in their discussion of the former."[6] Hartmann (1981) believes that traditional discourse has ignored the importance of women's oppression as women, and instead focused on women's oppression as members of the capitalist system. Similarly, Gayle Rubin, who has written on a range of subjects including sadomasochism, prostitution, pornography, and lesbian literature as well as anthropological studies and histories of sexual subcultures, first rose to prominence through her 1975 essay ''"The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex"'', in which she coins the phrase "sex/gender system" and criticizes Marxism for what she claims is its incomplete analysis of sexism under capitalism, without dismissing or dismantling Marxist fundamentals in the process.

More recently, many Marxist feminists have shifted their focus to the ways in which women are now potentially in worse conditions after gaining access to productive labor. Nancy Folbre (1994) proposes that feminist movements begin to focus on women's subordinate status to men both in the reproductive (private) sphere, as well as in the workplace (public sphere).[15] In an interview in 2013, Silvia Federici urges feminist movements to consider the fact that many women are now forced into productive and reproductive labor, resulting in a "double day".[16] Federici (2013) argues that the emancipation of women still cannot occur until they are free from their burdens of unwaged labor, which she proposes will involve institutional changes such as closing the wage gap and implementing child care programs in the workplace. Federici's (2013) suggestions are echoed in a similar interview with Selma James (2012) and these issues have been touched on in recent presidential elections.[11][17]

International Division of Reproductive Labor[edit]

Evelyn Nakano Glenn provided the insight that reproductive labor was divided based on race and ethnicity, a pattern she called the "racial division of reproductive labor." This concept is illustrated in the US by European immigrants first performing domestic work but after World War Two, the Japanese were pressured into these positions of working for white families. There was an ideology produced that said Black and Latina women were “made” to work and serve for white families as domestic workers.[18] Saskia Sassen-Koob explained that the economy shifting to service based, created a demand for immigrant women because low wage jobs were made available in developed countries. These jobs drew a women workforce to them because of the low wage, so that they are viewed as “women’s jobs.” [19] Drawing on the work of Glenn and Sassen-Koob's work, Parrenas brought together Glenn's ideas about the racial division of reproductive labor and Sassen-Koob's ideas about feminization and globalization and used them to analyze paid reproductive work.

The term international division of reproductive labor was coined by Rhacel Parrenas in her book, Servants of Globalization: Migrants and Domestic Work, where she discusses Filipino migrant domestic workers. The international division of reproductive labor involves a transfer of labor among three actors in a developed and developing country. It refers to three tiers: wealthier upper class women who use the migrants to take care of domestic work and the lower class who stay back home to watch the migrant’s children. The wealthier women in developed countries have entered the workforce at greater numbers which has led to them having more responsibilities inside and outside of the home. These women are able to hire help and use this privilege of race and class to transfer their reproductive labor responsibilities over to a less privileged woman.[20] Migrant women maintain a hierarchy over their family members and other women who stay back to watch the migrant’s children. Parrenas’ research explains that the sexual division of labor remains in reproductive labor since women are the ones migrating to work as domestic workers in developed countries.[21]

Parrenas argues that the international division of reproductive labor arose out of globalization and capitalism. Components of globalization including privatization and feminization of labor also contributed to the rise of this division of labor. She explains that globalization has led to reproductive labor to be comodified and demanded internationally.  Sending countries are stuck with losing valuable labor while receiving countries take advantage of this labor to grow their economies.[22] Parrenas highlights the role United States colonialism and the International Monetary Fund play in developing countries, such as the Philippines, becoming exporters of migrant workers. This explanation of the root of the concept is crucial because it explains that the financial inequalities the women across the three tiers face are rooted in the economy.[23]

The concept has been expanded by others and applied to locations other than the Philippines where Parrenas conducted her research. In a study done in Guatemala and Mexico, instead of a global transfer of labor, a more local transfer was done between the women who work in the labor force and those other women relatives who take care of the children.[3] A “new international division of reproductive labor” is said to have occurred in Singapore because of outsourcing and taking advantage of a low skilled labor force which has led to the international division of reproductive labor. In order to maintain a strong, growing economy in Southeast Asia, this transfer of reproductive labor is needed. In Singapore, hiring migrant help is a necessity to sustain the economy and the Singaporean woman’s status.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Duffy, Mignon (2013). "Reproductive Labor". In Smith, Vicki (ed.). Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. pp. 1213ff. doi:10.4135/9781452276199.n260. ISBN 978-1-5063-2093-9.
  2. ^ a b Duffy, Mignon (June 2007). "Doing the Dirty Work: Gender, Race, and Reproductive Labor in Historical Perspective". Gender & Society. 21 (3): 313–336. CiteSeerX doi:10.1177/0891243207300764. ISSN 0891-2432. JSTOR 27640972. S2CID 153544544.
  3. ^ a b Griffith, David; Preibisch, Kerry; Contreras, Ricardo (June 2018). "The Value of Reproductive Labor". American Anthropologist. 120 (2): 224–236. doi:10.1111/aman.12973.
  4. ^ Caffentzis, George (2013). "On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction". In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press. p. 268–72.
  5. ^ a b Lise Vogel (7 June 2013). Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. BRILL. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-90-04-24895-3.
  6. ^ a b c Hartmann, H. (1981) The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union. Feminist Theory Reader, 187-199.
  7. ^ Hester, Helen (23 March 2018). "Care under capitalism: The crisis of "women's work"". IPPR Progressive Review. 24 (4): 345.
  8. ^ Budig, Michelle J.; Hodges, Melissa J.; England, Paula (2019). "Wages of Nurturant and Reproductive Care Workers: Individual and Job Characteristics, Occupational Closure, and Wage-Equalizing Institutions" (PDF). Social Problems. 66 (2): 294–319. doi:10.1093/socpro/spy007.
  9. ^ Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898). Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Small, Maynard.
  10. ^ Ferguson, A. & Hennessy, R. (2010). Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  11. ^ a b Gardiner, B. (2012). A Life in Writing. Interview with Selma James.
  12. ^ Dalla Costa, M. & James, S. (1972). The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community[1]
  13. ^ a b Cox, N. & Federici, S. (1975).[2]Counter-Planning from the Kitchen: Wages for Housework a Perspective on Capital and the Left.
  14. ^ Shulevitz, Judith (2016-01-08). "It's Payback Time for Women". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  15. ^ Folbre, N. 1994. Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint. [3]
  16. ^ Vishmid, M.(2013). Permanent Reproductive Crisis: An Interview with Silvia Federici [4]
  17. ^ Mullin, Amy (2005). Reconceiving pregnancy and childcare: ethics, experience, and reproductive labor. Cambridge University Press.
  18. ^ Glenn, Evelyn Nakano (Fall 1992). "From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor" (PDF). Signs. 18 (1): 1–43. doi:10.1086/494777. JSTOR 3174725.
  19. ^ Sassen-Koob, Saskia (1984). "Notes on the Incorporation of Third World Women into Wage-Labor Through Immigration and Off-Shore Production". The International Migration Review. 18 (4): 1144–1167. doi:10.2307/2546076. JSTOR 2546076.
  20. ^ Parrenas, Rhacel (2015). Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 28–52.
  21. ^ Parrenas, Rhacel (August 2000). "Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor" (PDF). Gender and Society. 14 (4): 560–580. doi:10.1177/089124300014004005. S2CID 145663217.
  22. ^ Shu-Ju, Ada Cheng (August 2004). "Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work". Feminist Review. 77 – via ProQuest.
  23. ^ Espiritu, Yen Le (May 2003). "Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work". Labor History. 44: 267–268 – via ProQuest.
  24. ^ Cheah, Pheng (2007). "Biopower and the New International Division of Reproductive Labor". Boundary 2. 2: 79–113. doi:10.1215/01903659-2006-028 – via Duke University Press.

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