Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review: Women's Caring

[Carol T. Baines, Patricia M. Evans, and Sheila M. Neysmith, editors. Women's Caring: Feminist Perspectives on Social Welfare. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.]

Often when I am brought face to face with some major something that I have consistently failed to consider in my thinking, talking, writing, acting in the world, I get a kind of aghast sense of vertigo. I think that's pretty common. And, of course, the experience of missing politically important stuff is something that happens to all of us on a regular basis no matter how careful, thoughtful, and experienced we might be, so figuring out practices to channel that vertigo into learning rather than into defensiveness and denial is pretty crucial. I'm still working on that.

Now, I think that part of what is hard about such moments is that they always indicate something about ourselves that we have been blind to, not just something out in the world, and I think that the tendency to see only the aspects that are "out there" is one that we need to work against. Nonetheless, some such moments are more surprising, in retrospect, than others because of the kind or amount of our own experience that we are revealed to have been trained into not seeing, not questioning, not knowing, not understanding.

I have been feeling a bit shocked at the ways in which two other recent books plus this one have revealed to me how underdeveloped my understanding of the social organization of caring and reproductive labour has been. Part of why it has taken me by surprise is that it is far from something I have never thought about before. On the contrary, I've thought about it a lot and understood myself to have a decent analysis of the relationship between those kinds of labour and gender. For the last half dozen years or so, partially because of the respective character of my own and my partner's participation in other kinds of labour and partially out of a sense of political responsibility for challenging the patriarchal organization of caring/reproductive labour in whatever small ways that can be done at the level of the individual relationship, I've done a little more of it than the average for men in this particular time and place. The choice to do this was based on thinking about it. The doing of it forced me to think about it more and differently. And one consequence of privilege associated with masculinity is that taking on such labour is more visible than when women do it. For one thing, this means it is more likely to be seen as labour and as notable by others than when women do it, which results in occasional instances of infuriating disapproval or, more frequently, personally discomfiting and politically inappropriate praise for doing things that we should all do just as part of being human. Of more relevance to the point I'm making here, it has also been more visible to me in certain respects, I think, than to at least some women who do the same (plus, often, much more) because the expectation of doing it wasn't trained into me as I grew up, and I still have to wrestle with moments of resentment that sometimes have quite a gendered character.

Despite all of this, after reading those other two books plus this one I feel that however much I had reflected on reproductive/caring labour and gender at the interpersonal level, and despite some awareness of some of the key points feminists have made on the topic, my understanding of its scope and significance at the social level had been lacking. These books have given me a much deeper and more textured appreciation of points that I know feminists have been making for many years. For instance, the sheer magnitude of caring/reproductive labour that is necessary for society to function seems like an obvious point, perhaps, but it is easy to gloss over it without appreciating its true significance. I have also been pushed to build a clearer picture of the extent to which it makes no sense at all to talk about shifts in relations of production -- whether the real-world shifts of neoliberalism and resistance to them, or visions for the just and liberatory future we desire -- without making reproductive/caring labour not just an add-on but integral to the discussion. (It has also become clearer to me that the failure to do this by broad swathes of the left is yet another aspect of our failure to wrestle with the ways in which we continue to be trapped in the reified and separated ways of understanding the world grounded in capitalism, patriarchy, and other relations of domination.)

Women's Caring is itself a rather unprepossessing book, a collection of essays coming out of Canadian feminist academia. It actually shares an editor with one of my other recent reads and, like that volume, was released in the few years after the most intense point of the neoliberal assault in Canada in 1995. Its focus on caring labour (with some attention to social policy) rather than social policy (with some attention to caring labour) made it feel quite a bit more interesting to me, though, even if its relevance to the chapter I'm writing at the moment is considerably less. Essays in the book talk about caring labour and neoliberalism, caring and "women's professions," caring labour in the lives of South Asian women in Canada, care and abusive relationships, child welfare, child care, and live-in caregivers. I found the chapters that outlined the connection between caring labour and violence against women, and between caring labour and women's disproportionate experience of poverty, to be particularly powerful.

Perhaps the most affecting essay in the book for me was Marge Reitsma-Street's "Still Girls Learn To Care: Girls Policed To Care." The original research in this chapter was a series of interviews that Reitsma-Street did with pairs of sisters, one of whom had been labelled "delinquent" by child welfare authorities and the courts and the other who had not. She interprets this research in light of the literature around socialization into caring-focused roles. She talks about the ways in which "girls learn to care in certain prescribed ways and to bear the costs of caring, and they are also policed to care and to bear the costs... they are pressured subtly and coercively to care for others in particular ways, especially for boyfriends, fathers, and children, more than for themselves" [87, emphasis in original].

One challenging feature of the book was that it felt kind of pessimistic to me. I don't know whether that came more from what I brought to the reading or if it was actually a thread running through the text, perhaps due to the moment in which this book was published -- I'm sure many of the women who wrote it felt like decades of their hard work to bring feminist reforms were being torn apart by neoliberalism. Part of it, though, is undoubtedly because it is an area with no easy answers.

For instance, the last chapter I wrote in my own book was in part about struggles by a particular indigenous community against the decades of colonial predation by child welfare authorities, and I think it is crucial to support efforts that resist the way that child welfare functions as an excuse for state attacks on racialized and poor families. At the same time, one of the essays in this book makes the excellent point that resisting intrusion by child welfare authorities in a context dominated by neoliberalism can function in some situations to support the neoliberal drive to reprivatize the nuclear family in ways that make it harder to talk in politicized ways about some of the violence that shapes the lives of many women and children.

Similarly, a number of the essays challenge a number of different kinds of assumptions that pop up in various strands of left thought around better ways to organize caring. For instance, my gut reaction tends to be skeptical about professionalized forms of caring and to favour caring in the context of already-existing personal connections. Yet these essays challenge the idea that professionalized caring-for labour is inherently inferior. While also pointing out lots of instances where it doesn't fit either. It depends a lot on context and preference.

I also tend, in a related but not identical inclination, to react in my tummy in favour of non-market, non-state organization of caring. The essays point out, though, that caring labour organized in non-market, non-state ways often translates into more unpaid work for already overburdened women. Governments often frame cuts to institutional care of various sorts as a turn to "community care," but almost invariably the resources made available are so inadequate that mostly that translates into "family care" which in turn mostly depends on unpaid labour by women. In the real world there are no pure or simple options, and at the moment not even any experiments in organizing caring labour that remotely approaches the scale of the need other than state and market relations. The questions are complicated and immense, need is immediate and ongoing, and "after the revolution" is simply not a meaningful answer.

That said, I think perhaps one key to begin getting a grip on these questions is to get out of the social democratic tendency to think of questions of caring labour as something that can be addressed by services, and recognize that reorganizing caring can't be separated from reconfiguring social relations more generally. That, somehow, makes it a little easier for me to reenter questions of "what do we do now" in ways that feel more hopeful. Read with that in mind, the final essay in the book makes some interestisng steps to thinking about caring labour in new ways, though I think there might be lots of ways to push that farther. For me, that means escaping the tendency exhibited in some of these essays to take "state" and "market" and "other" (or what I have been calling "non-state, non-market") as inevitable and static in their character. Rather, part of overall projects for radical social change means starting from how these apparently disparate spheres of life exist now and pushing their logic and organization to change. That is, not only do we push for caring labour to be reshuffled between these spheres in ways that are more tailored to people's needs, we also push them to work in ways that look more like what we want. Most plausibly, I think that means social democratic supports for caring labour that push the boundaries of collectivity and local participatory democratic control, and non-market, non-state experiments that are of significant size and that effectively challenge the gendered impacts of caring in how they work. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine how either of those could happen any time soon in the context of Sudbury in neoliberal Canada, but they don't feel impossible or impractical.

In practice, among other things, that means being open to micro-scale alternatives in the here and now. It means challenging men, and the training we receive not to engage in caring labour, as well as challenging the highly disciplinary ways in which young women are trained towards very specific ways of engaging in caring labour. It means defending the remnants of social democracy but from a critical left position. It means resistin both mainstream and left moralizing about how caring labour "should" happen. And it means challenging assumptions about how employment has to be organized. These things are not sufficient to bring about a just and liberatory reorganization of caring labour, but they seem to me to be some key places where our urge to do so hooks into practical issues that are produced by how caring labour is currently organized.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


CJSF Public Affairs said...

May I re-post this on a couple of other blogs? They are Canadian Women's Issues and

Scott Neigh said...


Yes, feel free to repost...if you can, please include a link back to the original post. Thanks for reading, and for circulating it!