Chapter News

Women and "Essential" Work

Jennifer Jopp
June 1, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a number of fault lines in American society. Among them is the great and growing burden of women’s unpaid labor. Traditional economic thought and political rhetoric have long ignored women’s lifesustaining unpaid labor. But, today almost every news outlet carries images of women caring for the ill, the elderly, and the young; shopping and buying groceries; educating children at home; and seeking to maintain some semblance of normal domestic life in the face of a lethal, global pandemic. We are confronted daily with the unlearnable knowledge that women perform vital work that allows society to produce and reproduce itself. We might hope that we will emerge from this crisis with a new-found respect for the life-giving labor of women.

In modern American society, home and work and school have often been separated; indeed, our sense of ourselves often derives from our successful navigation among these sectors of our lives. This division often serves to render invisible the work that is required to sustain the whole operation. The mother at home who makes lunches, launders clothing, and oversees homework and paperwork and sends workers back to the factory each day and children back to school, does so - all without revealing the costs of her labor.

Likewise, the majority of the women now doing “essential” work during the pandemic- nursing home workers, nurses, hotel workers, and grocery store cashiers are paying the highest price or our societal inability to truly pay the cost of the “essential” care of production and reproduction in our society.

The pandemic has crashed all the parts of our lives together: parents are now working, as well as schooling their children, from home. In addition, many of us are also caring for aging and isolated parents. Thus, the site of societal production is now focused on a once-private locus, which our disastrous pandemic response has laid bare to public view. As millions file unemployment claims and stand in food distribution lines that stretch for miles, we see – in all its barbarity- the ways in which  our society asks its poorest members to “sacrifice” while its wealthiest seek to isolate themselves from the social costs of a ravaging pandemic.

Yet, our current crisis has made the invisible work that many do out of the sight of middle-class consumers visible to all: accepting the Amazon delivery at your door of the toilet paper not available in the local grocery store or driving to Target to pick up an item from a worker that you would prefer not to shop for yourself reveals who is paying the “cost” of your protection.

We might hope that we will emerge from this crisis with a number of the core practices of life-giving communities: with a genuine respect for the labor of all, with a sense of communal solidarity, and a desire to rebuild our lives on a new foundation, one that honors the life-giving work of women. We might offer respect to all of those women who—either as unpaid or low-paid laborers—kept everything going.