Care work is essential work. It enables us to raise children and support the sick and disabled. It is the hidden backbone of our economy and our society. While care is necessary for the survival of our families, our communities, and the species, national leaders rarely prioritize care, and many are downright hostile to it. Witness the Trump administration’s policy of forcibly separating children from their parents at the Texas-Mexico border, and former First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket proclaiming “I really don't care, do you?” on visiting children in an immigrant detention center.
In contrast to this performance of callous disregard, care has long been a focus for feminists. In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Gilligan argued that women and girls were more likely to employ an “ethic of care” which made them attentive to the needs of others. Similarly, Sara Ruddick argued that “maternal thinking,” a set of values and ethical judgments derived from the ties between mother and child, should inform feminist models of ethics, politics, and policy. Another strain in feminist thinking about care foregrounds women’s domestic labor, which tends to be un- or undercompensated. According to feminist economist Ipek Ilkkaracan, women’s unpaid care work, including household production, and volunteer and community work, encompasses over 16 billion hours per day, or approximately 2 billion full-time jobs. The language of care can obscure the racialized and gendered power relationships that structure domestic labor and are residues of slavery, writes feminist historian Premilla Nadasen.
Indeed, most domestic workers in the United States are women of color. Debra Lancaster from the Rutgers Center for Women and Work notes that 95 percent of home health aides in NJ are women, more than half are immigrants, and more than 70 percent are Black or Latina. Paid care workers, such as home health aides who care for the sick and the elderly, are among the lowest paid workers. Increasingly, low-income women from the Global South leave their families to care for the children of more affluent families in the Global North. As Rhacel Salazar Parreñas notes, the “international division of reproductive labor” tends to benefit rich countries at the expense of poor countries. When migrant women attempt to provide care for their own children in their countries of origin as well as their employers’ children in the Global North, it creates a “care deficit” for the former.
Clearly, care-work is a political matter. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde in 1988. Recently, some have described a “care crisis,” precipitated by the growing pressures on family life, specifically mothers, and exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic. This crisis emerges in relation to the high cost of childcare, the shortage of childcare workers and caregivers for elderly and disabled populations, and the absence of a national childcare policy in US. Still, many low-income families have always been in survival mode. While some seek government solutions, others—often out of necessity—have pursued collective care projects. From STAR house, founded by trans activist Marsha P. Johnson in 1970 to provide sustenance, care, and community for New York City’s trans youth, through the queer communities of care created in response to the AIDS crisis, to the Ballroom communities of the present, care has been an important aspect of queer life. Writing in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, trans scholar/activist Dean Spade, advocates for mutual aid to help people meet “each other’s needs based in shared commitments to dignity, care, and justice.”