Breaking Down Domestic Labor: Gender, Race, Class, and Sexuality

By Sidney Wegener

You may have heard the claim “women belong in the kitchen.” Many who believe in traditional patriarchal domesticity agree. Feminists of the twenty-first century often detest such a sexist notion. However, there is an underlying issue that both misogynists and feminists are not necessarily addressing. Why is it that traditional domesticity proponents uphold an oppressive gender hierarchy wherein housework and childcare are less valued than professional or public occupations? Why is it that people who believe in gender equality think that the way to get there is simply assimilating women into the public labor force?  At the core of feminism is the belief that women have the right to make our own choices in life, including the form of labor that we engage in whether it be domestic, productive, or both.

Hidden beneath the battle for women’s equal labor opportunities and rights is the conceptualization of domestic work as less important than public labor, which results in monetary gain. The idea that doing laundry or making lunch for children is not productive labor diminishes its value a social necessity. This is one way capitalism influences misogyny and reinforces the gendered separation of domestic labor and public, or productive, labor. While public labor refers to what are socio-economically productive occupations (those which make money), domestic labor is privatized. The idea that domestic labor is degrading to women depends on a capitalist understanding of the value of labor which is based on productivity. Not only that, but women who work in both the private domestic and public productive labor spheres take on the “double burden.” Often these women are placed under the strain of balancing work outside of their home with the traditionally-gendered demand for house maintenance and parenting. Rarely are domestic responsibilities equally distributed between a heterosexual couple; yet the need for home keeping and child care does not disappear. 

It is critical to acknowledge that women with the most access to employment in public and/or professional labor spheres are cisgendered, heterosexual (or in heterosexual partnerships), come from a middle-upper class background, able-bodied/neurotypical, and white. Many women who become successful in the public labor sphere and are able to obtain substantial income end up hiring working-class women of color as domestic laborers. However, when women who have careers manage their double burden by employing working-class women of color, a gendered and racialized capitalist hierarchy is reproduced and reinforced. For example, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 80% of Black women are the main source of income for their households. Therefore, they work in the public labor sphere to provide for their families, but most also care for their homes, children, and elder relatives. Due to white supremacist racial hierarchies in the United States, women of color frequently fall into the working-class bracket. Although all women are subject to wage discrimination, pay gaps vary according to race. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports these statistics for 2019: 

  • Latina women are paid about 54 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes 
  • Native American women are paid about 58 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes
  • Black women are paid about 62 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • White women are paid about 79 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • Asian American women are paid about 90 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes

In order to support themselves and their families, women of color consistently shoulder the double burden of committing themselves to domestic and productive labor. Most women of color also find themselves facing sexism and racial discrimination in the United States’ capitalist economy, earning between 25 and 17 cents less per dollar than white women.

In addition, women who are non-cisgender and/or in non-heterosexual partnerships do not have access to the same opportunites and rights which may afford them public occupations and income. Lesbian partnerships are positioned at a disadvantage as women are faced with discrimination in public workspaces and sexist, racist wage gaps continue to pose a threat to financial stability. Non-cisgender women also face adverse circumstances as they are often excluded from the traditional sphere of domesticity designated as a cis-woman’s place in society; yet transgender women experience intense workplace discrimination in the public labor sphere. One recent example of such discrimination that non-heterosexual and transgender women face when entering into public sphere is an argument over whether or not memebers of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Currently this issue is being decided by the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on October 8, 2019. This case will determine whether or not members of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation (CNN). In the end, it is a very particular demographic of women who have the agency and the resources to gain financial stability, maintain steady monetary income, and meet domestic labor demands.

Among the many women who are barred from entering the domestic and/or public labor spheres are those who are considered to be disabled. While many of these women receive public support from state services, there are still a vast number of challenges that come attached to living in a body which is disabled either mentally or physically. Often, state services are not enough as people with disabilities account for 24% of the homeless population in the United States (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness). Everyday tasks or ways of moving through life, such as getting on a bus to go to work or verbally communicating with employers, are obstacles which able-bodied and/or neurotypical women rarely encounter. Women who are identified as disabled are also often considered incompetent parents and unfit for home maintence. There are a vast number of women with disabilities who often find themselves excluded from domestic and productive labor due to public assumptions of incapability or lack of sufficient familial and/or public support.

To quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” This includes both the domestic labor and public labor spheres. The feminist response to “women belong in the kitchen” should be to call out the oppressive systems which deem domestic labor as lesser than productive labor. Key to progress in equal labor opportunities and rights will be de-gendering and de-racializing the nature of home making, maintenance, and child care. We must take the time to break down what domestic labor means to a cishetero-patriarchal society that is dependent on a capitalist economy wherein productive labor is more highly valued. Finally, it is critical to acknowledge the intersections of racial, trans or non-binary gender, and sexuality oppression which are at play.


Resources


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

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