From sun to sun.
Nine in the morning. A frail, elderly woman is seeing the doctor about her diabetes. Her daughter managed to get the appointment after a long wait in line at the local medical clinic. She also brought her mother in for the check-up.
Six in the afternoon. The workday has ended, and several women walk together to the daycare center to pick up their children. Then on they march to the bus stop, loaded up with bags and babies. You rarely see any daddies in the lot.
Ten at night. While the rest of the family watches television or rests, mom is ironing. Work shirts, pants, school uniforms, just what everyone needs for tomorrow. She doesn't have to worry about dinner, thank goodness. She spent all Sunday cooking and froze enough for most of the week.
Midnight. The nurse is just getting on shift. She left three children at home alone. Her oldest girl is fifteen, and she can take care of getting the other two up and dressed, feed them breakfast and take them to school. Who knows what their father is up to ...
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Most of it, probably. They are all traditional scenes, snapshots of everyday life in the home. They vary depending upon how much "help" a woman receives in the home, on whether the family is a nuclear family (mother, father and children), an extended family, a single-parent household or another of the many sorts of family structures. If the family has economic means, in the caregiving role we often see a paid domestic worker--a woman, of course, who repeats her workday in her own home, free of charge.
In all the daily routines sketched out above, women play a leading role. Who better to care for the children, the ill, the elderly? Who has else can multitask all the finer points of housekeeping--the cooking, the cleaning, the mending, the washing--and simultaneously perform the delicate task of emotional nurturing? Who better than a woman to deal with the seesaw sensibilities of an adolescent daughter, while at the same time meeting the healthcare needs of the aging relative who joined the household last year. And what else needs to be done today? Did anyone feed the dog? Does anyone even give all this a second thought?
This sketch may seem like an exaggeration, but it really isn't. This is a realistic description of women's lives. These brief glimpses only underline the fact that all these tasks are performed over and over again in most households, from dawn to dusk. But this domestic work is carried out so matter of factly that it just seems to get done by itself, but when mom is sick ... Disaster strikes! And then the whole family suddenly realizes just how much one woman does everyday. Women's domestic work is largely invisible, not only to her family, but to a society that fails to recognize the amount of time that women spend day (and night) caring for their families, even though they may also have paid work outside the home.
Women's physical and psychological ailments, however, are often the result of the exhaustion of being overworked. They pay the costs of these double and triple workdays with their health and peace of mind and by postponing the fulfillment of their own needs. With the overwork in their daily lives, high rates of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia among women should come as no great surprise. As the Argentinean psychologist Esther Moncarz observed:
We must differentiate between fatigue produced by a day's work, which is alleviated after rest, and accumulated fatigue or chronic fatigue, which persists after rest and leads to a loss of motivation, often accompanied by feelings of frustration and failure. Constant exhaustion often becomes a way of life.
But the cultural bias, the traditional perspective that predominates in our societies regarding gender roles, continues to uphold the notion that women, and women alone, can fulfill all these domestic responsibilities. After all, it is their womanly nature, the very essence of their femaleness, that prepares them perfectly for these infinite tasks that form part of families' daily lives in this century, just as they have for hundreds of years. Working themselves to the bone has become an ethical imperative for women and idleness a luxury that they cannot afford. They are trained, educated and groomed for this work: in their families of origin girls learn "women's work" from an early age, but their brothers are free to do other things. Why would a boy need to learn how to cook or clean in our societies? And schools reinforce this gender conditioning with sexist texts and biased curriculum.
The mass media and the advertising industry do their best to promote these gender stereotypes: women fascinated by a detergent that gets rid of even the toughest stain; women celebrated on Mother's Day with a brand-new, better-than-ever iron; women who are enraptured by the most modern floor cleaner that leaves the kitchen floor shining, spotless, clean enough to eat off of. This endless whirlwind of cleaning products really reflects the fact that technology does not always make domestic work easier, but rather intensifies the work towards an end that is not always desirable. After all, does anyone to eat off the kitchen floor?
In this regard, Victoria Sau (2001) emphasizes the relationship that women have with time, doing as much as possible simultaneously, multitasking wildly unrelated activities, with considerable effort that can sometimes be overwhelming, especially if their time use is being measured by a male perspective. Most men have a more linear relationship with time, emphasizing one or two goals, a reductionist perspective that has its advantages but also many disadvantages. However, an obsession with professional achievements or productivity rankings can mean losing out on the benefits of sharing time with one's family, for example.
So Much for the Model of the Nuclear Family
All the traditional suppositions about gender roles and the sexual division of labor are flawed, because they are based on stereotypical models of the family and operate under the assumption that all households are composed of nuclear families, i.e., a family with a wage-earning father, a homemaker mother and their children. But like the just people who are a part of them, families and households come in all shapes and sizes. The domestic and breadwinning roles may be divided up any number of ways, and new sorts of family structures are emerging all the time. These suppositions are also wrong because the rigid sexual division labor makes men solely responsible for paid (productive) work and restricts women to the domestic sphere (reproduction, caregiving, housework, etc.).
A standardized model that divides tasks by gender also implies that only those who perform productive work--i.e., men--reap the social recognition, prestige and benefits of these efforts, while reproductive work is viewed as worthless, in fact it is not even perceived as work. And women themselves usually play into the cultural double standard when they are asked if they work, "Oh, no, I don't, I'm just a homemaker." They overlook the fact that their workday begins at least an hour before the rest of the family wakes up and ends an hour or two after bedtime, seven days a week. This "it really isn't a job" work is unpaid because it is considered an act of love within the marriage contract, which of course places them in a subordinate position to their male spouses who are charged with the tasks of administration, organization and decision making. This situation has also been called "the economy of love."
Whether covertly or overtly, the characteristics of the marriage contract oppress women:
Domestic work is socially useful and beneficial for capitalism. It doesn't appear to be work but rather part of the personal relationship between a woman and a man. The work that a woman performs for her husband is not defined as work but rather as the expression of her feminine nature and as proof of her love for him. This hides the fact that the workforce--the source of capital gain--is a good provided by the productive and reproductive labor of women.
While marriage is a contract, domestic work will be at the heart of the sexual and classist oppression endured by women; it is the role that subordinates them to everyone else in the system of capitalist production. The patriarchal relationships implied in the social/sexual relationship of work and in the appropriation of women's work by men in the family define women's social status (Astelarra, 2003).
Indeed, the nuclear or traditional family is an historical social construction that has been extremely useful and highly successful for guaranteeing the reproduction of the workforce. This concept of the family unit perfectly suits the needs of the economic system, because it makes women totally responsible for the reproduction of the labor force--women bear children and educate them, and they provide the material, emotion and symbolic support necessary for those who carry out the productive process (men)--without having to pay them in any way! Women are not even recognized for these efforts, much less remunerated with a salary. As the Marxist historian Luis Vitale observed:
Women's basic function is the reproduction of the workforce. It is not only that women are the only one's who can bear children, but that they have been responsible for feeding, raising and caring for those who will play key roles in the productive processes. Women fulfill the role of providing the workforce, the foundation of the entire regime of production ... From the beginnings of class-based societies, women were exploited in the fulfillment of the mission that the patriarchy had assigned them ... The capitalist regime doesn't invest a cent in the reproduction of the workforce. Women do it without any recognition from capitalism. Women are not only oppressed ideologically, culturally and psychologically, not only are they dependent, unable to realize their personal goals and seen as sex objects, but they endure economic exploitation. The basis of oppression is exploitation.
A Challenge for Public Policy
The women's and feminist movements have been constantly challenging this reality. Long and loud have we clamored against the sexual division of labor as one of the pivotal aspects of inequality between women and men based on the patriarchal system's discrimination against women. The sexual division of labor also seriously limits women's freedom and autonomy, their ability to make inroads in fields that they themselves would choose for professional development beyond the reproductive sphere. Indeed, the sexual division of labor has kept millions of women from entering the workforce, preventing them from accepting an employment opportunity of their choice and earning a wage, and therefore they are unable to access any sort of social security. As a result, women more often live in poverty, especially if they have not been able to be part of the "productive" sphere or have only been able to have occasional jobs.
At the same time, international entities specializing in human development, especially the United Nations agencies, have been quite sensitive to this issue. The UN conferences held at the end of the 20th century, and above all the Conferences on Women, addressed several areas of concern, including the entrance of women into the labor market, the forms in which they participate in the workforce, the impact of poverty on women's quality of life and the inequalities and discrimination that they confront as they become more active in the public sphere. These conferences also applied a human rights perspective to promote the commitment that "the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities" (Beijing Platform for Action).
From 1976 to 1985, the UN Decade for Women sought to draw attention to women's contribution to their countries' economies. Recommendations included prioritizing the gender disaggregation of national social and economic statistics to provide the necessary evidence to demonstrate women's real, hands-on participation in development and to draw attention to the fact that women's work and time dedicated to caring for their families, their efforts in the domestic sphere in general and in the community are never fully recognized or valued. The design of technical instruments, such as household surveys, time-use surveys and other mechanism are already being applied in many countries--although not universally--and are seen as a step in the right direction towards positive changes and evidence-based social policies.
Such policies are urgently needed, especially in view of the historical circumstances of recent decades: due to the global economic crisis and the impoverishment of millions of homes, women are entering the labor market in increasing numbers. Nonetheless, women are still primarily responsible for domestic work and caregiving tasks. Moreover, the healthcare system and private healthcare providers are overwhelmed with an aging population that demands more medical care and other services for the chronically ill and dependent elderly. When there are insufficient resources to care for this aging population, they are derived to their homes and, more precisely, the care of women, in their age-old role of caregivers.
This issue of the Women's Health Collection takes a look at the "economy of care," the unremunerated work of domestic or social reproduction. As the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean explains, the economy of care is related to "a material and symbolic process characterized by the maintenance of the domestic realm, food preparation and physical care, the socialization, education and training of children, the maintenance of social relations and psychological support for the members of the family." Although this work is not included in the calculations of Gross Domestic Product, its social and economic value related to time use is an in-kind subsidy for society. Theoretically, the State, the market, families and civil society (through community, volunteer and other sorts of organizations) provide this care, but in reality, "these tasks are primary carried out by women, either within the family or outside of the family through employment as domestic workers." We must confront this reality, analyze it, understand how damaging it is for women's human rights and deconstruct the concepts upon which it is based, especially the sexual division of labor on the job and the stereotyped roles of women and men.
The following articles were written by feminist professionals and activists for women's human rights, who--through their organizations or through scholarship and research--have dedicated their efforts to opening the debate on this topic and promoting political action and technical proposals for the benefit of women. Caregiving is a social responsibility and not the work of one gender or another; it should be shared equitably by all the members of society.
In Mexico, the National Time-use Survey, sponsored by Inmujeres and carried out by INEGI in 2002, found that while 95% of men aged 25 to 50 worked outside the home, 50% of the women of the same age group do so, with men working an average of 50 hours and women an average of 45 hours. However, men only dedicate an average 11.5 hours to housework each week, while women dedicate an average 44.9 hours to domestic tasks.
CIMAC Report, October 13, 2008.
Nearly 78% of all Chilean women have no help with the housework, and they work 18% more hours than men each day
UNDP, Human Development Report, 2007.
Data from urban areas in 15 Latin American countries indicates that unremunerated domestic work is the primary activities of one in four women but only one in 200 men.
UNICEF. The State of the World's Population, 2007.
Astelarra, Judith (2003) ?Libres e iguales? Sociedad y politica desde el feminismo. Santiago: CEM.
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (2007) El aporte de las mujeres a la igualdad en America Latina y el Caribe. Proceedings from the Tenth Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Quito, August 6-9, 2007. Santiago: ECLAC.
Moncarz, Esther (1997) "Constant exhaustion: Women, Work and Mental Health." In Work and Health: Women at Risk, Revealing the Hidden Health Burden of Women Workers. Women's Health Collection #2. Santiago, Chile: LACWHN.
PAHO (2008) La economia invisible y las desigualdades de genero. La importancia de medir y valorar el trabajo no remunerado. Washington, D.C.: PAHO.
UN, Beijing Platform for Action 1995.
Sau, Victoria (2001) Diccionario Ideologico Feminista. Barcelona: Icaria, ECLAC.
Vitale, Luis (1981) Historia y Sociologia de la Mujer Latinoamericana. Barcelona: Editorial Fontanara.