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Child Care, Elder Care, and the Last Feminist Frontier

baby carriage

Last month, Jamie Nesbitt Golden published a post on her website entitled “Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue.” It is, in part, a moving personal essay about the struggles of caring for ill, aging parent whose cognitive facilities are slipping away. But it’s also, as the title suggests, a political statement about the importance of care work as a feminist issue. Golden writes:

As writer Jane Glenn Haas pointed out, eldercare isn’t sexy enough to be a feminist issue. It lacks the naughty allure of reproductive rights, the seductive appeal of body image. It doesn’t even have a sassy Lean In-like catchphrase. But it should be a feminist issue, since the numbers show that women are most likely to shoulder the responsibility of looking after parents in their twilight years, and the most likely to live well into those twilight years. A lot of them have missed out on career and educational opportunities. A lot of them—like my mother and her friends—are doing this by the skin of their teeth, with scant to nonexistent resources. A lot of them will outlive their spouses (if they have them), exhaust their pensions (if they have them), and die alone.

It’s telling that Golden, who’s written for Salon and xoJane, among other outlets, adds that she pitched this essay to “a few places but received little interest.” She puts her finger on something about feminist media that has long troubled me. Mainstream online feminism has its flaws, and one of them is the short shrift it tends to give to labor and workplace issues relative to the rest of the feminist agenda—and, in particular, to the importance of care work for women.

Child care, of course, remains “women’s work.” Women are still the vast majority of single parents [PDF] and stay-at-home parents, and even in two-parent households where both parents work outside the home, women tend to log in far more hours doing child care than male partners. Women also perform a disproportionate share of household chores. And as Golden’s piece notes, women are the majority of those who provide unpaid care for ill, disabled, or elderly friends and relatives.

The burden of unpaid care work that women continue to shoulder plays a major role in women’s persistent economic inequality. Directly, there is the opportunity cost that comes when women cut back hours or drop out of the paid labor force to provide care; economist Nancy Folbre has referred to this cost as the “care penalty.” Indirectly, unpaid care work affects women’s compensation in the paid labor market. Research has shown that a portion of the gender pay gap is attributable to the fact that women with children are, on average, paid less than their otherwise identical counterparts. Another study found that working in a caregiving occupation is associated with a 5 to 10 percent wage penalty, even when skill levels, education, industry, and other observable factors are controlled for.

In recent years, the labor force participation of American women has declined, and economists have identified the lack of public policies that address women’s family responsibilities as the chief reason this is so. Another recent study found that the lack of flexible work arrangements that enable women to balance work and family is the main factor driving the gender gap in wages.

There was a time when free, universal child care was one of the chief demands of the women’s movement. But that’s something you rarely hear a call for today. The rise of neoliberalist policies have encouraged a shrinking of the public sector and the privatization of what used to be considered public responsibilities, including care for children, the sick, and the elderly.

Feminism’s horizons have narrowed dramatically since its utopian 1960s and 70s heyday. The most important recent feminist book about work issues, Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller Lean In, had little to say about public solutions to lighten women’s care burden. Instead, in the classic capitalist-friendly self-help tradition, her book urges women to direct their energies on changing themselves, not the system.

There are, however, some moderately encouraging signs that things may be changing on the care front. Late last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a paid family leave bill in Congress, and there are also movements to enact similar bills in many states. This could be a game-changer for the millions of women who lack paid, job-protected leave to care for their loved ones.

Yet, as vital as efforts like these are, they are grossly underreported, even in the feminist media that you’d think would be most interested in them. Feminist issues around the body, reproductive rights, rape culture, and so on are always going to be sexier, and easier to sell to mainstream media outlets, than feminist issues around work. The carnivalesque appeal of a feminist demonstration like “Slutwalk” is obvious—but a “Shitwork Walk,” if one were to be organized, not so much.

It’s also true that for the younger women who are the audience for much feminist media, issues like reproductive rights and rape culture are more of an immediate concern. Their consciousness tends to get raised about the economic issues later, when they notice their low pay relative to their male peers, or when they themselves struggle with child care or elder care issues.


Photo by Dustin Gilbert

Even within the spectrum of feminist care issues, care for the elderly tends to be neglected. Child care tends to be a happier burden; you’re nurturing someone at the beginning of life and seeing them grow and develop. But care for an elderly person occurs at the end of that person’s life. Instead of seeing them develop their abilities, you often witness them losing those abilities—a difficult, and lonely, process. Unlike children, the elderly become not less dependent, but more so. In the end, your primary task as a caregiver is to help them achieve a dignified and pain-free death.

As the population ages, increasing numbers of Americans are taking on elder care responsibilities. As Jamie Nesbitt Golden notes, we need policies that recognize this, and that make more resources available to the caregivers and those in need of care.

Feminists should be at the forefront of these efforts. Privatizing care responsibilities shifts the burden on to women’s shoulders and holds back their progress in society. Socializing care enables the burden to be shared more equally and allows women to advance. Unpaid care work profoundly disadvantages women, and we won’t achieve gender equity until such work is fairly shared, and fairly compensated.