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Megan K. Stack’s Women’s Work doesn’t have much to offer women workers

One of industrial capitalism’s gravest sins is the separation of work from home. Factories cleaved in two what was once a unified sphere, a place that you both created and inhabited, living relatively un-alienated amongst the fruits of your labor. Not that it was an equal place—men were in charge and managed household finances. But what replaced that way of doing things didn’t liberate women, either. “Given that capitalism destroyed the material base of patriarchal control over women and children,” asks Marxist feminist Johanna Brenner, “how do we explain the oppression of women in capitalism?”

A broom and a cradle are good places to start. Conveniently, the horrible conditions of turn-of-the-century factories prevented pregnant women and those with children from leaving the domestic sphere. With men out earning money for the family, there was no reason, they decided, to pay women for the exhausting business of social reproduction, “the work of reproducing ourselves from one day to the next” as Brenner defines it. Everything would collapse if no one stuck around to do the cooking, the cleaning, and the child-rearing that grew toddlers into assembly-liners—yet this new economy also relied on not paying most women for that work.

When women did begin to take up wage labor, as so many do now, those children quickly became an impediment (to them) and a liability (to their bosses). Today, if the work pays poorly, women often leave their kids with someone else in the family, or else a daycare worker. Like the parent leaving home to work, the child leaves home, too, for a third sphere—childcare—created by that original cleaving.

Parents with money get another option: a dedicated professional surrogate hired to coagulate over the family wound of race, gender, and labor that upper-class living opens.

Parents with money can have a dedicated professional surrogate to coagulate over the family wound of race, gender, and labor that upper-class living opens.

Nannies are an uncomfortable invention, which is why the beloved pop culture ones are sparkling and humble: in an ideal world, the nanny is a woman as white and upper-class as her host family (or at least she aspires to be), someone who loves what she does and has thus never worked a day in her life. She might be whimsical (Mary Poppins), gentle (Mrs. Doubtfire), bubbly (Maria von Trapp), or goofy (Fran Fine), but she never complains about the weirdness of her job. She is never really thought of as an employee—one with rights to privacy, good working conditions, and reasonable hours—but as a member of the family.

Befitting the binaries of fiction, nannies in pop culture who aren’t perfect must be pitch-black: devils who kill children, seduce husbands, and undermine motherhood—“a monster living in our house,” as Jessa Crispin writes. Reality suggests otherwise. Like laborers of all kinds, some are fantastic, some are terrible, but most just do this demanding, existentially strange job as best they can. And unlike their fictional counterparts, the majority of domestic workers who work in private homes are not white.

Moms with nannies, unsurprisingly, may feel guilty about the arrangement. Megan K. Stack, a former Los Angeles Times war correspondent, has fashioned that guilt into a new book called Women’s Work. In this long narrative memoir, Stack details the complex relationships she found herself grappling with—between herself and her nannies, herself and her husband, women and men, paid and unpaid work, white women and women of color —as she learned to live in “a house that was also a job site.” The experience of hiring domestic workers for the first time while living abroad radicalizes her, although she stops short of quite connecting all the dots.

The book begins in Beijing, where Stack has decided to hang up her flack jacket and create both a debut novel and a new human. For months after her son Max’s birth, she resists the chiding of friends, both local and expat, to give into the norm of women in their class and hire a nanny. She thinks she can do it all single-handedly—raise an infant, manage her house, sustain her marriage, and write a manuscript, avoiding the thorny politics surrounding “cheap Chinese labor” of a particularly personal kind.

But one night while brushing her teeth, after weeks of trying to juggle all these things, she has a realization: the reason women are underrepresented in the world isn’t that they’re being aggressively prevented from having careers, making art, or doing whatever personally fulfilling things they want to do. (Stack does not acknowledge that women of color do, in fact, face crushing discrimination and harassment in the workplace and beyond.) The reason is that women have no time to do any of it, because they have been saddled for centuries with housework and the raising of children. “It is not a job, but a constant gaping demand for labor,” she recalls thinking for the first time, “the work that we still, somehow, have not managed to escape. It is the work that we pretend does not exist.”

Stack’s observation is not new. In her 1898 book Women and Economics, the early feminist (and, incidentally, very racist) writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman wondered whether “wives, as earners through domestic service, are entitled to the wages of cooks, housemaids, nursemaids, seamstresses, or housekeepers.” Six decades later, as the Civil Rights Movement dispersed, black housekeepers formed the Household Technicians of America in 1971 to demand recognition of their status as skilled laborers; generously, they made sure also to highlight, as historian Premilla Nadasen points out, that “housewives [were] doing the same work without pay.” Around the same time, the Wages for Housework movement in Italy and the United States declared that wives—and all women—should be paid for domestic work. In her 1975 essay on the topic, Silvia Federici echoes Stack’s bedtime epiphany, although she also names an enemy: “We are not speaking of a job as other jobs, but we are speaking of the most pervasive manipulation, the most subtle and mystified violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated against any section of the working class.”

Federici and her fellow activists also hit on something Stack almost immediately begins to squirm against once she hires her first nanny, a young woman named Xiao Li: wages can also be a way to obscure work that is not easily categorized. As such, Wages for Housework was not a literal demand. It was an attempt to highlight, and ultimately destroy, the gendered division of labor that domestic workers are hired to extend—and thereby, as Sarah Jaffe writes, “subvert capitalism itself.” Having a nanny, as Stack learns, doesn’t magically summon a leisurely writer’s paradise. Because she is a confessed neat-freak and her husband is a picky eater, she continues doing some housework and splits the labor of nurturing Max with Xiao Li. At the same time, she crops her employee out of family photos, participating in the same erasure of domestic labor that motivated her to hire Xiao Li in the first place.

Right up to the last page, Stack keeps doing this: almost landing on the Marxist polemic she swears she’s not writing.

Absent, also, from both the photo albums and daily life in the household is Stack’s husband Tom, who returns to an exciting reporting job shortly after Max’s birth. He can’t understand why his wife has become so attached to their employee, and why an arrangement he sees as leeching his finances hasn’t given Stack enough time to just finish her book already. He is baffled when, at the apex of an argument over money, she seethes at him, “I keep telling you, you don’t understand this house anymore.” Like so many men, Tom simply doesn’t get it. He has never carried the mental load, the forever multiplying list of little tasks that women keep in their heads to keep their households running; he cannot understand how relieving it is to pay someone else to lift that burden.

When Tom moves the family to Delhi for another job, Xiao Li disappears and is replaced by two new workers. Mary is matronly and experienced; Pooja, who is younger, rivals Mary Poppins in her exquisite cooking and childcare skills. Like their Chinese predecessor, these Nepalese women have left behind their own rural families, including children, to care for wealthy metropolitans. Stack becomes even more enmeshed in their lives, to the point of stalking Pooja on Facebook. But she also begins to think even more critically about having these employees at all, transitioning from the pure guilt that characterized her relationship with Xiao Li into a relentlessly self-critical—and sometimes exhausting—examination of her status as a mistress of the house, a discomfort compounded by the fact that Stack’s own great-grandmother was a servant and an immigrant. 

After her fiction manuscript fails to gain much traction, she starts to think that maybe she should instead write about all this—her pregnancies, her nannies, her difficulty reconciling her decision to hire them. She also decides to put her flack jacket back on and interview them as people, once she has ended their labor agreement. As soon as she shares this idea with others, though, they bridle: “people assumed I was attacking the crucial element that made their life possible.” Her acquaintances don’t want to think as hard as she has. They prefer not to admit they rely on women whom their way of life has impoverished. Nonetheless, when a graduate student at a cocktail party asks Stack if she’s considered all this “from a Marxist perspective,” Stack retorts that her book is not “a polemic.”

It is—just not against capitalism. “In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work!” Stack practically yells toward the end of Women’s Work. She’s right: not only do the Toms of the world refuse to do housework, the ones who agree to are sometimes so bad at it that women have to do it over again. Focusing on the individual actions of men, though, leaves Stack without a satisfying conclusion, one “transfixed with the universality of male supremacy,” as Barbara Ehrenreich writes of feminists who eschew socialism.

In a recent Atlantic interview about her book, Stack admitted to coming up fairly empty-handed, her only takeaway a suggestion to give protections to domestic laborers—categorizing them as workers, as she learned to see them, and as the Household Technicians of America insisted they be seen nearly half a century ago. “But honestly, that’s like fixing the leaks on a ship that we maybe shouldn’t even be on,” she added. Name the ship, Megan: it starts with a C!

Right up to the last page, Stack keeps doing this: almost landing on the Marxist polemic she swears she’s not writing. She never gets there because her book never mentions—or, you could say, it erases—decades of socialist feminist thought that preceded it. For such a worldly woman, and a journalist, it’s almost unbelievable that she never discovered this rich history. Or maybe she left it out on purpose, to lure in other comfortable white women who can’t quite put their finger on why they feel so bad about having a nanny but might balk at a socialist framing.

Regardless of why this thread is missing from Women’s Work, the omission allows Stack to reflect on the final page, of her relationship with Mary, that “I bought something from her that should not be for sale—her life force, her energy.” But this description applies to all wage labor. It’s just that women are asked to give away more of ourselves, for less recognition and less or no pay.

Maybe one day the leaky ship will sink, or we’ll find a better one to hop onto. Until then, we—the women, that is—will be stuck mopping the deck.