The Reproduction of Domesticity: Gender Construction in the New Economy

“Because of the seemingly natural connection between women’s childbearing and lactation capacities and their responsibility for child care, and because humans need extended care in childhood, women’s mothering has been taken for granted. It has been assumed as inevitable by social scientists, by many feminists, and certainly by those opposed to feminism. As a result, although women’s mothering is of profound importance for family structure, for relations between the sexes, for ideology about women, and for the sexual division of labor and sexual inequality both inside and outside the family and in the nonfamilial world, it is rarely analyzed.” Nancy Chodorow. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley, CA: University of California Pr., 1978.

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s 1999 book, Domestica,[1] documents and explores the lives and work conditions of the rapidly expanding sector of immigrant domestic workers. A vast migration of women from poorer nations in regions such as Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and Africa into industrialized nations in North America, Western Europe, and Asia is taking place with a push-pull dynamic of lowered employment prospects in the exporting nations and an expanding market of homes with a full-time employed adult woman (single adult men do hire such domestic help, but usually not for childcare) in the importing regions seeking relief from a hectic “double-shift” that layers domestic responsibilities for women atop of their growing presence in the non-domestic job market. As of 2009, women are 51% of the U.S. workforce.[2] Similar trends are occurring in other industrial nations.

Even when working women with children don’t hire in-home help, it is nearly always women who provide basic childcare, whether in free-standing or home-based daycare. This historic nearly global practice of saddling women with care for children and housework constitutes a, perhaps the, primary nexus for reproducing the inequality of women over time. As nearly all children are first exposed to human relationships, language, and life-supporting care from a woman, children of all sexes are conditioned to reflexively see this caregiving work as “women’s work” and typically carry such attitudes into adulthood. In the case of males, this means full-time childcare and housework is something they will rarely if ever show interest in doing. In the case of most females, childcare and housework comes to bear the weight of destiny that even years of adulthood without children cannot entirely erase. This division of labor perpetuates in significant ways the construction of male privilege and female exploitation and repression. This gender privilege does not exist in a vacuum, as theorists of intersectionality such as Patricia Hill Collins[3], emphasize. Gender, race, class, and other social stratification and segmentation systems impact these dynamics. In the case of immigrant domestic workers, economic class and cultural ethnicity are directly relevant, as are the political questions of citizenship and immigration.

Chodorow’s thesis that female-centric mothering structures the human psyche to deeply imprint sexist attitudes upon children offers a starting-point for analyzing the impacts of this division of labor on the wider society. While statistical measurement of these impacts are likely incomplete, some hypothetical consequences can be surmised. The key proposed hypothesis is that the current trend towards immigrant women taking over substantial portions of childcare from middle and upper class women will reconfigure this sexist imprinting in significant ways, yet not fundamentally alter gender, class, nor racial attitudes in children cared for by immigrant domestic workers. As middle and upper class children are likely to enter positions of social influence in their adult years, these gender, racial, and class role expectations will likely have social impacts on how society’s dominant sectors structure social policy and institutions.

Hondagneu-Sotelo’s work focuses her primary attention on the relations of immigrant domestic workers with their employers and the wider society. The relation between these workers and the children many of them care for are nearly invisible in her text, though where they do appear is significant. In a section titled, “Nanny/Housekeepers Versus Housecleaners” she states nanny/housekeepers “are paid for activities — nurturing, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes, coaxing children to bathe, nap, or eat — that are emotional, intimate, and particularly tailored to each child. They become genuinely attached to the children as they perform these tasks day in and out.”[4] From the perspective of a feminist analysis of childcare as formative of gendered social attitudes, this description begs the question, “what sort of attachment to the nanny are the children developing, and what are its consequences?”

A humorous treatment of this attachment is found in the comedy film, Malibu’s Most Wanted, in which the main character, Brad Gluckman, is a privileged white son of a politician living in Malibu, CA. His black nanny/housekeeper singing rap songs to him all day is recalled fondly as an adult and credited with imprinting him with a passion for that genre and inspiring his adoption of hip-hop slang and dress styles. The possibility that an upper class child could be imprinted by a nanny to adopt the culture of a racially disadvantaged group is suggestive, though obviously exaggerated for comedic license. However, in a significant number of households in industrial nations, children are subjected to an intensely personal relationship with a nanny who is not from their own cultural background. A feminist perspective would highlight the fact that these relationships will still be marked as gendered with the consequences of reproducing many of familiar entrenched attitudes towards women and men’s differentiated positions in social and cultural orders. An intersectionality perspective will develop other lines of analysis bearing upon race, class, and political categories.

Employment of nannies by privileged households has a long pedigree. In colonial eras, the families of administrative officials from the colonizing nations employed nannies hired from the native population or they often used slave labor. Raising children in privileged homes with nannies from another culture or racial group isn’t novel. What may be a new development is the rise of a larger number of families that can employ such services on a broader scale than ever before. The spread of modern industrial capitalism over much of the world with its power to manipulate both poorer and wealthier nations down to such intimate activities as the raising of children should alert analysts and critics of social inequality of the relevance of the personality formation of new generations of social and economic leadership.

In families where the biological or step-mother of the children is employed outside the home while a nanny of a subordinate cultural group cares for the children, the development of gender attitudes can be expected to be somewhat diversified as compared to a family where the mother does the majority of the child-raising. This has the possible desirable consequence of the child developing a sense that women of its own cultural group are not limited to domestic roles. However, the positive aspect of this possibility is minimized by the continuing identification of nurturing and intimacy with a female. When men and women begin to seek out an intimate partner to begin their own families, these intimate feelings may be triggered more strongly than the opposing openness to outside employment for women. The persistence of the “double burden” in wealthier families, even if supplemented by a domestic employee, suggests this to be the case.

Another predictable outcome would be a racialized projection of subordinate social value to the ethnic group to which the nanny belongs. Since intimate care for children, especially during infancy and toddler stages, sets up powerful feelings of love, longing, neglect, and resentment, a predisposition that draws upon these ambivalences might be expected to persist into adulthood. A child who feels persistently neglected or mistreated by a nanny may be more likely to grow up projecting such negative attitudes on to the entire culture of origin of the nanny. A moment’s self-examination of one’s attitudes towards our parents and other early caregivers will likely reveal intensely conflicted feelings of gratitude, affection, anger, and disappointment. In many cases, it will reveal even more intense emotional layers. A basic assumption of psychoanalytic social theories such as The Authoritarian Personality[5] is that

“the process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of [a child’s] individual personality, but it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which the child becomes more separate from them. This growing separation may result in an isolation that has the quality of desolation and creates intense anxiety and insecurity; it may result in a new kind of closeness and a solidarity with others if the child has been able to develop the inner strength and productivity which are the premise of this new kind of relatedness with the world.”[6]

The “original identity with others” refers to the primal bonds of an infant with its earliest caregivers, which feminists emphasize are almost exclusively connected to female adults. A child’s earliest self-perception is fused with its experiences of its female caregiver. An involved male caregiver can also be fused with this self-perception, but economic roles alone tend to remove fathers from early infancy for at least 40 crucial hours every week of the new child’s short lifespan. Add to this economic factor typical masculine behavior – likely induced by the absence of intimate fathering during infancy in the first place – that inhibits affection and nurturant behavior, especially towards male infants, and the wall between the genders in matters of childcare and domestic intimacy are solidly constructed and reproduced.

Feminist advocates have long upheld the ideal of involved early childhood equal-time fathering, or “feminist co-parenting” for short, as a key component to larger goals of dismantling gendered inequalities in our society.[7] Such ideals are severely undermined if both parents work outside the home and necessary childcare is hired out to female caregivers, whether immigrant or citizen. A consistent feminism would seek out male caregivers to share an equal amount of this important life-shaping nurturance. However, a limited availability of male babysitters and nannies is virtually guaranteed by the overwhelming weight of economic sanctions that reinforce the common male aversion to such tasks. The continuing persistence of economic and psychological barriers to gender equality in this intimate sphere of life may seem insurmountable, and barely on the radar of many activists and critics of male domination.

However, some possible “affirmative action” remedies seems quite simple, if some social momentum supporting them can be marshalled. Babysitting classes today are almost exclusively given to young girls, but extending this education to young boys on a large scale might be quite powerful in its effects. Beyond this, early childcare education programs could be encouraged and incentivized to recruit men into the ranks of childcare providers. In fact, if men become a growing proportion of childcare providers and babysitters, the valuation of these occupations may substantially increase, bringing their market value into closer line with their actual worth. The widespread sexist devaluation of childcare (and other domestic labor) as “natural” “women’s work” requiring no learned skills will then be revealed as gross falsehoods in the strong light of real experience.

[1] Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. Domestica: Immigrant Workers Caring and Cleaning in the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Pr., 2001.

[2] “Female Power.”  Editorial. The Economist. Dec. 30, 2009.

[3] Margaret L. Andersen, and Patricia Hill Collins. “Systems of Power and Inequality.” Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2007.

[4] Hondagneu-Sotelo. Op. cit. p. 194.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford. The Authoritarian Personality, Studies in Prejudice Series, Volume 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1950.

[6] Erich Fromm. Escape From Freedom. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1941.

[7] Isaac Balbus. Emotional Rescue: The Theory and Practice of a Feminist Father. New York: Routledge, 1998. This book offers both an engaging intellectual memoir and a touching account of the author’s own personal struggle to live out his ideals with his daughter.

One thought on “The Reproduction of Domesticity: Gender Construction in the New Economy

  1. I think your analysis is spot on. One thing I also wonder: how might “mothering” and child-rearing roles influence the way we understand the sex of “woman,” not just its gender. In other words, these roles are so ingrained into our society that we have naturalized this sexism into the very anatomical anatomy of male and female.

    This, I think, is one of the struggles we will find if we advocate for equal-time fathering, because doing such effectively asks men to do something not only outside of their gender performance, but what they see as their established sexual identity.

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