Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is Press for Progress. The annual year-long campaign inspires people all over the world to consider the issues women face year-round, think about solutions and bring people together to take action for change.
Last year, the US women’s hockey team adopted the #BeBoldForChange theme, rallied for equal pay and caused a stir when it refused to play in the national finals without a satisfactory deal. They were inspired by the campaign and found a way to use it to their benefit. Throughout the rest of 2018, we are called to press for progress.
We have to do more than think, ask and wait and we certainly cannot settle. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about work — what we do and do not see as work, what we think deserves pay and who we think should do specific kinds of work. Work is political.
As a gender rights activist, I spend at least a part of every day thinking about feminism, gender equality, the current state of affairs and what it will take to create the change we need. Around International Women’s Day, I think more deeply about where we are and what the campaign theme inspires. This time around, admittedly, my thoughts are at least partly guided by social media activity.
As I scrolled Facebook on Monday, I noticed a number of friends had shared an interesting article — “The Invisible Workload of Motherhood is Killing Me” — from the Scary Mommy website. It clearly struck a nerve with many mothers, in The Bahamas and elsewhere, who relate to having a long list of tasks no one else notices unless they go undone. Many of them seem like small things, like remembering birthdays, but when considered cumulatively, we have to admit they can be overwhelming.
We see some of the work mothers do. Meal preparation, laundry, shuttling children to and fro and constant cleaning are in plain sight.
This article, though, was focused on the mental and emotional work undertaken by mothers.
Knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes, remembering which grocery items need to be used before they expire or spoil, keeping track of permission slips and field trips, planning celebrations and making childcare arrangements are all in a day’s work.
How often do we think about these things and recognise them as labour? If someone outside of the household was responsible for this work, would we pay them? If we had to do this work for other people, would we expect to be paid?
I was reminded of the old song, “No Charge.” You’ve probably heard the Shirley Caesar version, especially if you spent any amount of time at your grandparents’ house listening to 1540AM. It’s about a little boy who went to his mother with a bill, itemising and pricing all of the tasks he’d completed. He charged five dollars for mowing the lawn, 50 cents for a trip to the grocery store and even charged five dollars for his own good grades.
It’s cute and funny, imagining a child demanding payment, but interesting that he recognised it all as work.
Seeing it as a teachable moment, the mother listed some work of her own, emphasising that she didn’t charge a dime.
For the nine months I carried you, holding you inside me, no charge
For the nights I sat up with, doctored you, and prayed for you, no charge
For the time and tears and the costs throughout the years
There is no charge
When you add it all up the full cost of my love is no charge
Summing it up in the last verse of the song, Caesar sings about Jesus giving his life for her, paying the price so she had no debt. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, moving comparison. On the other, how costly and how sad is it that mothers are, all at once, our salvation and our source of endless unpaid labour?
Unpaid labour doesn’t begin and end with mothers. It extends to sisters and daughters too. At a recent Women’s Wednesdays event, we heard from a number of women who talked about the burden of unpaid labour in their own homes.
They told stories of expectations and demands, made to do work that wasn’t required of their brothers. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of other siblings are duties generally relegated to girls and the pattern continues into adulthood.
Who is usually responsible for the care of elderly relatives? It was even pointed out that we understand the need to pay non-relatives when they cook, clean and care for us, but do not put the same value to work by our family members. Many of us don’t even think to offer our help.
In another Women’s Wednesdays conversation, this time about money, panelists agreed women should consider getting paid help in the home.
This led to two other points — every woman can’t afford to pay for help in the home and the women who are paid to help in others’ homes are generally underpaid. The conversation was a reminder and perfect example of how layered these issues are and how much work is left to be done.
We can agree it’s great to have help in the home, but what about the people who can’t afford it? How can we better at sharing the workload? It’s great to find affordable help, but what is the cost to all of us when they don’t get a living wage?
This International Women’s Day, I am imagining new ways of thinking and going about our work. I’m thinking about the women who have ten jobs, but only get paid for one. The people who get home from work to work even harder than they did at their full-time jobs are on my mind. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the people who are so desperate for help they don’t think about the long-term effects of underpaying the people they hire to help.
I wonder what I can do, you can do, we can do to see work — no matter where it’s done or who does it — as work, and figure out appropriate compensation, or how to share the burden.
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