This Woman's Work
Women are the backbone of capitalism and labor production. We make up half of the 7 billion population on earth and account for a majority of the labor done across all types of economies, levels of production, societal systems and family units to keep this world turning. In the rural and countryside labor systems, we tend crops on farms and plantations; in the city and metropolitan areas, we’re cramped into factories, sweatshops and customer service industries. At home, we handle housework, childcare, cooking and house management; in our relationships, we handle the transformation and emotional exploration of our partners, the unpacking of past traumas and unresolved conflicts, and the teaching of love’s magic to our partners. On top of that, we know all too well about the often “off the record” or informal jobs women can and do often hold that also contribute to industry and economy. Our labor is intensive, it doesn’t discriminate against age, race, ethnicity or religion, and more importantly, it’s thankless, rarely acknowledged for its importance and necessity in maintaining a violent and destructive consumer drive culture as well as the patriarchy, and never paid accordingly. And it’s exactly this unpaid labor, explained away to us as “a woman’s duty,” as "women's work" that makes capitalism a profitable economic system, with millions and perhaps billions of dollars able to go to the men in power that perpetuate it instead of going into the hands of women who have worked for and earned it. Who does this affect and oppress more than poor, working-class women of color who are given only two choices: give into the societal pressure to participate in semi-slave like labor or die?
What began as a simple division of labor in the days of agrarian economies, over centuries, slowly became laced and ridden with ideas of morality, chastity, piety, and duty as the state and religion joined forces to induce people into thinking that their work was God’s will. Women no longer had a choice or say in what type of labor they wanted to do because tradition and religion regulated their roles in society. Repetition and generational inheritance became oppressive lords of the land. As the industrial revolution rolled in and women began to leave the country-side for the city in hopes of escaping their current situation, what they found was a new mutation of the same system: women funneled into work that men deemed too lowly for them to do, work that literally kept them in the background, in basements, in back rooms, their labor and their bodies being used as a foundation and energy source of day-to-day life. As industrial and modern labor became gendered, with jobs such as flight attendants and waiters rendered “women’s work” while police officers or mechanics were “men’s work,” so did the emotional and domestic labor within families and relationships.
Women are taught the basics of emotional labor at a young age, pushed to care after our brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles, learning how to soothe and nurture them without ever expecting anything in return. From being left to pick up the plates after dinner to being handed only domestic chores like cleaning and laundry within the household to being told that these “skills” are given to us in order to “prepare” us for marriage, to “prepare” us to be “good” wives, upholding heteronormavity and heterosexuality, both of which keep the patriarchy alive and strong, women are funneled and groomed into emotional labor literacy development, with the only driving notion behind this system being the idea that this is what women do, this is what we’re built for, this is what we’re good at, this is what makes us women. We’re told that this is the “natural” state of women: calming, nurturing, emotional, soft, giving, self-sacrificing, magical, but it’s not. It’s exactly this coding of emotional labour as women’s work that makes it invisible, especially to men, who are only taught (both through observing us perform these tasks from a young age and being directly and indirectly told that they are not expected to nor should express any interest in learning what is marked as women’s work) that this is labor we are not only “good” at, but actually enjoy and want to do. What I want you to know is that it’s not “natural”: emotional labor and emotional awareness and emotional expression are not innate nor are they exclusive to women, they are taught and learnable to everyone and anyone willing to put in the effort, time, dedication and care it takes to perform this labor and keep up the exchange of emotional support for intimacy at an equal rate. What I want you to know is how exhausting, debilitating, thankless and underrated emotional labor is for women, how many women are trapped in this imbalanced and violent economic system for fear of knowing what might happen if they didn’t do this work, for fear of not knowing how to exist without emotional labor being tied to the central pillar of female identity.
Whether in romantic or platonic relationships, women are expected to always be ready to (give) love. And love is work. Relationships are built on this premise, of being “works in progress,” which is painted in a very romanticized way for women. We have been flooded, since early adolescence, with books, films, television and music that tell the same narrative: an emotionally stunted man meeting an inviting, attractive girl that makes him “want” to love, that “awakens” something in him, that “inspires” him, that “draws” something out of him. Women are encouraged to entice, to pacify, to manage the emotional progress and development of these closed-off partners, to be The One who ultimately “saves” these individuals, that helps them “grow” and “blossom.” More importantly, it is this media inundation that also informs and allows men to fall into these Stoic Man tropes, which tells them that emotionality is to be done solely on the part of women, that pressures them to repress and reject the desire to be soft, vulnerable, open, emotionally intelligent people. It is true that men are not given the space in society to have and express the same emotions in the way that women are; this is why they go crawling into our wombs, our cradles of love in order to find solace. It is through this that we fall into and perpetuate generational cycles of the division of labor: men are being stunted at an early age, inundated with “boys don’t cry,” “be a man about it,” “emotions are a sign of weakness,” refused a safe place to explore and express and, most importantly, to learn emotional literacy. Meanwhile women are forced into developing (and even overdeveloping) their emotional intuition, learning ways to serve men (physically, emotionally, sexually), both as a survival technique and a coping method because we are allowed and encouraged to be, embrace, and embody patriarchal notions of soft, loving femininity. Both of these spheres of existence, the rigid male and female realms created by the patriarchy, are like a subtle poison deteriorating the connection between the self and the (gender) role we’re assigned and forced to play.
For women, keeping relationships on track and afloat is a job that often falls on our shoulders, and it’s the idea of failing, the fear of not living up to being a “good” woman that keeps the patriarchy alive and strong, is what leads us to take on emotional labor within a relationship. It’s the realization that either we do it or it won’t get done, either we do it or we cannot have a relationship with a man, either we do it or we have to accept that we will have to be alone. Men are clogged and confused and convoluted or at least they’re allowed to be. Doing a man’s emotional labor for them, not with them, upholds the idea that women exist to serve men. To mend our often “damaged” or “broken partners,” to help them work through past traumas, to help them “get in touch” with their often fractured or underdeveloped emotions is seen as women’s work. They tell us we’re naturally good at it to make us feel better, to make themselves feel better about being lazy and ultimately uninterested in developing emotional intelligence and awareness on their own, to evade doing the work it takes to reciprocate the emotional support and safety we provide them. They tell us we’re frigid and cold if we refuse to do this work, that we imagine this imbalance and lack of reciprocity on the part of men, that we’ll end up alone and miserable – a death sentence to women under the patriarchy and capitalism – if we continue to “nag” about wanting our needs met or even wanting recognition and acknowledgement for what we do. What they don't tell us is that their progress and growth comes at the price of their leeching of women’s strength, of women’s work, of which only they will reap the benefits.
For the patriarchy and capitalism, keeping women in positions where the work they do ultimately benefits men exclusively; it “strengthens” men, encourages us to be sidekicks and second bananas, encourages us to invest time and energy developing men instead of fostering ourselves; keeping emotional labor as “women’s work” is one of the best things to come out of industrialization and modernization. Women now find themselves in a continued and forced state of embodying the act of love, that is, being loving toward others. We must always be ready and, more importantly, willing, to give, to please, to help and to work. Our entire existence is often framed in the context of finding love, and doing the work that entails that search: following the guidelines to traditional and patriarchal ideas of femininity learning to be quiet, submissive, and passive, being a virgin (or at least presenting the idea of virginity and the virginal) and pleasing, sexually and aesthetically. We are forced to obsess over the concept of one-sidedly doing the work love and relationships entail. Men don’t have this pressure. Men don’t have to worry about meeting the needs of women, the patriarchy and capitalism encourages them to only be cognizant and aware of only their needs and to then find ways to have those needs met at any price; a majority of the time, it will be at women’s expense.
What I’m getting at is this: I am tired of trying to be a womb for men. I’m tired of women being encouraged, from birth, to be wombs, being told they must be wombs, and then actually being wombs for them and their bloodlines. I’m tired of coddling men, making up different reasons and scenarios that explain away their parasitical tendencies in relationships. I’m tired of women being seen as some ethereal healing vessel when we are just humans, just people like anyone else. I’m tired of women feeling like we’re responsible for healing men, for bringing them into our sacred spaces of healing. I’m tired of women thinking that men can’t do the work we do, that they’re too “dumb” or explaining away their habits in a way that keeps them in power, in a way that never forces them to confront the truth. I’m tired of emotional labor being seen as something only women can do, that emotional labor cannot be done by men alone and must occur with the help and guidance of women. I’m tired of people thinking that men’s aloofness to emotional labor is because of socialization when it’s actually a calculated move, an intentional fleeing, a genuine disinterest and disgust at doing any work within a relationship. I’m tired of women seeing something that’s not there in men and thinking it’s their job to draw it out, to claw it out, to slam their fists against the walls that encase their emotionally evasive tendencies. I’m tired of women fighting with emotionally inept men, who willfully and actively reject and refuse to do the emotional labor required to be vulnerable with another. I’m tired.
I don’t blame men for the way women are trapped into this unfair system of emotional oppression. They are as trapped as we are, only that their trap allows them to still thrive, still have power, still have influence and the ability to assert it. The division of emotional labor does not allow women those same freedoms and powers. This is not to say that we want them; the reason for this essay isn’t to say that we want “in” on the way men evade their part in relationships with friends, family and partners. We don’t. We aren’t looking for ways to be “empowered” within this system of oppression, we don’t want to emulate men and their emotional coldness, that is a cop-out. We want to be liberated from it. We want to destroy the system that perpetuates this injustice and violence against us, a system that protects and empowers those who cause our harm and threatens our existence should we speak out. Until we can see how our emotional labor practices in relationships not only mirror but are a direct result of the way that capital, labor, gender, race, and body politics intersect, intertwine and overlap, we cannot be free – we will not be free –from this fate of reliving and recycling generations of past traumas.