Bringing Social Reproduction back into Politics

Mariz Tadros argues that the lack of attention to care needs creates very real barriers to the participation of women in formal politics. Using research from various countries, she shows how women who get involved in community and local politics either do not run for a second term or do not move from informal participation to formal full-time elected positions. Those who do enter formal politics and stay there tend to be women with no unpaid care responsibilities or those who have the resources to delegate care to paid workers or to extended family. The result is a tendency for class bias among the women who are in formal representative politics.

I think Tadros is right that capacity to resolve unpaid care burdens is a variable in determining which women enter politics and stay there. As she shows the problem is systemic – it permeates the ways in which elections but also the ways in which institutions run, the working cultures and the relative burdens on women versus men in the seemingly equal space of parliaments. It is a compelling point and a timely reminder of the kinds of issues that were discussed in some detail in the second wave of feminism, but seem to have been lost in the campaigns to increase women’s numerical representation.

I like very much that Tadros has brought these issues back into the debate. I am less convinced that these necessarily create a rift between elite and poor women; I don’t think Tadros is making the argument as strongly as that but for the purposes of debate let me push her comments to a harder conclusion. For one thing, the resolution of unpaid care burdens by employing domestic workers or using extended family networks does not touch upon the ideological dimensions of social reproduction. It is usually still women’s responsibility to negotiate solutions and to bear the emotional burden, regardless of their available material resources. I was reminded of the recent statements by Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi about the difficulties of balancing work with family responsibilities. Nooyi appears to have refined the art of outsourcing parenting: her secretary knew the rules of homework and TV watching so well that she was able to make decisions about when Nooyi’s daughter could turn on her favourite show. But Nooyi also spoke about her mother’s reaction to her announcement that she had been made CEO, which roughly went along the lines: “you may be very important at work but at home you are wife, mother, daughter, so just go out and buy the milk”.

This kind of example shows the persistence of the gendered division of labour across class and raises a political question. Of course Tadros is right to point out that it is not only women who must take responsibility; men too must address their own patriarchal power. But it is women – across race, ethnicity, class – who have the most to gain from a reconsideration of models of social reproduction. How might coalitions of women be built across class to win policy demands to equalise care burdens, in part by socialising these and redirecting public resources towards their resolution? There are Scandinavian examples of such action, in a period very different to ours, when states appeared to respond to demands for thorough-going attention to the systemic bases of inequality. The solutions that resulted, such as paid leave for parents, state provision of care, working hours that accommodated family responsibilities all remain relevant today.

Having more women in parliaments and governments – even if they are from economic elites – ought to present an opportunity to push for the expansion of such policies and their entrenchment in the priorities of governments. That they do not signifies a weakness in feminist politics in dealing with the systemic issues Tadros raises. It is the disengagement of the politics of representation from the politics of transformation that has resulted from a focus on access that lies at the heart of this problem. What we need is a re-energising of feminist politics that puts the gendered division of labour and issues of social reproduction front and centre – and that holds representatives to account. Especially those politicians who get into office on the back of feminist demands for parity of representation.

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