Revisiting “Love’s Labor”

Eva Feder Kittay’s groundbreaking book, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, was written more than 10 years ago but it is still a must-read for any serious feminist. Kittay calls into question some common-sense ideas about what it means to be “independent” and truly “equal.” What does true “equality”  for all women look like?

Here’s an excerpt from a book review of Love’s Labor that I wrote for a graduate seminar last year:

One of the best things that can be said about Eva Feder Kittay’s Love’s Labor is that it strives to push the limits of dominant Western political thought and seeks to explore the ways in which the liberal egalitarian tradition, exemplified by John Rawls, has functioned to penalize dependents and their caregivers. Kittay shows us that the term “welfare mom” exists as an ugly epithet in the American lexicon for example because people have passively accepted the Rawlsian definition of the “full citizen” as someone who is autonomous.

Low-income moms who fail to conform to the ‘male breadwinner’ ideal (that is, those who cannot work full time or who choose not to outsource the care of their children to outsiders) cannot legitimately demand access to social goods under a Rawlsian philosophical framework because the ‘work’ that they are doing is not valued as productive labor. These women must therefore rely on charity or ‘hand outs’ from the state and accept with this aid a certain indignity that comes with fierce social stigmas and state-imposed limitations.

Kittay notes that “the state has at times taken on many of the powers of patriarchal provider: dispensing financial rewards and punishments and controlling the women’s sexual activity, her access to her children,” etc (42); and we see that current welfare policies seek to ‘reform’ women by nudging them into marriages or pushing them into the workforce rather than assisting them in doing their necessary dependency work.

Kittay says that contemporary welfare policies failed to meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable citizens because they have failed to acknowledge the reality of dependency.  “Few, if any, political theories have seriously concerned themselves with the lives led by those persons (women) who have had to deal with the inevitable dependencies,” Kittay writes (110). When public policies are based on idealizations of ‘persons’ as independent and fully-functioning and are not based on the lived experience of individuals who experience varying degrees of dependency, these policies inevitably exclude or marginalize those persons who do not live up to a particular ideal.

Before any real change may occur, we must recognize the fact that “dependency work,” the paid or unpaid work of nannies, nurses, parents, friends and relatives who change diapers and clean bed pans, is not only inevitable, but is also vital to the success of any society that wants to reproduce itself. This is why Kittay pushes for a conception of morality that includes dependency and its care in Part I (Chapters One and Two): “[G]rasping the moral nature of the relation between unequals in a dependency relation will bring us closer to a new assessment of equality itself,” Kittay argues (50).  Like a mother who has a moral obligation to care for her infant, society has a moral obligation to support the care of its dependents; when ‘dependency work’ is viewed as an optional, supererogatory good, it tends to fall unevenly on the shoulders of women whose interests are not equally represented in the public sphere.


Feministing community member switchintoglide wrote a wonderful post on the subject of feminism and the ‘myth of independence’ last year. She observed that independence and privilege tend to go hand-in-hand. When talking about her scholarships, her stellar CV and other ‘marks of her feminism,’ switchintoglide writes:

My “independence” — my “success” — was reliant upon systems of domination. Therefore I never really was independent, because in constructing this narrative of self-reliance about myself, I denied not only my privileges, but my support networks as well. I denied the fact that in defining my own success as such, I was tacitly approving of the systems of domination from which I benefit.

The truth is that if “independence” means ‘having a career’ and/or ‘refusing to stay in the home,’ then women who have access to the most privilege will be the ones who are most ‘independent.’ Young women who don’t have families, for example, have a much easier time navigating the marketplace than women who have resume gaps because they took a few months off of work to have a child or to care for a sick or aging relative. (By the way, the solution to this problem isn’t “women: stop having personal lives!”). Women can certainly balance work and family life, but middle class women’s ability to ‘have it all’ – career and family – is often predicated on the availability of cheap dependency labor (i.e. less-wealthy women).

I don’t claim to know what “independence” truly looks like — but I am interested in exploring this question further.

Any thoughts?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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