Ai-Jen Poo and book cover

Feministing Reads: Ai-jen Poo’s The Age of Dignity

With so much content accessible online today, the role of books has evolved. Books serve not just as substantive contributions — they are also events around which social movements can rally. So it is no surprise that one of the leading progressive organizers of our time, Ai-jen Poo, has written a book that helps clarify and amplify the mission and vision of her movement, the movement for domestic workers’ rights. 

The age of dignity book coverAi-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA), co-director of Caring Across Generations, and a lifelong activist for women of color and workers’ rights. During her tenure, NDWA has achieved resounding, unlikely policy successes in state legislatures and at the federal level that finally end the exclusion of domestic workers from basic labor protections like overtime. New York, California, Hawaii and several other states have enacted domestic workers’ protections, and the U.S. Department of Labor worked with NDWA to reform federal laws that exclude domestic workers. (My book, Part of the Family, was released in 2014 and chronicles these policy successes.)

Leading feminist activists like Gloria Steinem have long remarked upon Poo’s gifts as an organizer, and her career — and the movement — gained further spotlight in 2014 when she was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Her MacArthur bio includes this nugget: “Combining a deep understanding of the complex tangle of human relations around domestic work with keen strategic skills, Poo has created a vibrant, worker-led labor movement and spearheaded successful legislative campaigns at the national and international levels.”

Now, Poo’s book becomes yet another way to amplify the efforts of the domestic workers’ movement. The Age of Dignity (set to be released by The New Press on February 5) is primarily focused on the plight of aging Americans. Many families in the US are grappling with how they will care for a parent, grandparent, or other aging loved one, and by 2035 11.5 million Americans will be over the age of 85 — intensifying the need for affordable, professional, in-home care. This is an issue that resonates broadly with many Americans. The idea of strengthening in-home care services for grandmothers, grandfathers and other elders is one that is easy to get behind.

Tucked within this overarching focus are the less innocuous topics: feminism, how we value (or don’t value) women’s labor, and expanding labor protections for care workers. Often, these issues are not seen as integral to the wellness and economic stability of elders. But by weaving these concerns into the broader theme of care for the aging, Poo’s book accomplishes the larger objectives of the Caring Across Generations campaign: to expose and address the inter-tangled problems facing elders and women care workers.

Care workers are overwhelmingly women, and many are immigrant women. Dramatic increases in the migration of women from Central American countries will only entrench this reality over the coming decades. The Age of Dignity profiles many women who take on care work, and some of these stories come from Ai-jen Poo’s personal life.

For example, Mrs. Sun, who cared for Poo’s grandfather before his passing “came every day, usually twice a day, to see my grandfather. She arrived in the morning and stayed for the greater part of the day to help him with his needs as she always had — with eating and bathing — and to keep him company. Then she would go home for dinner with her own family. Most nights, she would return to the hospital after dinner just to check on him and my grandmother.” Mrs. Sun’s labor was indispensable for her family — not just because she showed up, but because she cared so deeply about the work.

Yet, as Poo notes in her chapter entitled “The Sandwich Generation,” many people lose their economic security when they choose to devote themselves to care work. She tells the story of a man from Florida who could not persuade his state unemployment insurance department to provide him unemployment compensation when he chose to leave his job to care for his parents. “Why can’t the government step in to pay me the small amount of extension of unemployment, so I can keep my parents happy by letting them stay at home? Why can’t they at least give us health insurance when we are taking care of our parents?”

The reason is clear: care work has historically never been considered “real” work. This is a both a reality of capitalism (labor has no economic value unless it grows a person’s or a corporation’s bottom line) and a result of patriarchy (women have long carried the burden of domestic work, and devaluing this labor is necessary for the devaluation and economic subjugation of women). As a result, policies like unemployment insurance are still largely blind to the contributions of care workers.

Poo conveys this message with deeply personal, emotionally raw insights. She notes that care work is so arduous that it leads many workers to feel relief at the thought of the elder patient dying. “For me, the deeper question is really this,” Poo writes, “what does it mean when caregivers feel so unsupported, desperate, and alone in this work that they dwell on thoughts of death of their beloved family members because they cannot imagine sustaining their care?”

The Age of Dignity does not overwhelm the reader with policy, but it does highlight important solutions such as the PACE program (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), a joint venture of Medicaid and Medicare that urges preventative care and is currently available in a number of states. Poo also calls for making home care accessible for all aging persons, as well as improving job quality and citizenship prospects for immigrant care workers. She notes the importance of states applying their Medicaid dollars to in-home care services, like California’s In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. (Such programs exist in some form in a majority of states.) The Age of Dignity also includes practical tools such as appendices listing government programs, activist resources, and ways to get involved.

However, Poo’s book leads with stories about real people — those who need care and those who give care. Storytelling has been an important strategy for Poo’s activist successes, and she applies this to her writing as well.

As a writer focusing on women’s economic issues, I have for more than two years been intrigued by the kinds of strategies Ai-jen Poo and the domestic workers’ movement will pursue. This book fills a crucial gap in existing literature: it is now the foremost writing that demonstrates the interconnectedness of elder care issues with the rights of women, immigrants, and all workers. Given that labor protections for care workers still see resistance, most recently in the federal courts, powerful storytelling — and the grassroots support it can build — will continue to be important for the domestic workers’ movement.

Above all else, this book serves as another way to amplify the efforts and successes of today’s movement for dignity and protections for all domestic workers.

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Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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