women and children at protest

Why “women’s work” is key to a just and sustainable future

When you think of green jobs, certain kinds of work probably come to mind: installing solar panels, insulating houses, maintaining rail lines, maybe building electric cars. They’re all jobs making the kinds of infrastructural and industrial change necessary to transition to a more sustainable economy, one where we take the train instead of driving alone and get our energy from the sun instead of dead lumps of dinosaur. They are also jobs done mostly by men: blue collar work for an ecologically anxious age.

But what’s talked about less often is the kinds of jobs we’ll need after we build the infrastructure for a low-carbon world. We often wring hands about needing to consume less, but what’s less often discussed is that we need to produce less too. We can’t just keep making cheap disposable junk forever—and we can’t rely on factory jobs making said junk to keep people employed so they can put food on the table. Instead of building an economy that depends on an endless cycle of working and shopping, we should start to orient our world around activities that require less rampant resource consumption: reading books, teaching, learning, making music, seeing shows, dancing, playing sports, going to the park, spending time with one another. You know—all the things we wish we had more time for, if we didn’t have to work so hard to pay the rent.

There will still be jobs in this low-carbon future, but they’ll be less about making stuff and more about taking care of each other. That is, they’ll look more like the kinds of jobs that currently tend to be done by women, and particularly women of color.

These are clearly jobs that need doing regardless of environmental impacts. Home healthcare, healthcare for the elderly and disabled, and healthcare more generally are consistently among the fastest growing industries in the country, particularly as the American population ages; public schools, particularly in working class neighborhoods, are perpetually understaffed. And feminists have long emphasized the importance of these kinds of work, which are too often overlooked and underpaid. Now feminists should lead the way in articulating how “women’s work” is central to an ecologically sustainable, socially just society.

To be sure, it’s not just stereotypically masculine, industrial jobs that rely on resource consumption: schools are still powered by coal-fired electricity; medical electronics still rely on exploited labor and toxic mines. And of course, not all jobs that tend to be done by women are sustainable ones: many kinds of work that fall into the seemingly immaterial category of “emotional labor”—like, say, being a flight attendant—nevertheless rely on massive resource consumption. But most caring, reproductive, teaching, and service work isn’t inherently reliant on nonrenewable resources in the way that coal-mining, automaking, and lumberjacking are.

But shifting the focus of the economy to different kinds of work is just the start. The current system relies on a vicious cycle of production and consumption: people have to produce in order to make money to consume what they need to live, and people need to consume more to create enough jobs to go around. But in a sustainable future, we can and should produce enough to meet everyone’s needs without letting the need to create jobs drive all policies—which means we should all just work less rather than creating “bullshit jobs” that don’t really need doing just to keep people employed.

And so while it’s infuriating that women are still always the ones expected to balance “career and family,” the flip side is that women have thought a lot about life beyond work. “Lean out” feminists could be trailblazers of a world where we all work less, share work more evenly, and spend more time doing the other things that make our lives worth living. Of course, even when they also work outside the home, women continue to do the bulk of unpaid household labor. While working less won’t magically change gender dynamics, working less would mean that everyone would have more time to do the things that keep households running, from cooking to cleaning. And who knows—with more time, things like cooking might even feel less like chores and more like leisure.

But working less is only feasible if people can still afford to live on less pay—which requires more public provision of basic services and needs. Here, we should look to people who have long struggled to improve provision of those services—struggles that have often been led by working class women of color. The National Welfare Rights Organization, comprised primarily of Black women, fought for benefits, rights, and dignity in the early days of the Reagan era, when welfare recipients were routinely stigmatized. (Maybe it’s time to reclaim “welfare queen”—the phrase has obviously derogatory racial and gender undertones, but what’s so bad about living decently without working too hard?) Working class women of color have organized to stop the imposition of reactionary work requirements on welfare recipients and to expand access to reproductive healthcare. We should build on their efforts and insist on universal provision of food stamps, access to medical treatment, public transportation, and other truly shared services.

“Women’s work” presents exciting possibilities for political solidarity too. The responsibility to care for others can make it hard for workers in care industries like health care and teaching to demand good pay and decent treatment: as Sarah Jaffe puts it, “care recipients, patients, and students are not antagonists,” which can make tactics like going on strike difficult—particularly since employers in these industries are often all too happy to portray striking care and education workers as selfish and unconcerned with the fate of their often-vulnerable charges. But these workers’ deep connections to the people and communities they work with can also be a source of political power, as in community-teacher organizing in Chicago and St. Paul, where parents and teachers unions are working together for education justice.

In fact, we’re already seeing signs of this kind of coalition-building in climate organizing. Nurses and other health care workers see the toll that environmental damage via coal plants and chemical spills take on working class communities and communities of color every day. And nurses and other health workers are first responders when climate disasters strike: after Hurricane Sandy, for example, members of the New York State Nurses’ Association walked through high-rises in the Rockaways amidst power outages to find and help people in need. That’s why many nursing unions, led by National Nurses United, have joined with other workers and frontline communities in speaking out in support of climate action.

It’s still crucial that jobs traditionally held by men are good-paying, safe, union jobs, and that challenges to ecologically damaging industries don’t come at the expense of the workers and communities that currently rely on them. And of course, the category “women’s work” isn’t stable: while jobs that require so-called “feminine” skills are often paid less because acquired expertise is conflated with natural traits, the ability to excel at a job isn’t a matter of gender essentialism. As the structure of the economy changes, so do the gender dynamics of different fields. In our climate-stable feminist utopia, people of all genders will care for, teach, learn from, perform for, and raise each other.

But for now, so-called pink-collar workers can and should lead the charge to a future that’s just and sustainable, where people in need are cared for, and the people who care for them are too.

This post was originally published on the Community site.

Header image: National Domestic Workers Alliance

Alyssa Battistoni is a graduate student in political science at Yale University and an editor at Jacobin.

Alyssa Battistoni is a graduate student in political science at Yale University and an editor at Jacobin.

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