March is National Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote” — both fitting and ironic, given the current male-dominated state of the presidential election. The celebration of women’s accomplishments has exploded within our country’s zeitgeist. It’s become, dare I say it, cool to acknowledge the achievements of women. Brands like Old Navy usually have a nice selection of cute, thematic graphic tees. Google will change its popular doodles each week to teach children and adults alike about female inventors and suffragettes. Our social media feeds will undoubtedly be a mix of vintage photos that inspire us and contemporary statistics that ignite a desire for more change.
We’ll like the posts of the women we aspire to be — activists, politicians, and influencers. We’ll even admire the work and lives of women closer to our sphere of influence — our friends, colleagues, and other peers. But there is a segment of skilled working women missing from this online fiesta of girl power.
The Women Who March With Us
My suggestion for 2020 is that while we’re praising women’s stories of overcoming misogyny and breaking glass ceilings, let’s not forget about the other women marching with us along the way. I’m not just talking about our mentors or the almost deified canon of nameless women “who have come before us” but the women we see holding our babies when we walk through the door at 6 p.m. after crushing it in the office all day. Let’s not forget about the women who clean our houses, the women who take care of our aging parents — the domestic workers, predominantly poor women and women of color, who help us keep our lives and entire families on the right track while we go out and work.
While we’re praising women’s stories of overcoming misogyny and breaking glass ceilings, let’s not forget about the other women marching with us along the way.
A few years ago, actress and Honest Company founder Jessica Alba shared a post on Instagram about her nanny, Connie Simpson. I received multiple “Did you see this?” texts, and my colleagues excitedly posted about it in private Facebook groups. I’m not a nanny but a doula considered an “allied health professional” by the people in charge of insurance billing, but I was a little excited by Alba’s post, which acknowledged just how monumental Simpson had been to the beginning of her journey into motherhood.
The post was an obvious PR move in the run-up to the release of Simpson’s book about her work as a celebrity nanny, but I can’t help but wonder why such posts are so rare. Some of the comments on social media were caustic at best, as if nannies were a symbol of luxury purely for celebrities. Nannies, housekeepers, daycare workers, caregivers, and other domestic workers are a continuous presence in many homes of various income levels across the nation. Yet we rarely see these workers acknowledged in public or in private, and when we do, it’s often in the form of a disparaging comment on how expensive they are, not how necessary they are to our collective societal success.
Domestic work is “women’s work,” which means that it has been devalued historically. Scrubbing floors and taking care of babies, sick people, and the elderly has always been relegated to younger women; low-wage servants; and, of course, unpaid indentured servants and abused slaves. It’s menial, “unskilled” labor, although if you’ve ever organized the laundry of an entire family, given a bed-ridden senior a sponge-bath, or figured out how to put a clingy baby down for a nap, you probably wouldn’t use the word “unskilled.” Many of these tasks are completed daily by stay-at-home-moms, whose base pay, if they were paid, was estimated to be up to $117,000 in 2016.
I have a deep and abiding respect for the Catholic feminist position on the importance and dignity of the work of women, in and out of the home. But if we consider it misogyny and sexism to devalue the work of stay-at-home moms and working women alike, shouldn’t it also be misogyny to do so to domestic workers? It seems to me that while we are fighting for equal pay, equal opportunity, and the right to be working wives and mothers outside of our homes, Catholic feminists should also be concerned with the dignity and rights of domestic workers inside of those homes.
Catholic feminists should also be concerned with the dignity and rights of domestic workers inside of those homes.
It’s been estimated that domestic workers, particularly home health aides, are one of the fastest-growing American occupations. But because domestic work is “unskilled,” these women are often working for little pay and with no labor protections on a state or federal level. If a worker is undocumented, or English is not her first language, she may face even more challenges in trying to negotiate the terms of her work.
To combat this issue, former presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act in the summer of 2019. Backed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the bill aims to introduce protections such as sick leave, overtime regulations, breaks for meals and rest, and a means to report workplace harassment. Nine states have adopted similar measures, which means domestic workers in 41 states still must labor without a union and without any protection.
Begin at Home
What can you personally do to help domestic workers? Charity begins at home. And so does the revolution. Catholic social teaching has much to say on the dignity of workers and the necessity of meaningful work to the development of the human person. In the case of domestic work, there exists an undeniable link between the right of women to work outside of the home and the rights of the women who labor inside it. Domestic and caregiving work is not a substitute for family, but it is a supplement to it. I can personally attest to the value of many housekeepers in saving marriages from divorce over the division of chores. The 8+ hours per day a mother must spend working her job is the same 8+ hours her child must be cared for lovingly and responsibly.
Catholic feminists should also be concerned with the dignity and rights of domestic workers inside of those homes
Empowered women empower women. This can’t just be a cute graphic tee we pick up in the sale section for International Women’s Day. The rights of domestic workers are to women’s rights what women’s rights are to human rights: a necessary component of an integrated whole. Women’s liberation must include all women of all classes, races, and abilities in order to truly continue to advance our nation and our world. Domestic workers not only deserve just wages and basic labor protections but also the dignity and respect due to a woman in any other profession. So, when we’re tempted to complain about the cost of a nanny or be upset when a housekeeper needs a personal day off, let’s remember that all working women are in this fight together.