The mommy economy: The United States hasn’t broken down the gendered division of labor; we’ve globalized it and hidden it

12/05/2016 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

By Caroline Swaller

As women began to enter the traditional labor market throughout the latter part of the 20th century, we saw a shift in the demographic makeup of traditionally male-dominated fields like medicine and business. However, the introduction of women in the job market increased sexist social standards, and has only served to buttress gendered market ideologies, resulting in a conservative paradigm shift where a liberal one was needed. Instead of symbiotic movement of women into the workforce and men into the home, household labor remains feminized and therefore undervalued. As women’s access to traditional labor fields has expanded, the demand for in-home care workers has also increased.

Changing gender demographics in U.S. labor markets commoditized motherhood according to a Western-origin gendered division of labor. This disseminated a corrupt and unequal global care chain that allows wealthy women and families in the United States to maintain their careers whilst simultaneously retaining their motherhood, thereby robbing women from peripheral countries of their ability to nurture and love their own children. Through the proliferation of global care chains, women and mothers immigrate to the U.S. to care for American children, while leaving their own behind.

The 1960s feminist advocacy for gender equity in the labor market created a paradoxical economic fissure: women were now “valued” but the work of women continued to be monetarily degraded. The continued absence of men in the home and flood of women out of it led to the unique double bind of the Second Shift. Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution explored the U.S. phenomenon of women gaining access to public labor markets, while still being bound to drive the private labor market within the home. Hochschild describes at length the heteronormative societal structures controlling the U.S. labor economy that led to women’s work versus men’s careers.

However, since the publication of Second Shift’s in 1989 what should have occurred was a general change in United States policies towards a recognition and value of childcare. This would result in better maternity and paternity leave programs, creating a balanced system of value for both traditionally masculine and feminized labor traits. Instead what resulted are global care chains that have arguably allowed for a politically correct indentured servitude.

UC Davis professor Rhacel Parrenas describes how this non sequitur ideological change in gender politics led to the creation of a global care chain. In her book, Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work she posits, “as demand for care [in the home] has increased, its supply has dwindled. The result is a care deficit, to which women from the Philippines have responded in force.”

Parrenas estimates that two percent of the global population illegally migrates with the intention to create a better life for themselves or their families, and that 34 to 54 percent of the in-country Filipina population is partially sustained through remittances from migrant workers. Most Filipina women in the United States work as nannies for wealthy families and send upwards of $40 a week home to their families, whom many of the immigrating women haven’t seen in over 10 years. Parrenas’ interviews and ethnographic research graphically depicts the heavy burden of loving the child they are with while hoping that those charged back home with caring for their own families are doing the same.

The global care chain privileges those who can afford to be a mother to their children: white and wealthy families retain the privilege to physically love their children, to hug them. Families of migrant workers sacrifice physical caregiving in exchange for putting food on the table back home. The U.S. labor market’s denial of motherhood as a financially worthwhile endeavor for American women has forced U.S. mothers to conform to patriarchal standards of work while shirking the de-valued duties of motherhood onto a de-valued group of workers, migrant women.

The United States has a long and storied history of patriarchy and sexism that is so ingrained within the culture that it is an inescapable part of our narrative. But the globalization of the world’s economies has led to a commodification of motherhood that is horrifying and unjust. The right to mother should be a right. Not a privilege only afforded to the American elite.

Caroline Swaller
Caroline Swaller

Caroline Swaller is a dual Master of Public Policy and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Within the dual degree, Caroline focuses more specifically on gendered violence and federal-level policies that protect women's rights and improve women's equity. Caroline, a former member of FEMA Corps, also worked as a workplace policy researcher and analyst at the National Partnership for Women and Families over the course of the 2016 summer.

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