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Article Title

Caring for workers

Abstract

This essay examines the question of conflict between market work and family care from the angle of family caretaking labor for workers rather than for dependents. Feminist legal scholars and activists have been concerned for generations about the effect of women's unpaid caretaking work on women's participation and success in the wage labor market. Better public support for this gendered family care work is crucial to many leading visions of feminist legal and economic change. Recent welfare reforms, however, have increased the extent to which public policy treats caretaking instead as a personal responsibility (or a sign of personal irresponsibility) for some women and families, particularly single women in poverty and mothers of color. Prevailing politics have been somewhat more favorable to the idea that “working mothers” deserve at least some public support for their efforts to balance family care with paid labor. Some critics, however, have questioned whether better public support for unpaid family caretaking is indeed a goal consistent with feminist ideals. Their challenges revive and expand longstanding debates about the problems of a feminist strategy focused on women workers' maternal responsibilities. Recent debates over legal feminists' focus on family care work raise three interrelated concerns. First, the home/market dilemma: Will directing public support to women as unpaid caretakers discourage or disadvantage women as paid workers? To what extent should feminist efforts be directed at supporting those—primarily women—who decide to substitute “uncommodified” family work for the “commodified” work assumed in law to result from an arms-length “market” exchange of money for labor? Second, the maternal/nonmaternal dilemma: Will directing public support to women as mothers victimize or marginalize women who are not mothers or caretakers? Will caretaking support reinforce “repronormativity,” restricting or penalizing women's choices to be nonparents, single individuals, or nonprocreating lesbians, for example? Third, the pleasure/dependency dilemma: Will directing public resources to women's family care for others diminish attention or support for women's freedom to seek their own pleasure? In particular, as Katherine Franke asks, has feminist legal attention to women's dependency burdens detracted from feminist legal attention to women's identity as powerful sexual agents? My thesis is that feminists can better respond to these conundrums not by turning away from a focus on gendered family care work, but by paying moreattention to the work/family question.

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