In 1985, writer and activist Selma James wrote that the exploitation of women at work is the “first quantification of sexism, a tangible measure of just how ripped off women are internationally.” As a marker of women’s inferior position in society, work was for James a way to unify the disparate branches of the women’s movement. Despite differences among women, she insisted that “work and the poverty of women” could constitute the catalyst for collective action.
Although work has, historically, shaped feminist thought and activism, its importance today can sometimes be confounding: What does work, something that we all do on a regular basis, uniquely offer to feminist forms of resistance? How can work, which is so often motivated by self-improvement or monetary gain, have the capacity to connect the different strands of the women’s movement?
When we selected the topic of “women’s work” for our second issue, we did so knowing that the division of labour among men and women persists as a central feature of gender inequality in Canada and abroad. At home and in the workplace, women’s work remains chiefly undervalued. Not only do we continue to bear the brunt of childcare and domestic work (a recent Parliamentary report showed that “while women and men work the same number of hours for pay each day, women spend almost two hours more per day on unpaid work”), we still earn, on average, 30 percent less than our male peers. The disparity is even more glaring for women of colour, who earn 55.6 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
But for all that we understood about the problem of work as it relates to feminist struggles, it was not until we “got to work” on the second issue that we experienced the ways in which work, in today’s economy, stunts our ability to take action together, to collectivize politically.
As an independent and openly accessible publication, GUTS operates as a volunteer-run magazine. Everyone who helped to create this issue is invested in feminist research, advocacy, and discourse. Our work, in the sense that we are motivated by our passion for these issues, is a labour of love. For many of us, however, finding the time to do this work has been a challenge. With contract, temporary, and part-time work as the new normal in the labour market, production of the magazine has largely taken place during the hours once reserved for domestic chores, leisure, and social activism. Now that our lives are increasingly compartmentalized into waged and unwaged work, we are realizing first-hand that the opportunities for organized resistance are severely limited.
Overwhelmed by personal obligations to work, we lose sight of the ways individual experience is enfolded into larger social and economic injustices. When so much of our work demands of us our most submissive and available selves, and when so much of our work is not recognized for its value and necessity, how can we begin to politicize our labour and restructure patriarchal social relations? How can we make visible, and thus valuable, the many erasures that women’s work undergoes? How can we show, in the words of Silvia Federici, “our love as work”?
Feminists before us have asked these questions in order to expose the structural relation between reproductive and productive labour. In an effort to politicize women’s work, writers and activists have pointed to the ways in which women’s domestic and reproductive labour—the care that goes into maintaining the home, feeding the family, and raising future productive workers—sustains a value-producing workforce. Though housework and childcare ensures the ongoing, daily existence of the human species, it remains subsidiary to profit-generating labour. The ceaseless expansion of the free market administers a hierarchal, gendered division of labour.
The entry of women into the paid workforce has not yet diminished the work involved in maintaining a home or caring for a family. In Canada, women are twice as likely as men to be working part time, and for many, this fact is less a choice than the necessary consequence of balancing reproductive and productive responsibilities. It is no secret that the work of caring for vulnerable dependants falls disproportionately on women, but the effects of this imbalance are unsettling. Studies have shown that the more children a woman has, the lower her hourly pay rate is, while the opposite is true for men: men with children have a higher hourly pay rate than those without. As the conditions of productive labour become increasingly precarious—paid positions require more care, commitment, and flexibility—demonstrating the value of women’s work remains a radical but necessary task.
The articles, art, poetry, and music found within this issue explore the barriers to overcome and progress made in a number of domains of women’s work. They examine the difficulties many women experience when attempting to achieve equality through paid positions and careers. Unconvinced that we live in a country of equal opportunity, a number of our contributors ask why so many women do not have access to well-compensated and regulated working conditions in the trades, in the service industry, in creative fields, in the academy, in parenting, in domestic work, and on the street. Although there have been advances, it is clear that the social relations that devalue and exploit certain facets of women’s work are still in place.
Is there any value in recognizing ourselves as undervalued and undermined labourers? Some contributors suggest that by acknowledging our positions at the sidelines of our working world, we might be able to locate the beginnings of our political capacities. As Chelsea Vowel writes in her piece, “to exist as an Indigenous woman or two-spirited person, is an inherently political act.”
Of course, no one is excluded from the social and economic pressure to partake in the waged economy; these pressures are varying and powerful, whether we are seeking to support ourselves or to find ourselves. Katie Lew writes: “All my work becomes, or has been all along, the work of getting back to work.” It is in this position of exclusion, as Lew suggests, that we can critically consider why we feel, as women, it is our primary goal to compete successfully within a waged economy that demands our very exploitation.
And so, this is the work—the work of unmasking “equality” within an exploitive waged economy that upholds toxic social relations which oppress and undervalue women’s work—that GUTS aspires to engage in.
Women’s Work will be released in the weeks between April 22-May 15.
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