Gift-Work Becomes Women's Work
What women, artists, and the clergy have in common
If you’re new to Other Feminisms, every Monday I have an essay on women, interdependence, etc. and the following Thursday (a week and a half later) I send out highlights from your discussion. The newsletter is completely free—subscriptions don’t get you bonus content, they’re a tip jar to help me prioritize this work over conventionally paid work. Next week, I’ll share highlights from “The Romance of Regularity” on how we talk about maintenance.
And on Tuesday, I’ll be part of a panel at Capita on “Building a Culture of Solidarity that Works for Mothers and Children.”
Last week, I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to rebuke senators who felt parents needed to work outside the home to be doing “real work.” My op-ed was focused on child allowance policy, but I think the senators’ error is part of a pattern. It’s the kind of mistake you make when the market is the only language you have to talk about work or value.
Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is an immersion course in a different language of value. Hyde is trying to figure out how art is made and valued, and he links it to gift-culture, not market culture. (I’m discussing Hyde with Amanda McLoughlin this month for my Tiny Book Club). He also makes a compelling case that care work is much more like art than it is like, say, making cars.
He notes that Emily Post’s etiquette manual lists three types of persons who receive showers where gifts are given: a bride-to-be, an expectant mother, and a new clergyman. Post doesn’t analyze what makes the clergyman eligible, but Hyde argues it is because his work is “female-coded.”
There are gift-labors that cannot, by their nature, be undertaken in the willed, time-conscious, quantitative style of the market. A clergyman does such labors. Not only is he charged with the cure of souls, that interior task which cannot be accomplished in any market, but nowadays he must also be a social worker, visiting nurse, marriage counselor, and psychotherapist.
If we view all labor as dignified only insofar as it can fit into a market framework, we leave out the clergyman, the mother, the artist. There are ways to try to translate this kind of gift-labor to the market, but it changes the nature of the work. I’d argue that a lot of wellness and influencer work is a kind of translation of gift-work to be more commoditized and less directed by real care for a particular person.
Hyde sees gift-work and female-coded work as less adversarial and less movable than conventional market goods. I may not care to whom I sell my widgets, but I care very much whose bottom I am wiping.
There are labors that do not pay because they, or the ends to which they are directed, require built-in constraints on profiteering, exploitation, and—more subtly—the application of comparative value with which the market is by nature at ease. […] Their products are not commodities, not things we easily price or willingly alienate. Furthermore, those who assume these labors automatically inhibit their ability to “sell themselves” at the moment they answer their calling. Gift labor requires the kind of emotional or spiritual commitment that precludes its own marketing. Businessmen rightly point out that a man who cannot threaten to quit his job has no leverage when demanding a higher salary. But some tasks cannot be undertaken in such an adversarial spirit. Few job are pure gift labors, of course—although a nurse is committed to healing, she is also an actor in the marketplace—but any portion of gift labor in a job will tend to pull it out of the market and make it a less lucrative—and a “female”—profession.
[…] The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot. The cleric’s larder will always be filled with gifts; artists will never “make” money.
Ultimately, Hyde is arguing for gift-work to be allowed its own sphere. He doesn’t mean for it to be restricted to women only. He wants to see women free to enter the market and men freer to do gift-work outside it (without taking religious vows).
This echoes my own reluctance to have support for families framed as “wages for housework.” I don’t understand the work I do as a mother to be analogous to the work I do as an employee, and I resent requiring it to be “translated” into market terms in order to be deserving of support.
So, where does that support come from instead? As I’ve written, I like both Romney’s child allowance program and Matt Bruenig’s Family Fun Pack. Both offer unconditional support for children, rather than tying the aid to whether the parents hold jobs or restricting it to be spent on daycare.
This also suggests that a living wage is a wage that allows for abundance and gift-giving. Merely covering your own needs isn’t enough—you need enough to give away. If you are working in the market then you give to the people who do not participate in the market, whose larder is full of your gifts. When we think about what workers need to earn to support their families, we are thinking too narrowly about who depends on their support.
What male-coded work, if any, do you see as strongly matching Hyde’s description of gift-work?
Where do you support other people’s gift-work in your community? When have other people supported yours?
Hyde is a writer I’ve returned to repeatedly. I drew on The Gift when speaking to the American Solidarity Party this summer. You can check out my ten-minute talk here, and here’s a teaser.
Hyde is talking about a world that takes the dignity of need as seriously as the law of gravity. As water flows downhill, so, too, excess wealth, by its very nature, flows towards need.
But if we look at what we’ve built, we live in a world of dams, of stagnant ponds, of dry riverbeds at what used to be a delta. That natural flow has been diverted and the people who are in need have been hidden. We’ve all been complicit in their concealment, lest the fact of their need spur us to bring the dams down.