The Politics of Motherwork

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) Endorsed by WASM

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Labor and Working-Class; Politics

Abstract

This three-paper in-person panel focuses on mothering as labor. It is animated, in part, by the crisis of the present—the acute pressure that the coronavirus put on mothers, whose essential labor came into painful relief. At the same time, the panel contributes to new inquiry into the history of care work and the gendered dimensions of unpaid domestic labor that is vital to both production and reproduction. The panel sweeps across more than a century of motherwork, focusing on three pivotal movements as it addresses the experience of former slaves during the era of Reconstruction; social reform and state formation during the New Deal era; and the aspirations of labor feminists to build campaigns bridging the separation of the spheres of workplace and family as neoliberalist politics became ascendant at the end of the twentieth century. In so doing it considers intimate relations between Black mothers and daughters; disease and biopolitics; and the refashioning of the politics of collective bargaining.

Papers Presented

Tenderness: Black Mothering, Daughtering and Care during Reconstruction

Using letters, census data, and records from widow’s pensions, this paper considers how Black women engaged in care taking of sick relatives. I argue that mothering and daughtering are survival work. By focusing on questions of life-course and care, I consider how sick children and infants were cared for by their mothers, and how elderly women were cared for by daughters at a moment in time when there were few state protections to help Black families manage sickness or disability.

Presented By
LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Michigan

What Happened to Motherwork when Labor Bargained for "Work and Family"

This paper explores efforts by labor feminists to "bargain for work and family" in the 1980s and 1990s. It draws a line back to the efforts of mid-20th century labor feminists and then considers how the broader labor movement at the end of the 20th century did--or did not--engage their agenda. Ultimately, I ask what happens to motherwork under the rubric of bargaining for "work and family."

Presented By
Kirsten Swinth, Fordham University

Infectious Disease, Motherhood, and Social Policy: The Biopolitical New Deal.

This paper explores the intersection between public health and gendered social policy in the construction of state capacity during the New Deal. The control of infectious diseases was long an area where public power was relatively more far-reaching, but confined to the state level. I investigate how social reformers built upon and federalized this state-level police power, combining the imperative of disease control with anxieties about family, gender, and sexuality—in particular, about motherhood—in order to build state capacity to regulate economic life more broadly.

Presented By
Gabriel Winant, University of Chicago

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara
Eileen Boris is the Hull Professor and Distinguished Professor of Feminist Studies and History, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her books include Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States [1994]; Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care [2010]; and; Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019 [2019].

Presenter: LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Michigan
LaKisha Michelle Simmons is Associate Professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the prize-winning author of Crescent City Girls: Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. Simmons is currently working on a book on the history of love and care work in Black families during the transition from slavery to freedom.

Presenter: Kirsten Swinth, Fordham University
Swinth Abstract: This paper explores efforts by labor feminists to "bargain for work and family" in the 1980s and 1990s. It draws a line back to the efforts of mid-20th century labor feminists and then considers how the broader labor movement at the end of the 20th century did--or did not--engage their agenda. Ultimately, I ask what happens to motherwork under the rubric of bargaining for "work and family."

Presenter: Gabriel Winant, University of Chicago
Gabriel Winant is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. His first book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, was published in 2021 by Harvard University Press