Work as Emancipation or Emancipation from Work?


Last week, the Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs (SGPIA) hosted a panel on Feminist Economics entitled “Work as Emancipation or Emancipation from Work?” The panel sought to discuss alternative futures for feminist economics, asking “can we imagine alternative paths to economic empowerment that recognize women’s ‘invisible’ labor? What role do a Universal Basic Income and other social protection schemes play in this regard? Is it possible to reimagine work as an aesthetic and creative category rather than simply a category of capitalist production? How can feminist economics contribute to this discussion?”

SGPIA Professor Sheba Tejani moderated the discussion. She was joined by Diane Elson, Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Essex, Julie A. Nelson, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Shahra Razavi, Chief of Research and Data at UN Women, and Marina Durano, Senior Programme Officer, Open Society Foundations. Each panelist began with an open ended discussion of feminist economics, followed by an extensive question and answer session. In keeping with the events core questions, Professor Tejani kicked off the event asking the question “Has the emphasis on work as emancipation gone too far?”

Julie Nelson, in her opening remarks, argued for redefining and revamping work rather than focusing on emancipation from work itself. Focusing on the social and financial implications of care work, she discussed Universal Basic Income in the northern countries. She found three sexist assumptions there. The first is that work is going away (which ignores caring work), that women’s invisible labor outranks paid work, which shows an under acknowledgement of women’s paid care work, and that UBI would incentivize people to work for low wages – even though care work is some of the lowest paying in the United States. She cited a study of hers that shows that paid caring work now outnumbers service and physical-labor oriented work. The second assumption is that the adult individual is the standard unit of analysis for UBI, a masculinized ideal that doesn’t take into account that differing circumstances would mean that not all need would be met by a standard UBI. The third is that working for pay is “necessarily demeaning and exploitative under capitalism”. Nelson spoke against the idea of work being wage slavery (because “money is not just about greed”). Finally, Nelson argued for a revamping of work to reimagine it as a mutually supportive aspect of the social fabric.  

On works emancipatory potential, Shahra Razavi discussed the economic effects of defamiliarization. She recognized that in the feminist tradition, paid work was often viewed as emancipatory – often from familial dependence. Reviewing the research and solutions provided by a number of scholars, Razavi discussed the importance of women forming and supporting their own households without having to marry, partner or access another’s income. She thinks that the discussion of “empowerment” rather than “emancipation” lost the critical focus on capitalism and the way in which the capitalist system interacts with patriarchal systems within families. On this point, Razavi asked “What’s in it for women?” Women are now seen as untapped consumer market, and potential for growth within the existing capitalist labor force. Does working for pay allow women to form and support their own homes? Or is their inclusion in the labor force simply to harness their energy and work to serve capital accumulation and growth? She utilized visual charts and graphs in her discussion of the proportion of paid and unpaid female labor, the decreased potential for paid work for women in developing economies, and how paid work does not mean financial independence.


Professor Sheba Tejani offers opening remarks. 

Next, Marina Durano took a slightly different approach. She explained how in her native language of Tagalog, the word for work is “hanap buhay”, meaning “search for life”. Using this translation as the foundation for her talk, Durano asked: under what conditions can work be emancipatory – how can it aid in the search for life? What do we need to break free from?  She asked, “if work is emancipation, what was bondage?” Do we consider life as survival, or life as flourishing capability, and what does “work” mean in those settings? She acknowledges that for many communities in many cultures around the world, community ties and connection to nature supersedes capitalist production and participation, and discusses the meaning of “work” in that context. Referencing Marx’s ideas of workers emancipation, she brought up the feminist discussion of caring work as tied up in capitalist production, making caring work itself exploitative. But Marx’s idea of emancipation is collective, an idea Durano endorses. “It’s not emancipation,” she says “unless it is a social struggle, which confronts the structures that limit all the possibilities that I might have, so I can live a life that I have reason to value.” In order for work to be emancipatory, “I can’t do it alone, because capitalist structures are there”. Confronting structural limits means that emancipation has a classed component, necessitating a collective mobilizing force to make work emancipatory – and making that mobilizing a key component of your own, feminist, work.

Diane Elson was the last speaker to take to the podium. She began by saying “Work as Emancipation or Emancipation from Work? Yes, please!”  In her talk on the transformation of the welfare state in the United Kingdom and accompanying shift in the labor market, she wanted to complicate the notion that increased female labor participation is unequivocally good. Factors to consider are the type of work, and the way that profits and benefits are distributed. What does it mean when work force participation is rising and income inequality is growing? To conclude, she asked “what do we need to do to have work that is emancipatory while emancipating ourselves from work?” We need to reduce drudgery, increase social protections and utilize collective actions. She credited feminists and feminist critiques in expanding the social understanding of what work is. “Work is effort, but effort that is other directed…for and with others”, she explained. “When it’s for others and with others, that always raises the question: what are the kinds of social relations under which this work is done? Are they ones of servitude, or are they emancipatory?”

The panelists each interprete the core themes of the panel in differing and complementary ways, each taking up a separate issue affecting women, work, and emancipation. The lively Q&A session that followed took up issues of caring economy as a green economy, making an economic policy shift away from a utilitarian focus to comply with a human rights agenda, social relations under capitalism, and what happens when counting care labor changes a country’s GDP.

Couldn’t make it to this event? Good news – we filmed it! View the recording here.

Also: check out the new podcast from the SGPIA student journal, The New Context. The podcast kicked off with a talk with Sheba Tejani on the subject of Feminist Economics!