Hillary Clinton And The Unending Burden Of Women’s Work

As you are no doubt all-too-aware, this week’s news cycle was dominated by the apparently earth-shattering revelation that Hillary Clinton is made of flesh and blood. That’s right: Her immune system sometimes gets overtaxed, and standing outside in intense heat and humidity while wearing kevlar under a pants suit can make her susceptible to heat stroke.

As ludicrous conspiracy theories flew around Twitter via #HillarysHealth, I, like many, found the ableism of an underlying, secret medical condition being used to disqualify her for the office of the president completely nauseating. I understood why she might not want to be seen as weak — just look at what the press was doing over her short-term pneumonia virus. But as I was set to click off social media despite my love of NFL Sunday Twitter, I paused to make one last offhand comment:

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Little did I know that what I believed to be a sorta ho-hum comment would be widely liked and shared, and even labeled one of the “12 Perfect Responses To Hillary Clinton Being A Human And Getting Sick.”

Why? Probably because, still to this day, women’s work is taken for granted, undervalued, and just generally misunderstood, making my matter-of-fact statement radical.

[Note: For the purposes of this essay, I’m using gender binary-reinforcing terms and mono-normative relationship structures because they are the foundation of the roles created by these destructive compulsory cultural constructs.]

As the chatter surrounding Hillary’s health finally dies down, it would behoove us to ponder why this tweet struck such a nerve, and the underlying social forces this entire “scandal” tapped into.

Hillary’s health may be on the mend, but our society has a long way to go in understanding and respecting the burden of a Woman’s Work.

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Hillary no doubt trudged on despite her health woes because she knew she couldn’t afford to show weakness. In this way, she behaved as countless women before her.

Women are already devalued in the business world for shedding a uterine lining once a month in a mystical process that freaks out dudes like Donald Trump, and for serving as possible baby incubators (whether or not we want or plan to ever have children). A persistent belief that we lack the business know-how of our male colleagues means we are already less likely to be promoted than men, and that we earn less for doing the same work.

As such, we are especially conscious of being seen as dedicated to our jobs and not being absent from the office. We can’t risk being seen as less capable, or being out of the room when decisions are made and ideas are considered.

But the devaluing of a woman’s work goes beyond the capital “w” work done for cash money by punching a time clock. While poor women, poor women of color in particular, do far more of this than rich women on the whole — even ambitious, image-conscious rich women like Hillary — I suspect the scores of women who retweeted my comment with a simple “Yep” or “Truth” understand what Women’s Work means. We don’t punch out when we leave work; in fact, most of us never punch out at all.

I heard from dozens and dozens of women in response to my tweet, many of whom are married with 1.5 children, “professional” jobs, houses, etc. Some are women who’ve elected to stay home with their kids and who know that doesn’t mean they work any less than they did when they had a job. Some are women who’ve been forced to stay home with their kids because daycare costs more than their salary. Some have chronic illnesses like me and were rolling their eyes at the laughable idea that they only work when they’re “up to it.”

All understood what I meant when I talked about women working all the time, no matter what.

Plenty has been written about the dollar value of traditional “women’s work,” like cleaning the house, cooking, and caring for the kids. (Hint: Go read Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.) But there’s even more to it than that; a woman’s work also involves the even more elusive task of emotional labor, too.

Researchers have found that due to gender constructions, women do more emotional labor than men. This work can manifest in an number of ways. Family holidays, for example, don’t “just happen”; typically the women of the family are in touch about scheduling and calendars and go back and forth about where the gathering will be this year and whether you’ll bother exchanging gifts. These days, it can manifest as a woman making a Facebook event for the holiday, then fielding questions from other family members about what to wear/bring and asking if their significant others can attend.

Women largely are the ones who keep track of extended family illnesses and goings-on, forming the modern version of a phone tree so support and information get where they need to. They are the keepers of the memories, sometimes of the physical heirlooms, the knowers of the birthdays/anniversaries, and the ones who remember what everyone needs all the way down to food allergies and preferences.

Women without live-in partners and children are hardly exempt from this work. We do it for our friends and partners. Many of us do it at our offices. The emotional labor flow is constant.

As Establishment Contributing Editor Jess Zimmerman wrote last year in her essay for The Toast “‘Where’s My Cut?’: On Unpaid Emotional Labor”:

“[I]f it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, counseling bereft dudes may in fact be my only expert skill.
And yet, it is basically impossible to monetize, short of demanding funds to build a gold bridge. Not that I’d charge my friends — but I don’t charge to edit stuff for them either, nor do they usually charge me when they knit me something or draw me a picture or feed my dog. Yet that work is still considered to have value . . . But emotional labor? Offering advice, listening to woes, dispensing care and attention? That’s not supposed to be transactional. People are disturbed by the very notion that someone would charge, or pay, for friendly support. It’s supposed to come free.”

Many of us with moderate to sizeable public platforms are also expected to do this labor for strangers en masse — as evidenced by own tweet getting trolled by men who demanded my attention and ego-stroking.

So, what does all this have to do with the inane vitriol targeted at Hillary because she worked while sick? A lot, actually.

To lambast our female presidential candidate for working while sick is to not understand that this kind of thing happens all the time. Hillary knows all too well that when you’re a woman, no matter the circumstances, your work is never done — and that whether you keep on working or don’t, you’re never immune from attack.

***

Lead image: flickr/Gage Skidmore

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