Gender Equity Requires a “Second Shift”

Lucky enough to attend college, I sat in a first-year seminar meant to expose students to a variety of both subject matter and viewpoints.  To this day I tell people about two books from that course that changed my life.  One of those books was the very first overtly feminist book I ever read, Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift.  This book transformed how I talked about the world and, thus, how I perceived it and engaged it.  I became a feminist because caring was a kind of work which was ubiquitous, undervalued, and gendered and, as such, a matter of justice.

It understandably grabbed my attention when Sara Hosey recently argued that it is time for feminists to stop using the rhetoric of the “second shift.”  If such rhetoric stands in the way of gender equity, then by all means let’s dispense with the concept.

But, in fact, the rhetoric of the “second shift” is one of the cornerstones of radical feminist transformation of the world.  First, to frame care as unpaid work is consciousness-raising.  The “second shift” does not assume that women who work in the formal labor market must perform care as a second shift, it points out that these women do so without remuneration and that this diminishes women’s power in all spheres of life.  But, importantly, things could be different.

Of course, things are already different for the rare women who have found a non-traditional caregiver (i.e. a man) who performs half the work of caring.  These households are rare because women still have less economic power than men through income, wealth, and networks, and the power they do have is more precarious.  In fact, it was not until the late 2000s that a group of young women earned more than the median young man—but only women who were unmarried, childless, living in a city, and 22-30 years old.  Put differently, only highly educated women outside of heterosexual households, with limited household care-work, and supported by social services, begin to match men’s income, and only when we compare them to men early in their careers.  The reason men perform less care than they ought to is not because they are men, but because someone must do the work of caring and men currently have more economic power than their household partners.