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Activist labor: done for and by the oppressed

As noted in the previous article, the labor contributed to mutual aid and community care is most often done by people who are marginalized. A main reason for this is that people pitch in to help their own communities, and marginalized communities are by definition excluded from many social and cultural benefits, and thus need more support to fill in those gaps.

The majority of volunteers and those involved in civic engagement are women (United Nations, Forbes), and Black women in the US engage in their communities more than average (YouGov). Despite all of this, the representation of women and especially women of color is still drastically low for many leadership, and especially formal political, roles. This dynamic is nothing new: the people making the rules have long reinforced their own power at the expense of others. Women of color, disabled people, queer and trans people (especially youth), and more historically marginalized groups have long been left out of decision-making, especially when it comes to public policy for their own identities and communities.

Women engage in volunteer labor in addition to performing the majority of child care, housework, other unpaid work, and emotional labor (Gallup). They spend more minutes per day on unpaid work and have less leisure time (OECD). All of this unpaid work equates to less time for paid work, creating economic inequality. Girls in many countries are kept busy with housework and fall behind in school, impacting their careers and lifetime earnings.

(Source: The Atlantic)

Image Description: A graph comparing the number of unpaid work hours per day between men and women in various areas of the world. In every location, women contribute far more unpaid hours than men.

The impacts of this imbalance of care and community work don’t just harm women, but society as a whole. Here are just a few examples of the impacts of unequal participation in the labor market and caregiving:

  • “If women farmers had similar access to the sorts of resources that male farmers have, their crop yields would increase (by up to 30 percent), which would help slash the number of undernourished people in the world (by up to 150 million).” (Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes)

  • Women, and especially women of color, are paid less money for comparable work (American Progress). As they have less money to purchase things for convenience, they must often spend more time on activities that white women and men, who have more wealth on average, are more likely to be able to afford to outsource (e.g. housework, cooking conveniences, childcare). (Institute for Women’s Policy Research)

  • “Every day tens of thousands of Black mamas and caregivers languish in cages simply because they cannot afford bail. 60% of people in local women’s jails have not even been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial and 80% of them are parents.” (National Bail Out)

  • “A $10 increase to a woman’s income had the same health and nutritional benefit to children as a $110 increase to a man’s income. Investing in women is good for women, good for their families and good for the global economy. A recent United Nations study highlighted how Sub-Saharan Africa loses $95 billion every year because of gender inequality.” (Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes)

  • “Reducing women’s unpaid labor from five hours per day to three can increase a country’s female labor-force participation rate by 10 percent. If women were able to contribute equally to the economy, the global GDP could increase by 12%.” (The Atlantic)

  • “Collectivizing care work allows not only for the better use of time, including rest, but also mutual protection against violence and poverty.” (Solidarity and mutual aid: Women organizing the “visible hand” urban commons)

  • When women have less money to spend on their own pleasure and leisure activities, they suffer more physical and mental health impacts and have less ability to participate in activities they want or need to. For example, the image below shows that in the United States in 2010, women spent more time caring for household members and doing routine housework, but men spent more time watching TV and playing sports.

(Source: The Atlantic)

Image Description: A chart comparing differences in the average minutes that men and women spend on various activities in 10 countries and within the OECD average.

This is not to say that women are so busy doing unpaid labor that they do not work at all. In fact, many of them shoulder this unequal burden at the same time as paid work (and, as a reminder, that paid work is still at a lesser rate than a white man doing the same job). A study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research from 2014 shows that 61% of Black mothers of children under 18 are single moms and breadwinners, while only 21% of white mothers in the same category. It is clear that women in general, but especially Black women, are not only holding together their families, but also their communities.

Between caregiving, household labor, and paid work, women have significantly more to do while still earning less overall and learning less for the same type and amount as white men. Due to racism, ableism, anti-queer and anti-trans bias, and other social and systemic biases, women who experience multiple types of oppression have less and less time and money. However, they find more time to advocate for their communities, for mutual aid, for taking care of one another. Because if they don’t, who will?

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