Reproductive Labour and Care

Level: beginner
Exploring Economics | Exploring Economics, 2016
Reproductive Labour and Care
Perspective: Feminist Economics
Topic: gender, labour & care
Format: Text

Reproductive Labour and Care

Authored by the Exploring-Economics-Team


Currently in the focus: reproductive labour

A broad debate on reproductive labour was firstly brought up by the feminists who initiated the campaign wages for housework in the early 1970s (amongst others by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James). In lieu of a real policy proposal they rather aimed at pointing to the fact that female housework was firstly unpaid and secondly a necessary condition for the capitalist production process. They, furthermore, emphasized that reproductive activities are also labour which is characterized by gender hierarchy and not a goodwill gesture by women.

Since the 1970s, many patterns of the organization of reproductive labour and the division of labour between men and women have changed. Many women entered the labour market, reproductive activities are organized to a larger extend via paid labour and are continuously marketized: child care, care of the elderly, house cleaning or delivery services form part of this development.1 Those changes are not only owed to feminist claims but also to the necessities of the labour market: a larger labour force was needed and the breadwinner model became phased-out. Yet those developments did not change the gender division of labour: women rather work in marketized reproductive activities which are paid less. Women often face a double burden since they work and additionally do the unpaid housework. In addition, the integration of many women into the labour market relies on an economic and racial division between women: caring activities, as cleaning or child caring, are often carried out by women migrant workers from Eastern Europe or the Global South. The shift of this labour is met by the term global care chain.

The double burden worsened throughout the financial and economic crisis: austerity policies hit public sector and caring activities disproportionately, and relied on the provision of unpaid work. Those developments go hand in hand with increasing flexibilization and the still low status of care. Therefore it is referred to a crisis of reproduction within the multiple crisis.

Reproductive labour & care

Reproductive labour comprises remunerated as well as unpaid activities that reproduce the work force - this includes daily activities as cooking, washing clothes but also bearing children. The term reproductive labour emphasizes the role of those activities within the production process, namely the reproduction of the work-force. Throughout the past years, the debate on those activities mainly carried out by women shifted from reproductive activities to the term “care” - the latter focuses on the type of the activities, the work with and the caring for persons, which is devoted to the well-being of others and also includes the caring for elderly people.

Blind spot in Economics: Critique by Feminist Economics

Caring activities are one central element of feminist economists' analysis – also since in particular unremunerated work is a blind spot in mainstream economics and most other economic paradigms. Those focus on the market sphere: activities are considered as productive and as real labour if they are remunerated and market-intermediated. Goods and services are considered as labour if they create a value which can be traded on the market. Feminist Economics remarks that this perspective creates certain dichotomies and consequent devaluations: unproductive – productive; private – public; unpaid – remunerated OR paid less – well paid; female – male; soft work – hard work; caring – rationality. Radical Feminist Economics not only criticizes that those activities are not analysed or undervalued but that capitalist production relies on the reproductive activities of both women and nature. This unites feminist economics with the claims of some Ecological Economists, who remark that the extraction of natural resources and the pollution resulting from production are not sufficiently accounted for in production costs.

Within classical economics, labour was always perceived as productive if goods and services were produced for the market and have an exchange value, thus can be traded via the market. While for instance Adam Smith still accounted for reproductive activities of women enabling the production process, David Ricardo saw economic persons as individuals who do not rely on social structures, they just need a wage to reproduce their labour force (in terms of e.g. food).

Also in the works of Karl Marx, reproductive activities were not accounted for – even if Marx mentioned the necessity of workers to reproduce themselves: workers are exploited by capitalists since they have to work more than is necessary for their reproduction – the additional work is known as generating the surplus value. Hereby, reproduction is considered as the consumption of goods such as food – but does not include caring activities. If the latter were accounted for, costs for reproduction would be much higher.

On of the few neoclassical models that accounts for homework and family life is the New Home Economics by Gary Becker. The division of labour between men and women is considered as an efficient process based on rational decisions: not individuals but households (represented by the altruistic head) decide on who of the family works and who takes care of the homework – rational decisions in this model include higher wages and homework “abilities”. Within this concept, women are assigned caring tasks due to an assumed (natural) female propensity to reproductive activities. This model illustrates one further critique of feminist economics: that power relations and gender hierarchies within the division of work and decisions are neglected by economics and that thereby inequalities are reproduced.

Feminist perspectives

If reproductive activities should be remunerated is also contested within feminist debates. While some argue in favour of remuneration of of reproductive labour inside the market system, also to gain esteem for those activities, other voices don't want to expand the capitalist logic to „undiscovered“ spheres. Demands for a reduction of labour time, which enables more time for caring activities or claims such as Frigga Haug’s Four-in-One-Perspective propose to separate available time to different equally valued spheres – among them time for reproductive activities and wage labour (see further reading).



Biesecker, A. und S. Hofmeister (2010): “Im Fokus: Das (Re)Produktive. Die Neubestimmung des Ökonomischen mithilfe der Kategorie (Re)Produktivität.” In: Bauhardt, C. and G. Çağlar. Gender and Economics. Feministische Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Kitchen Politics (Eds.) (2015): Sie nennen es Leben, wir nennen es Arbeit. Biotechnologie, Reproduktion und Familie im 21. Jahrhundert. Edition Assemblage.

Federici, S. (2013): Aufstand aus der Küche. Reproduktionsarbeit im globalen Kapitalismus und die unvollendete feministische Revolution. Edition Assemblage.

Ferber, Marianne A. (2003): "A feminist critique of the neoclassical theory of the family." Women, family, and work: writings on the economics of gender: 9-24.

Mader, K. (2013): Feministische Ökonomie-die" Krisengewinnerin"? Oder: der" Economic Man" in der Krise?. Kurswechsel, (4), 6-16.


Further reading:

Netzwerk Care Revolution (German network: texts, debates, events):

The four-in-one-perspective, availbale in English and Germany:

1 This does not only concern caring activities but also the reproduction of life such as giving birth: Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby show in their research how sexual reproduction is increasingly marketized by new technologies, e.g. surrogacy (Kitchen Politics 2015).




Das Netzwerk Plurale Ökonomik e.V. wird aufgrund seiner Unabhängigkeit und des Einsatzes für Pluralismus und Vielfalt nicht von finanzstarken Interessensgruppen getragen. Deshalb freuen wir uns sehr über eine einmalige oder dauerhafte Spende.