The Notorious RBG and Social Responsibility

I was recently at a talk presented by Katie Gibson, an academic colleague based on her excellent book Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy of Dissent: Feminist Rhetoric and the Law. In this work, Professor Gibson documents the evolution of the Justice’s feminist consciousness and legal strategies.

RBG’s legal rhetoric has invoked many decades of feminist thought. Over a very long and still vital career, she has defended abortion on the basis of the privacy rights of women; she has argued against discrimination of any kind, but particularly against women, in public and professional life. She deconstructs the idea that women belong is a sphere separate from public and political life, relegated to the domain of necessity rather than self-actualization.

The presentation made me think about how, as a (very important, heroic, and brilliant) liberal feminist, RBG, defended the rights of women to enter public life but did not question the existence and character of private life; she challenged the ideology of separate spheres but not the idea of the public and private domains in the first place. There is still, even if women may leave it temporarily, a private realm where women, men, and indeed people of all genders, must struggle to meet the obligations of self-care and family life.

This is the site of social reproduction. Literally, the shit work. The work of bearing, housing, feeding, healing, and socializing members of the household, particularly children. The work, if one is fortunate enough to have paid employment, of getting up at 6 to deliver children to childcare by 7 before the professional day begins. The work of rushing out of late meetings and social gatherings to collect children on time so that the care workers may also go home to care for their household. The work of food preparation, taking the sick to doctors, cleaning others’ clothing and spaces, helping with homework, protecting from violence. It is work that one must provide for free in spite of its incredible costs in money, time, and energy.

In capitalist society, buttressed once by the liberal and now the neoliberal ideology, this work of reproducing oneself and others to engage in work outside the home, the responsibility of care is privatized. No one–not the employer, and not the state–will help to bear that burden even though the shit work makes both the employer and the state possible. That burden is amplified by sexism, of course; it is also amplified by the racism and poverty that segregate and vilify families of color in such a way as to make food, space, health, education, and safety extraordinarily precarious. That burden is amplified by ableism, when those with power and privilege don’t stop to worry how caregivers and care receivers often lack basic access to the resources of care.

This is not an original observation. Socialist feminists, for example, Nancy Fraser, have promoted an ethics and politics of care and challenged its absence in capitalist society. Socialist feminists have also reclaimed a theory of social reproduction that acknowledges the domestic domain’s interdependence with production of the necessities of life outside the home. A thoroughgoing acknowledgement of that reality means challenging the separation of the public and the private entirely. Such a conclusion poses a challenge to liberalism and neoliberalism. Organizing struggle around this idea poses a challenge to capitalism itself.

It is a revolutionary idea, one that follows from an interrogation of the limits of liberal feminism. “Getting to” go to work or run for office does not relieve one from the labor of the “second shift where we get ourselves ready to get to go to work. Zillah Eisenstein famously wrote that once liberal feminists ran up against the structural barriers to liberation in patriarchal (and, I’d stress, capitalist) society, they come to more radical conclusions and are motivated to more radical actions. Out of her analysis of the relationships among privatization, the oppression of women, and the state, Eisenstein urges us to “grasp freedom out of the demand for equality.”

And so, it was while admiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of feminism and defense of women’s equality that I recommitted to not just an escape from, but the destruction of a domain of privatized social responsibility that capitalism and the state depend upon to do their dirty work.

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