Giving Power, Taking Power: Emotional Labor, Gender, and Abuse

“…give a portion of your power to women…”

– Roman prayer to Cybele

Her legs buckle and I know what to do.

I don’t just mean easing my client to the ground and checking for stroke. As I wait for the charge nurse, I focus on my smile. Other residents have visitors, after all; they’re liable to complain about a caregiver who lets it show that she’s had too little sleep for a 12-hour shift. Nursing resembles customer service, waitstaffing, and retail: most of the work does not involve the specific set of tasks listed in the job description. 80% of the time, nursing means presenting cheerfulness, politeness, deference, and a willingness to handle other people’s interpersonal tension no matter how they treat you.

And as I push through the minor crisis on the emotional momentum of my devotional prayer that morning, I wonder, “Why should my employer care about my facial expression as much as my ability to cushion this client’s fall?

Of course, it’s gender.


Two sociologists in particular have defined the ways we approach the connections between gender, emotions, and work. Emerging from the Second Wave of Western feminism in the 60s and 70s, Louise Kapp Howe wondered whether increased access to paid work had, in fact, much improved women’s lives. She found that women overwhelmingly got shunted into low-wage, majority-women, service-sector occupations; for these she coined the term “pink-collar” (as opposed to still-male-dominated blue- and white-collar jobs).

Later, Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart showed us what those pink-collar jobs disproportionately involve: she termed it emotional labor. Emotional labor is a waitress smiling and laughing even when a customer is rude. Emotional labor is a retail clerk greeting everyone who walks in with a smile, no matter how she actually feels. Emotional labor is a nurse aide acting pleasant even under deeply unpleasant conditions.

Emotional labor is the work of acting like you feel a certain way because the boss and customers demand it. And emotional labor, above all, is “women’s work.”


She tells me everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I know what to do.

This time it’s not a client, but a partner. Relationship abuse, though often not discussed, is as much a reality for LGBT people as for straights. By this point, she’d quite effectively isolated me with a move across the country, and I wouldn’t get away from her for several more months. So I smile, and I draw on whatever emotional strength I can find – from the Meter Theon, from myself, from the ability to do emotional labor on demand that women under patriarchy have to develop. The skill set here didn’t differ from the one I use at work. And in principle, it doesn’t differ from the work of listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead).

Women who’ve survived abuse often have people asking us why we put up with it, why we stayed even after it became “really” bad. There’s plenty of answers – lack of financial resources, absence of crucial support networks, nowhere to leave to – but I rarely hear the biggest reason of all. Satisfying other people’s desires without expecting reciprocation is what women do; under patriarchy, that’s what “women’s work” means.

Much of the emotional labor required of pink collar workers involves smiling and apologizing at people targeting you with abusive behaviors. Tell an angry, verbally-violent customer, “don’t talk to me like that. I deserve basic respect,” and you’ll likely get fired. Submitting to an abusive partner or family member involves precisely the same work, and it’s work forced on most of us by the power structure of capitalism. The requirements of paid pink-collar work reinforce abusive dynamics at home, while the emotional conditioning of unpaid abuse makes women better at putting up with it on the job.

Capitalism runs on the abuse of women.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

– Karl Marx

When faking happiness at work is more than my depressive brain can bear, I pray for strength and find that the Mother of the Gods answers. When tolerating my abuser without melting down became more than was possible, I also prayed for strength, and also found that the Mother answered. Sure, Marx may have opposed religion on principle. But I wouldn’t have lasted this long without the power my goddess gives me. Patriarchy is the system growing on women’s unpaid, unreciprocated work (emotional, domestic, and social). And like all exploitation, patriarchy harms its victims. Women are consistently more religious than men across many different traditions. This holds even truer for Paganism than for the Abrahamic religions Marx had in mind. We seek so much divine support because we can’t keep going without it.

Many of us are used to getting through on the strength our deities give us, and many of our deities are used to “giving a portion of power to women” because women need it. But part of our work as anticapitalists involves removing the need for religion to act as a stopgap for exploited, struggling people. We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.

“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”

– Shane Claiborne

In the left-wing subculture, certain roles and political strategies get glory. Everyone wants to admire the building occupier who stands firm when they get pepper sprayed, or the leader whose oratory whips a crowd of demonstrators into ecstasy, or the organizer who founded six organizations and sits on the steering committee for five more. And confrontation and “speaking truth to power” surely do take courage and express the righteous fury of the activist community; sometimes, they even get material results. But there’s more to revolution than challenging the old (including the often-unsung behind-the-scenes work that allows confrontation to occur. While this work is disproportionately done by women, the visible glory-winning roles still tend to go to men). You also need to build the new.

During the Indian independence struggle, Gandhi developed a theoretical distinction between an “obstructive program” and a “constructive program.” The former means challenging existing unjust systems and demanding they change (by whatever tactics one chooses; virtually everything activists in the US currently do falls into this category). The latter, however, means building something better now, so that when the old system falls, something will be ready to take its place. While we need both, Gandhi rightly prioritized the latter, saying:

“My real politics is constructive work.”

Patriarchy is about labor. Patriarchy is about exploitation. And without doing away with patriarchy, we won’t really be able to undo capitalism; like all structures of exploitation, they’re too mutually reinforcing to get rid of just one by itself. The type of work exploited through patriarchy is generally women’s unwaged and unnamed domestic and/or emotional labor (be it in a pink-collar job or just informally, between friends, families, and lovers). Until you start looking for it, it’s hard to notice; so is abuse, of course, and abuse exists on a spectrum with unreciprocated emotional work. We can’t get rid of abuse without getting rid of the entire spectrum. Our constructive program must involve men doing this labor for each other and doing it for women. Even our male revolutionaries need to start doing the dishes.

Otherwise, women won’t find our communities sharing power and support together. We’ll only have what strength our gods can give.



Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.


20 thoughts on “Giving Power, Taking Power: Emotional Labor, Gender, and Abuse

  1. When customers complain about bad service, a lot of the time they just seem to mean the worker wasn’t subservient enough. Your comments about the connection between emotional work, abuse and patriarchy shed a lot of light on the whole mess.

    I recently read an article on the swaraj movement, and thought “we really need something like this here.” Yet our activism in the US is as atomized as everything else. We never build anything, we only resist, so the best we can hope for is to lose less ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a really interesting article that lays bare some of the structures of gender.

    One thing to think about, re: “listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead)”.

    Many (perhaps most) men fail to listen with empathy or provide emotional support, not because they’re bad people or because they’re genetically incapable of it, but because they’ve never learned how to do it, in fact, they’ve been actively prevented from showing any kind of caring, soft, or empathetic behaviour, having had it beaten out of them at home and at school. For a male, to fail to meet the patriarchal idea of what a “man” should be is to suffer emotional and physical abuse and exclusion. The machine needs emotionally desensitized police, soldiers, miners, corporate executives, bond traders as much as it needs empathetic care workers to pick up the pieces and get them back in working order. Not that this always happens — witness escalating depression and suicide rates among men.

    So to say that “Capitalism runs on the abuse of women” is only half a truth. Because actually the abuse of men is just as essential to its functioning. And it’s unjust for women to blame men for the way they’ve been conditioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would also caution that as an emotionally sensitive man, I frequently encounter men spun up by their women who head out into the world to rape, pillage and plunder. I would agree that both feminine and masculine energies are essential to the constructive project, but neither is completely suppressed in the current system, and neither is solely at fault for its dysfunction.

      Furthermore, I would assert that there is enormous synergy when masculine and feminine perspectives unite in doing spiritual work – the feminine taking the emotional lead, and the masculine taking the conceptual lead. Achieving this balance is possible in each of us as individuals, regardless of gender or orientation, but it seems that there are certain naturally tendencies and strengths that come with our biological packaging.

      In my own career, I have found that my strengths in the conceptual space are frequently discounted and abused by those that achieve control through intimidation.


  3. It is life the Straight mans fear and loathing of a Gay man, the fear and loathing that he might be treated like a woman. If he treated women as equals, he would not have that fear.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. In lieu of the continuous rejection by the U.S. Congress (and their contributing allies Capitalist Industrialism) of equil pay for equil work, this article rings especially true.

    I feel the rise of Bernie Sanders is proof that constructive change is alive and growing, but like you the absence of female leadership is indicative of a double standard among progressive activists in the political arena.


  5. A lot in this article to explore further… Another aspect is the lack of regard for all the unpaid work many women do in community service, raising children, taking care of elderly family members. Some people have argued this kind of work should be paid, but I think once you start putting a price on the labour of love, we get drawn into the narrative that everything should be expressed and valued in money.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.”

    Bang on, dead center, nail on the fucking head. Great piece.

    This piece has power in it, it’s not a story of a victim but the logic and dialectics of someone_overcoming_the world. And we need more of that.

    Also, have you read any Oscar Wilde? Check out his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” I think you’ll like it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Christianity also calls for a type of emotional labor that I don’t see in Paganism – the demand to “love” God. It’s not enough to offer the appropriate sacrifices, do the proper rituals, and approach deity with respect and honor – the Christian god demands that you love him. I can’t have been the only Christian woman trying to manufacture loving feelings for a deity and thus performing emotional labor for religion as well as work and family. Pagan deities will accept loving devotion, of course, but they don’t demand it of everyone in the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is brilliant. I am really glad to see someone pointing about that the same abusive dynamic that exists too often in personal relationships also exists (and supports) more impersonal relationships (“work”), and that this is also abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My inability to fake a smile and happy face is a good part of the reason reason I’ve steered clear of any job is ‘front of house’ preferring to stack shelves, clean, remain invisible as I’m so awkward around people and find putting on a facade very draining. Yes, women are certainly expected to offer emotional support and labour more often than men. That said I know some lovely blokes who are far better than me at supporting others and always up for washing up! Guess I’m lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A lot of men need to become stronger men and get their own act together. It is the ones that don’t have their act together who can been the worst hassle. A man should not need constant support to survive and women need more time to take care of their own needs, and be encouraged to fulfill those needs as well.


  11. Great article, Sophia. Notice that even in the comments we have someone pleading, “But it works so well this way, when men do all the thinking and women carry all the emotional burden!” sigh Maybe it works well that way for him, but it doesn’t work well that way for me. Yes, both emotional and conceptual leadership are needed, but why assume that I will provide one rather than the other just because I have an F on my driver’s license? I have no talent for emotional leadership. I have the greatest of admiration for those who do.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hello Sable

      If you’re referring to my comment above (and I don’t know what other comment you could be referring to), I don’t really see how you can interpret it as meaning that I was happy with the existing state of affairs. What I said is that this is what the Machine demands; but what’s good for the Machine is, obviously, terrible for Gaia. I think most of us need to be more empathetic and emotionally capable, but it’s hard work for men who have been conditioned to be the opposite.


      1. Don’t worry Robert, I wasn’t referring to your comment. I was referring to Brian’s reply to it. In particular, the second paragraph. I think you’re right that we receive cultural training (and pressure) as women to carry emotional burdens, and men receive cultural training (and pressure) not to. We force even women who are square pegs (like me) into the round holes, and we don’t let round-peg-men find their round holes without public shaming. And yes, it’s absolutely unhealthy to everyone. The only people who benefit from patriarchy are the Patriarchs. Young men and poor men become disposable work-units in a patriarchy; it certainly doesn’t benefit them!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic article Sophia. I particularly love the links you make between abuse and emotional labour. There is so much to say about that, and it is certainly relevant to the links I’ve been making recently around emotional labour as being seen as women’s work and how that pans out in practice.

    Dividing up caretaking tasks is something as a woman manager of a behaviour-change programme I had to actively put in place for the male workers (when I noticed it was only women workers taking this on), interestingly there was much humour and asking of payrises… one man reminded us that he did the washing up (he did at the beginning of his employment), which I didn’t point out but did, however, remind him that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if he was a woman, he would just be doing it. They did it (in a way, which is a whole other discussion) but it interests me that it had to be prompted…

    Liked by 1 person

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