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

[Image: "Couple in Conversation," painting by Simon Glücklich]

“…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.


 

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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.