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Women's invisible labor and the art world


Macushla Robinson writes about feminized labor, notably emotional labor and care work, and how these have been traditionally unpaid and thus sidelined and unimportant. This unpaid labor, generally performed by women, extends even to the art world, she writes. Read Robinson in partial below, in full via Runway.

Contemporary artist and essayist Hito Steyerl says ‘apart from domestic and care work—art is the industry with the most unpaid labour around. It sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function. Free labour and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the culture sector going’.[1] This labour, as Steyerl points out, is largely performed by women.

There are two ways in which women’s labour is undervalued in the creative industries: the visible, calculable pay gap, and the invisible, unaccounted for labour that keeps this luxury market afloat.

That women are paid less for their work than men is well documented: many outspoken advocates for women in the arts, most famously the Guerrilla Girls but more recently Pussy Galore and CoUNTess, have pilloried museums and galleries for their lack of representation of women artists. It is not simply that museums are biased, but that they are part of a biased ecosystem.

Where price tags and inclusion in major exhibitions are quantifiable, the free labour and rampant exploitation that Steyerl speaks of is, by its very nature, undocumented: it happens in the realm of interpersonal relationships; in the studio, the gallery or late at night on a laptop in bed; in long, unaccounted for hours and work brought home from the office on maternity leave. It happens in conversations and meetings where women must appear subtly more humble, more efficient, more dedicated than any of their male counterparts. Such labour cannot be accounted for by statistics alone.

In the past three decades, housework, care work and other forms of gendered labour have become the focus of first-world feminist attention. The economic unit of the family is the site of the accumulation of capital. Dividing labour along gender lines within filial structures, this evolving system has nurtured a situation in which men do (or did) wage-work and provided financial support for woman, whose biological capacity to bear children coupled with the social pressure to rear them precluded them from such work. This does not mean that women do not perform labour, but that their labour is unpaid.[2]

In his recent book Capitalism in the Web of Life, David W. Moore draws on an old distinction between capitalism’s ‘exploitation’ of paid labour and ‘appropriation’ of unpaid labour. The capitalist system appropriates various forms of unpaid labour and energy that support the employed workforce and make capitalist exploitation possible. Women’s work is appropriated by capitalism to first give birth to, then feed, clothe and otherwise care for the waged workforce. Borrowing from feminist critiques of capitalism, Moore invokes the phrase ‘social reproduction’ and then extends it to the natural world, asking ‘where does the ‘social’ moment of raising children end and the ‘biological’ moment begin?’[3] Just as capitalism relies on appropriating the socially reproductive capacities of women, it also relies on appropriating the biologically reproductive capacities of non-human agents such as rivers, minerals, oil mined from the earth.

Where men have historically been associated with intellect, logic and technology, women have been associated with nature. Western history is filled with images of women as the producers of life, with biological cycles are likened to seasons. This association is double-edged. On the one hand, as Simone de Beauvoir so powerfully argued in her 1954 book The Second Sex, the idea that women are closer to nature has been instrumental in their subordination.[4] Sociologist Sherry Ornter summarises this elegantly in Is female to male as nature to culture? [5] Women’s pan-cultural second-class status could be accounted for, quite simply, by postulating that women are being identified or symbolically associated with nature, as opposed to men, who are identified with culture. Since it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature, if women were considered part of nature, then culture would find it ‘natural’ to subordinate, not to say oppress, them.

This association is both well established and widely critiqued. In the time since de Beauvoir’s text was published, two distinct positions emerged: broadly the anti-essentialist feminism that follows de Beauvoir’s insistence that ‘One is not born but becomes a woman’[6] and a counter-position that endorses the understanding of men and women as fundamentally different and frames this difference as a source of potential power. The goal of essentialist feminism is not to elide the difference between men and women and thus to establish equality, but rather to maintain the difference and to invert our culture’s focus on the traditionally male qualities of logic and intellect.

The affiliation of women with nature has found its supporters among many late 20th century forms of feminism, and has crept into what is now termed ‘eco-feminism’, which sees ecological degradation and the oppression of women as linked.[7] Ecofeminism often attempts to invert a hierarchy, asserting the importance of nature over humankind and our dependence on it, and mobilising the traditional alignment of women with nature as a feminist project. As Sarah Milner-Barry writes, the ubiquitous phrase Mother Nature ‘has come to represent the twinned exploitation of all that patriarchal society considers to be inferior to men. As such, both are expected to be perpetually available to them, and to be accepting and accommodating of their desires’. [8] The understanding of women as close to nature is behind the fact that women’s work is undervalued.

Feminist activist and scholar Maria Mies gives an account of the oppression of women within the capitalist system, subscribing to a gender-essentialism that aligns women (and oppressed colonies) with nature. Peppered with the phrase ‘mother nature’, this text essentialises capitalism as male and that which it feeds off—nature—as female, arguing that ‘women’s labour is considered a natural resource, freely available like air and water’.[9]

In her essay Love and Gold, feminist theorist Arlie Hochschild conceptualises love as a resource that the first world currently ‘mines’ from third world women. Elsewhere she details that while first world women have moved into the paid labour force, first world men have been notoriously reluctant to take on the unwaged work previously performed by housewives.[10] To fill in the gaps, first world capitalism has turned to third world, migrant labour forces. ‘It is as if the wealthy parts of the world are running short on precious emotional and sexual resources and have had to turn to poorer regions for fresh supplies’.[11] Her description of the flow of care workers from third world countries to first world countries reveals how widespread assumptions about women’s capacity for love are. She says, ‘we can speak about love as an unfairly distributed resource—extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else’. She calls this situation, poetically, a ‘global heart transplant’.[12]

When women performed this labour as part of their married duties, it was justified as an act of love. Caring first for her husband and children, then later for the elderly within extended family groups, the work that women have traditionally performed is bound up with assumptions about their biological predisposition to loving. As Silvia Federici phrased in her 1975 manifesto Wages Against Housework, ‘They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work’.[13] Having been culturally constructed as an act of love and nurture inherent to the female gender, housework (and similarly care work) has not been considered ‘real’ work. The logic behind this is that love is its own reward—the fulfilment of a ‘natural’ drive, which is inherently pleasurable and therefore does not require monetary compensation.

That terrain is shifting away from the closed unit of the family and ever more into the market. However, this work is radically undervalued against other kinds of wage work. I do not want to conflate the forms of exploitation enacted against third world and first world women – their circumstances are not equivalent—but rather, draw attention to the fact that the mistreatment of third world women is motivated by the same set of beliefs that are still operational, though in covert forms, in the lives of first world women. Women as a whole are subject to these beliefs in the capitalist system.

We justify paying domestic labourers so little because care work is a female dominated industry, and we still think of women as biologically predisposed to love. As Hochschild says, first world employers believe immigrant women ‘to be especially gifted as caregivers: they are thought to embody the traditional feminine qualities of nurturance, docility, and eagerness to please’.[14] The capacity for love, it seems, is cheap.

Capitalism’s tacit positioning of women’s work as a natural resource implies that those who perform the labour associated with femininity are fundamentally passive—vessels from whom energy is extracted rather than agents involved in a complex cultural process. The love that capitalism feeds upon is undervalued because it is seen as naturally occurring and therefore not labour. This ignores the ways in which women are trained (often by their own mothers) to volunteer labour of this kind and to meet the expectations that arise out of cultural constructions of femininity.

Much has been written on this capitalist sleight of hand and its consequences for women. However, it is only by looking beyond the care industries, which can be linked to biological understandings of women, that we can understand capitalism’s broader exploitation of the gender divide. Where the logic behind care work hinges on a set of beliefs about women’s biological tendencies and capacities, the disparity in the cultural sector is not so obvious. Yet this imbalance is, I believe, driven by the same logic as that of care work.

*Image of white cube via Tokyo Wonder Site


Thanks for sharing Macushla’s great article, which appeared in Runway, not Runaway :wink:

  • Laura McLean, Editor Runway #32 RE/PRODUCTION


Thank you for pointing that out, I’ve fixed the typo!


This article seems to not really actually delve into the parallels between labor of love and the role of women in the generation and curation of creative capital. Maybe I just want even more. It’s an excellent and thorough overview of the history of exploitation among various forms of _women’s work _but I find what Steyerl says in the beginning, ‘apart from domestic and care work—art is the industry with the most unpaid labour around. It sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function. Free labour and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the culture sector going" is what I’d really had hoped the article would have gone into. Women in positions of curator, director, administrator, facilitator /ator/ator/etc. in addition to just the woman artist are regularly drawing on more and more hours (e.g. “the laptop at home”) and their work is not quantifiable. Is this a comparative act that exploits our seeming “inherent” “labor of love”? And what about the woman’s driven (albeit unacknowledged) success within the field as a result of these actions—are these not also, not an inversion, but rather a demonstration of female logic and intellect?