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Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Care is Work: Nancy Folbre Speaks on the Gendered Economics of Unpaid Work

 Folbre lecture  In collaboration with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the Center was honored to host Nancy Folbre on Thursday, April 19, in the Kelly International Conference Facility of the Baker Institute. Folbre’s lecture was titled, "Unpaid Work and Wellbeing: The Nature and Logic of Patriarchal Capitalism." The economic history of the world has been shaped by gender inequalities, particularly the strict divide between paid labor outside the home and unpaid labor within the home. The latter usually takes the form of care, either of children or the elderly. Folbre’s lecture focused on what she calls the “social organization of care,” or the ways in which care for dependents is arranged, both in terms of human capabilities and human capital. The responsibilities for this type of care typically fall to women, since capitalism depends on patriarchal familial structures. However, as traditional family units become less ubiquitous and more women work for wages, women gain what Folbre calls “self-ownership.” The results of this movement are complicated; many women’s economic situations improve, and the price of care rises in a market with a reduced supply and greater demand for caretaking. But as the positions of women improve, the positions of mothers deteriorates—Folbre names this phenomenon the “pauperization of motherhood.” Motherhood has become economically risky—those who do work outside of the home are on average paid less than other women. This effect is intensified along the lines of class, racial, and ethnic differences. Folbre’s lecture emphasized the fact that women aren’t a homogenous group that experiences economic advantage and disadvantage consistently. Her analysis of our current economic system is a distinctly feminist critique of conventional measures of economic growth and welfare that often overlook potential economic side effects for a diverse population of women. 

Folbre headshot

Folbre is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Her research focuses on the interface between feminist theory and political economy, with a particular focus on the work of caring for others. Her new book, “Saving State U” (New Press, 2010), makes a case for strengthening public support for higher education in the United States. Her other recent books include "Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas" (Oxford University Press, 2009) and "Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family" (Harvard University Press, 2008). Recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Professor Folbre has consulted for the United Nations Human Development Office, the World Bank, and other organizations. She is also the author of a popular blog for the New York Times. Folbre's presentation was the fourth Gray/Wawro Lecture of the academic year.