Lieutenant (junior grade) Natasha McClinton, a surgical nurse, prepares a patient for a procedure in the intensive care unit aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort during the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. Photo credit: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman / Public domain.

The streets around Highland Hospital, a few blocks from my house in Rochester, New York, are lined with signage “thanking” and “supporting” the “essential” workers who labor there. Many signs are hand-made, propped on porches or taped to light poles; others are mass-produced, like campaign signs, anchored into residential lawns. All are evidence of the public recognition of health care workers who face immense personal risk as they care for the sick during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But many other workers at the low-waged and precarious end of the service sector have also emerged as, in the lingo of today, “essential” during the pandemic: the home health aide, the gig-work delivery driver, the warehouse worker, the retail worker, the hospital cleaner, the food service worker, the migrant agricultural worker. An analysis of census data by the New York Times revealed that these workers are disproportionately female.

As the Times noted:

Women make up nearly nine out of 10 nurses and nursing assistants, most respiratory therapists, a majority of pharmacists and an overwhelming majority of pharmacy aides and technicians. More than two-thirds of the workers at grocery store checkouts and fast food counters are women.

It’s long known that women gravitate to the care and service professions, careers that notoriously offer poor compensation and working conditions. Historian Gabriel Winant has, the past, explained this by noting women are often “driven by incentives other than [those that are] purely economic,” including a sense of duty and necessity.

But the orthodox economic notion of “incentives” fails to explain the disjuncture between the social necessity of such work and the fact that it is so often low- or even unpaid. The care work, feeding, cleaning, and counseling that women disproportionately do that keeps humans alive did not recently become “essential.” It has always been so. Now, as the health care and public health sectors are stretched to their breaking points by successive waves of COVID-19 infections, and as other caring fields like public education are left without the resources to adapt, I cannot help but wonder whether the toll of the virus has been intensified by the longstanding devaluation of feminized care work in the very fields that are tasked with getting us through it.

Feminist thinkers and activists of the 1970s and 1980s understood our labor dilemmas all too well and two movements from the period, the Wages for Housework initiative and the feminist activist comparable worth movement, offer valuable insights into our current moment. They rejected distinctions between work performed in the home and that done outside of it, and they insisted that the wages paid for various kinds of work are arbitrary — that is, there’s no necessary basis for them, and the market does not adequately determine the value of labor.

Take the Marxist-inspired Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s, which demanded wages for women’s reproductive work — from child rearing and homemaking to, in the words of Silvia Federici, who wrote the movement’s best known manifesto, Wages Against Housework, “smiling [and] fucking.” Claiming that the accumulation of capital cannot proceed without the workers and the society that domestic labor reproduces, the movement positioned so-called “social reproduction” (the work that generates human beings and societies) within the larger frame of class struggle. They did this by refusing to distinguish productive and reproductive forms of labor — that is, between work that creates exchange value (something you can sell) and that which creates workers themselves.

Instead, these feminists insist, it’s all work — work that ultimately contributes to the accumulation of capital. Therefore, there’s no good reason why some of that work is paid high wages, some is paid low, and some is not waged at all. The audacious tone in which these feminists demanded wages was designed to confront prevailing presumptions about the valuation of work.

The pay equity movement started from a slightly different place that WFH and struck a more reformist posture, but shared many of the same underlying presumptions. Unlike the current corporate feminist position that all genders in the same job ought to receive equal compensation, the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) was formed in 1979 to make the point that work performed in professions dominated by women is as valuable as that done in jobs where workers are majority male.

As the NCPE puts it in their own retrospective of the movement, “‘[c]omparable worth’ contends that pay should be equal for jobs with comparable skills, effort, and responsibility, not just for jobs that are the same.” For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that the median annual salary for teachers (77% female) in the United States is about $6,000 less than that of law enforcement officers (87% male — take into account higher pay for higher-ranking officers like detectives and that gap widens considerably). The median annual salaries of child care workers (between 92 – 98% female — numbers are unreliable because many work informally) are nearly $10,000 less than those of garbage collectors (99% male).

The comparable worth feminists ground their demands in the belief that this kind of differential valuation is not necessary, but customary, and can and should be changed. Thanks to favorable court rulings, the movement succeeded in forcing the re-evaluation of pay by public employers across the United States throughout the 1980s. Progress stalled in the early 1990s as legal victories slowed, and employers failed to take action without legal obligation. That said, according to the NCPE, “between 1983 and 1992, NCPE’s organizing efforts led 20 state governments to make comparable worth adjustments among their civil service workforce, raising the pay of 335,000 workers by more than $527 million.”

The pandemic has made us realize what the feminist activists of the 1970s and 1980s so fiercely argued: the vital necessity of all kinds of low- and unwaged labor is simply not captured by the marketplace. When financial traders quarantine themselves in luxury hotels to continue their work while hospital workers seek hotel rooms to avoid infecting their families at home, we see that wages are detached from the work that is essential to human survival.

It’s unfortunate that these movements have been forgotten by all but a few activists and scholars today. Their central insight — that we do not pay for the labor our society needs the most because our presumptions that the market adequately assigns value are flawed — explains why we can do little more than say we honor “essential” workers.

Our undervaluation of traditionally female work is coming home to roost. In all corners of our public and private lives, we’re collectively experiencing the fallout from a systematic devaluation of feminized “essential” work. As such, in both revolutionary and reformist postures, the economic demands of feminists of the 1970s are critical to tacking our labor dilemmas now: they not only bolster the case for more wages for essential work, but perhaps even more crucially, they provide us with alternative bases of valuing all labor — especially that which is most necessary for human survival — in the first place.

Alissa G. Karl is associate professor of English at SUNY Brockport, where she is also president of the campus chapter of her labor union, United University Professions.