She sits at the table, reading a book. She sits at the table with a man, embracing him as he looks down at a newspaper. She sits at the table with two friends, somber, then smiling. She stands alone at the table. She looks straight into the camera’s lens.
In her renowned The Kitchen Table Series, artist Carrie Mae Weems conveys the intimacies, meditations, and struggles of a Black woman’s everyday life by placing her at the figurative center of the household: the kitchen table. In these twenty black-and-white images, the woman worries alongside the man, who never looks up from his dinner plate or paper; she does battle with a little girl over what may be homework; she gets her hair done as she takes solace in a cigarette and a glass of wine. The focus on domesticity also begs the question of what the woman encounters in the world outside her household and what it takes to return to this table every day and night. We do not see the woman in a factory, office, or field, but we can understand from these images that her life is constituted by labor, along with pleasure and desire.
Beginning a discussion of labor from within a woman of color’s household means necessarily considering how labor is a gendered and racialized process of creating not only economic value but life and self. An analysis of labor, gender, and sexuality from various critical feminist perspectives—women of color, Black, transnational, and Indigenous—thus crosses the boundaries between paid and unpaid work, between household and workplace, between the need to make ends meet and the need for a secure place to sleep, healthy food and water, and good schools. Indeed, nine years before Weems debuted her series, Barbara Smith, influenced by Audre Lorde, began Kitchen Table Press as a way to publish the work of feminist and lesbian women of color. Unlike in Marx’s ( 1992) Capital, volume 1, in which a table is just another commodity treated alongside coats, iron, and corn, the table in critical feminist perspective is a site of labor, family, community, and grassroots struggle (Williams-Forson 2006; Parker et al. 2019).
Most approaches to the study of labor adopt a baseline definition of labor as purposeful, effortful activity that effects change in the world. At first blush, this description seems large enough to hold all manner of intentional human action: we do labor when we make the table, set the table, or struggle to pay bills at the table. In the history of the United States, however, much of the scholarly literature, intellectual debate, and political struggle regarding labor has privileged the labor of men, and the labor of white men in particular, who have been said to “directly” produce value in capitalism as an economic system. This focus is not just the result of the racialized and gendered structure of intellectual and political work (i.e., white male intellectuals and organizers focusing on other white men). The definition of labor as value generating activity is tied to John Locke’s labor theory of property, which helped white settlers socially construct the idea of cultural differences between themselves and Native Americans, who were said not to be properly working the land on which they lived. In turn, this approach to land and labor became part of the ideological tool kit of manifest destiny, leading to the genocide and violent relocation of Native Americans on the North American continent in the nineteenth century.
If the definition of labor as only that which directly creates the economic value of a commodity or property is thus part of the framework of white supremacy, then bringing labor, gender, and sexuality together compels us to recognize what is outside that frame and how to push against it. The history of the US welfare rights movement and its articulation with and differences from the movement for labor rights is a powerful model for how this analysis and intervention have come together. As organizers and scholars have shown, women of color have long been coerced by poverty and racism into domestic work with white families or agriculture labor on white-owned fields and were therefore denied state-based benefits to industrial workers, such as social security (G. West 1981; Quadagno 1996; Nadasen 2005; Kornbluh 2007; Sharpless 2013). Women of color were also pushed out of industry after World War II, have been relegated to government jobs, and in the later twentieth century, were confined to deskilled clerical work (C. Jones  1995; V. Green 2001). Indeed, the history of labor in US communities of color is part and parcel of the struggle for greater recognition and equal treatment of the productive and socially reproductive energies of men and women by society and the state. The term social reproduction refers to the processes by which households, relationships, knowledge, and bodies are maintained so society itself can be reproduced (Bhattacharya 2017). Social reproduction is the labor of the kitchen table.
A discussion of labor based in the history of welfare rights, with its intersecting analysis of poverty, racial oppression, punitive state policies, and labor, thus complicates dominant narratives of US feminism. The latter has tended to privilege the stories of white liberal women who in the late 1960s and 1970s began fighting for the opportunity to work outside the home and for the recognition of domestic work, childcare, and marital heterosexual relations as socially reproductive work that indirectly created economic value by giving birth to and maintaining the workforce. Although the political visions of US-based liberal white women have overlapped with Marxist feminists—including radical autonomist Marxist movements based in Italy (Dalla Costa and James  1975)—their attentions have often differed from many women of color welfare rights activists who fought for structural changes that would afford them the kind of domestic security available to white families, such as the ability to stay at home and care for their own children and families. Without an analysis of the shared and divergent burdens placed on women of color and white women, the former can only ever have been seen as “having it worse” than the latter rather than facing unique circumstances of work and labor because of race.
Accounts of labor focused on women of color have also shown how the US nation-state has historically relied on their oppression and coercion to meet economic and social priorities. For example, between Reconstruction and the dawn of World War II, African American, Mexican, Asian, and Hawaiian women were relegated to low-wage work in agriculture and industry in the South, Southwest, and Hawaiʻi, respectively (Nakano Glenn 2002). In more recent decades, as neoliberal globalization has unevenly and unjustly restructured workers’ lives, making them increasingly more vulnerable and precarious, new accounts of gender, labor, and transnational migration have emerged. While some focus on the autonomy and wage-earning potential of women in global industries (Anwary 2017), others have characterized women in the Global South as well as immigrant women in the Global North as a new proletariat class working in global capitalism’s obscured geography of export processing zones, maquiladoras, and sweatshops (Lacsama and Aguilar 2004; P. Ngai 2005; Ong 2006; Wright 2006). Such research demonstrates how the work and labor of young, often migrant, women are crucial to the manufacture and movement of goods along the “global value chain” or “the global assembly line,” ostensibly neutral terms that obscure women’s experiences of global capitalism and hide the dangerous settings in which they work. Women have died from unsafe conditions in factories in South Asia (F. Ahmed 2004), been raped and murdered in border towns where maquiladoras are often situated (Livingston 2004), and been subjected to new or intensified patterns of domestic violence as a result of their shifting socioeconomic status more broadly (Miedem and Fulu 2018). Indeed, the globalization of production—with its overall lack of worker protections, violation of worker rights, and everyday forms of sexual harassment—raises crucial questions about the intersection of labor and gendered violence as well as how women cope, organize, and resist (Islam and Hossain 2015; Lindio-McGovern and Wallimann  2016; Chang and Poo 2016).
A feminist woman of color focus on globalization and labor also shows us what happens when our metaphorical kitchen table is challenged by the process of migration. By the end of the twentieth century, for example, tens of thousands of women were leaving their home countries each year, going to work in domestic labor for affluent families in major cities like Hong Kong, London, and Los Angeles (Hondagneu-Sotelo  2007; Parreñas  2015; Lan 2006). The internalization of an already racialized structural feature of US households (see the discussion of welfare rights and domestic workers above) has presented extreme challenges for women who continue to care for and maintain ties with their own families and communities across borders. The global appropriation of Filipino labor, for example, has led to the emergence of transnational families, where care is delivered across borders through technology and social media—the kitchen table made virtual (Francisco 2018).
Woman of color feminist theory, welfare rights history, and historical accounts of labor focused on women of color have been crucial for defining labor as a collective, historical experience shaped by race, gender, and sexuality. Approaches to labor such as these place stress on the local, regional, national, and global structural conditions that give rise to workers’ experiences as well as how migrant and immigrant labor is intrinsic to capitalism. Moreover, woman of color feminist practice, with its attention to the way women of color disidentify with or contest the normative institutions of the state (including those related to work and labor), holds important promise for coalitional politics with racialized immigrant workers (Hong 2006; Mohanty 2003).
If we zoom back in on the kitchen table, we can also sense the labor of the gendered, racialized, and sexualized bodies of those of us who gather there. Indeed, the focus on bodies and labor from feminist and queer perspectives has led to vital conversations about work, law, technology, and reproduction. For example, as feminist movements gained both ground and nuance in the 1970s and 1980s, conflicts over sex work emerged too. Gender and sexuality studies literature on sex work makes a number of important distinctions for this conversation—namely, that sex work should not be reduced to prostitution or conflated with sex trafficking (S. Shah 2014); sex work encompasses a wide swath of paid labor related to sexuality, including pornographic entertainment (Miller-Young 2014); and the meaning of sex work changes with economic shifts, whether due to gentrification of cities (Bernstein 2007), or increased military presence, or underdevelopment (Enloe 1990; Tadiar 2004). What is clear from the literature is that productive discussions of sex work should address the specifics of the labor process of the work itself—literally, how sex workers provide the services they do and under what conditions. Also clear from the literature, especially research that looks beyond the United States, is that for many poor people, the search for sex work is linked to the search for other social necessities, including housing and water (S. Shah 2014).
Another approach combining the study of sexuality, gender, and labor explores jobs or workplaces in which workers’ sexual identities and/or gender performance are meaningful in some way. Thanks to a number of ethnographic and historical studies of workplaces around the world, we now have a more profound understanding of how and why Caribbean women, Native American women, or queer Filipino workers can be found doing jobs in outsourced tech-related industry (C. Freeman 2000; Nakamura 2014; David 2015; Padios 2018). The latter kind of approach makes clear what even ostensibly classic Marxists texts like Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital could not, which is why, as technology breaks down labor into more and more deskilled work, the jobs tend to be taken up by women and people of color. As these discussions progress, we will begin to better understand and confront the myriad ways gender and sexuality matter to the workplace, including how work is a site for not only the production of value but also trauma, as the experiences of “nontraditional” or LGBTQ workers in the trades show (M. Benitez 2021). Such approaches require accounts of both the empirical and nonempirical consequences of trauma, as called for by woman of color feminism (Anzaldúa 1987) and felt theory (Million 2009).
Just as gender studies ought to not be reduced to the study of women and sexuality studies need not be limited to sex, a gender and sexuality studies approach to labor does not have to take women workers or sexual commerce as primary objects of study. Discussions emerging from queer studies, for example, have focused on affect and affective labor—terms that generate much argumentation. No matter where we pitch our tents in the vast landscape of debates about affect (e.g., Is it precognitive? How is it different from emotion?), we can recognize the increasing need in the twenty-first century for a way to talk about the intangible but still profoundly harrowing aspects of labor, including the emotional labor required of workers in the service economy (Takeyama 2016; Padios 2018) or the work of building community within social movements. Indeed, within queer studies, we can find small but strong efforts to think about sexuality in relation to capitalism and Marxist theory and thus, to a limited extent, labor (Hennessy 2000; Floyd 2009; Wesling 2012). Queer studies also shows us ways to understand modes of working and living that take place within late capitalism’s interstitial and marginal spaces, such as “messy” queer immigrant households (Manalansan 2014). Furthermore, Black feminist theory and queer theory in particular give us ways to talk about labor that move beyond a concern with capital relations or power and instead understand labor as a process of, for example, Black gay men making sense of themselves within mainstream culture that denies their very being (Bost 2019).
It is crucial to see these discussions of labor, gender, and sexuality not as niche conversations within a larger discussion of labor that one can jettison to “elective” knowledge but as fundamentally challenging and enhancing knowledge about and theories of labor. Scholars of gender and sexuality studies have been instrumental in challenging the idea of free labor within capitalism, of expanding the notion of what counts as value-producing labor, of illuminating large oppressive systems related to labor, of fighting for the redistribution of wealth and the security of households in relation to labor, and of pushing on the term itself.
Feminist science studies has been particularly influential in this regard because beyond asking what else we might fit under the umbrella term of labor, or the broader social spectrum on which we should place labor, feminist science and technology studies (STS) scholars attempt to establish a new vocabulary for difficult-to-define processes, including gestational surrogacy (Vora 2015). While the latter keeps faith with earlier efforts to understand reproductive labor in relation to political economy—including the birth of African American children into US slavery (J. Morgan 2004)—the questions raised by the processes of biological reproduction across multiple bodies and borders make clear that the definition of labor as the process of giving birth and as value-producing activity is becoming more complex. Feminist STS conversations are also emerging around artificial intelligence, automation, and robots—perhaps the most hegemonic association with the term labor today—to ask how they are implicated within racial capitalism, dispossession, and patriarchy (Atanasoski and Vora 2019).
As suggested by the movement of this Keywords entry from Weems’s kitchen table to the world and back again, one of the most important tenets of a critical approach to labor, gender, and sexuality is that labor cannot be bracketed as a single category of experience or an analytic framework. Given the actual lived labors of Indigenous, poor, imprisoned, and/or colonized peoples, an understanding of labor is integral to but not set apart from the study of capitalism, patriarchy, the state, social reproduction, welfare, social movements, and community. For imprisoned Black women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, “freedom” was contingent on first becoming convict laborers or domestic workers—work that cannot be separated from the larger system that gave rise to Jim Crow modernity (Haley 2016).
Unlike discussions of labor that define it simply in opposition to capital or management, feminist approaches to labor—like feminist approaches to the world more generally—look at labor in relation to various factors of life. Although we cannot study labor without looking at the political and economic structure of society, we must track where our “vital energy” (Vora 2015) goes and how it is reproduced. Being attuned to labor in gender and sexuality studies means studying and sensing how labor may be organized, appropriated, and oppressed in relation to race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship as modes of human experience and categories of personhood but also how we might better recognize and combine the many labors of our lives to build sustainable social relations and selves.