What Feminism Can Teach Us about Centering Care in Higher Education

In my contribution to the Futures Initiative’s monthly blog series on care in higher education, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned from feminist scholarship and activism, and how a feminist sensibility can help us respond to the crisis of care in our current moment.

Above all, feminism has taught me to value the labor that goes into caring for myself and others. According to Tithi Battacharya, care labor, or what Marxist feminists refer to as social reproduction, encompasses all the “activities and institutions that are required for making life, maintaining life, and generationally replacing life.” Examples of social reproductive work include “cleaning, feeding, cooking, washing clothes” as well as educating and providing shelter. That these activities are inherently valuable is something most people know on an unconscious level regardless of their particular positionalities – if you don’t eat or sleep, for example, your body starts to shut down and you cease to live. But feminists make explicit that this work of caring matters in large part because its importance has historically been ignored or minimized.

The devaluing of care labor is inextricably linked to the fact that it is performed overwhelmingly by women, and is exacerbated along the lines of race, ethnicity, immigration status, and other social markers of inferiority. To contest this process of devaluation, feminists have argued that social reproduction forms the basis of all other activity in society and thus requires serious and sustained attention in our political discourse and social movements. This sentiment is expressed beautifully in Audre Lorde’s famous phrase from her 1988 book, A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Here, Lorde was reflecting on the unrealistic demands placed on activists engaged in organizing, demands that too often led to burnout and ultimately undermined those very struggles. After being diagnosed with cancer, Lorde recognized that the sustainability of her organizing work fundamentally depended on her physical and mental wellbeing. A decade earlier, members of the Black Panthers had begun to incorporate what we might now call “self-care” practices into their organizing, employing everything from free breakfast programs to meditation and self-defense classes in order to sustain their communities for the long-haul of social transformation. While self-care – as a concept and set of practices – has become increasingly commodified since the 1980s, signaling the widespread resonance of the neoliberal ideal of individual responsibility, the various crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic forced into view the vital role that care labor – and the people who perform it – plays in our society. It further underscored the idea – popularized by feminist activists – that the personal is indeed political. In other words, our individual vulnerability to illness and economic precarity resulting from the pandemic clearly required a collective response.

How does all of this relate to the Futures Initiative and the work we do? Feminists have long argued that because social reproduction happens – or more accurately, appears to happen – in the “private” realm outside the workplace, it often goes unremunerated or unaccounted for in our pay, which we ostensibly receive in exchange for the labor we perform in the workplace. If feminists like Audre Lorde are correct – that the sustainability of our work depends on our personal wellbeing – it stands to reason that we should strive to honor our full selves – mind, body, and spirit – in our own work. How can the FI foster educational institutions that accomplish this goal? I believe that as academics, we are uniquely positioned to structure work – and learning – differently (for examples of how the FI works to do this, see our co-taught courses, CUNY Peer Leaders Program, HASTAC Scholars, and the University Worth Fighting For Series.) Alongside all the limitations placed on our time and creativity due to budgets and bureaucracy, I would argue that compared to workers at a factory or a hospital, for example, we have relatively more autonomy to enact our values through the various institutional structures – big and small – that make up our universities. It has been inspiring to witness how FI Fellows and affiliated scholars are centering care in their academic, professional, and political practice. Even this blog series is a step in that direction. But speaking of budgetary constraints and bureaucracy, feminists also teach us that in order to truly sustain ourselves as learners, workers, and teachers in the long-term, we will need to engage in concerted collective action.