Coronavirus and Care Part 2:
Bringing About Change
17th July 2020
This article forms part of our women and coronavirus series. Part One here.
Yesterday we started a discussion about how the coronavirus crisis is shining a light on the gendered nature of care work. The virus is also causing a shift in consciousness regarding the value of care work and caring principles to our lives. This appears a crucial time to harness the dialogues that are currently happening around care and achieve radical change in this area. In thinking about how to bring about change, several perspectives are helpful.
Firstly, I think the work of care feminists can offer crucial insights at this time. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ethics of care, also called care ethics, is a feminist philosophical perspective that uses a relational and context-bound approach toward morality and decision making.
Care ethics emerged from the work of Carol Gilligan, a social and moral psychologist, in the 1980s. Gilligan researched the difference in male and female responses to moral dilemmas. Through experiments, she found that women tended to respond using a different voice of moral reasoning which she called the ‘voice of care’. This voice was based principally on values of relationship, and thinking that was contextual and narrative. By contrast, men tended to apply moral principles universally to different situations. Gilligan called this the ‘voice of justice’, and this ethical juxtaposition is sometimes referred to as the care-justice debate.
While assuming that women are more naturally caring than men has been criticised for being essentialist, it is worth pointing out that second-generation care feminists view care as central to human life, rather than linking it to gender. Care ethics has also been labelled apolitical and irrelevant beyond the domestic sphere. However, care feminist Joan Tronto understands care in much broader terms, defining it as ‘everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible’.
Care ethics is fundamentally based upon relationships and interconnectedness, particularly the relationships of care-givers and receivers. This is fitting because the coronavirus has newly revealed our independence and the value of community and relationships. The care ethics perspective recognises the centrality of care in everyone’s lives (again, especially true in a global pandemic) and the need for care work to be adequately valued.
In yesterday’s article, I referred to a phenomenon known as the ‘care drain’, referring to the fact that the majority of women who make up care workers (particularly those in the most precarious, low-status jobs) are from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds. Because feminist care ethics has a world view that is relational, contextual and narrative, centring on women’s and other marginalised groups’ experiences, it can be a useful lens through which to interrogate the structural issues and power relations at the heart of the feminisation of care and survival, and to seek to design better, more caring policies and politics as a result of this investigation.
Feminist care ethics recognises that a feminisation of care, both in formal and informal care work, is wrong due to the burden it places on women, but also because, according to Fiona Robinson, “men are not participating in this aspect of what it means to be a human being”.
A practical approach to combating this lack of participation can be seen in the work of photographer Johan Bävman. Featuring portraits of the small percentage of Swedish men who choose to stay at home with their child for at least six months, his Swedish Dads photo-exhibition used a care ethics approach to shift societal attitudes and values and cut through centuries of conditioning. Despite Sweden having one of the most generous parental leave systems in the world, enabling parents to stay at home with their child for 480 days (while receiving a state allowance), women were still using 95% of the leave days. It was not “until the Swedish state’s support of the photo project…that a new groundbreaking imagery of fatherhood emerged”. Swedish Dads has now been exhibited in 65 countries and has been turned into a successful book that is on its third edition.
This creative approach could be easily replicated in other contexts, i.e. to highlight other marginalised groups and voices and thereby achieve seismic shifts in societal norms. This is helpful as we begin to think of ways to embed the values of care in our society, and to orient our politics and policies towards more caring ethics.
Secondly, and relatedly, many other theorists besides care feminists have advocated for placing values of care (and love) at the epicentre of our politics and policies and suggested ways to bring this change about. The wisdom they offer is crucial too. Central to American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s text, Political Emotions, is the idea that “loving values” such as compassion and commitment can guide action and inform policy. For example, Nussbaum visualises a health service built on ‘care, concern, and moral equality’, which ‘rather than shunting people from service to service would “wrap around people”, nurturing them throughout their lives.’ For Nussbaum, the media, public projects and artistic endeavour can play a crucial role in whatever governments do to express, and bring about, love in politics and the public sphere. Some of the valuable lessons to draw from Nussbaum’s work is love’s potential to be an inspiring value which binds people together and motivates collective action; and her attention to creativity as something which can bring forth love in a way that normal politics perhaps cannot.
Feminist and activist bell hooks also promotes love as a political process to transform systems of injustice such as capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. She writes that:
“A love ethic emphasises the importance of service to others. Within the value system of the United States any task or job that is related to ‘service’ is devalued. Service strengthens our capacity to know compassion and deepens our insight. To serve another, I cannot see them as an object, I must see their subjecthood.’“
Referencing Martin Luther King’s declaration, “I have decided to love”, hooks says she shares the belief and the conviction that it is in choosing love, and beginning with love as the ethical foundation for politics, that we are best placed to transform society in ways that enhance the collective good. In All About Love, she notes that “All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic”.
Both Nussbaum and hooks share a specific recognition of the importance of emotions and values as a galvanising and motivating force that can inspire collective action, and which can be harnessed to bring about change.
And Ireland’s 2015 Campaign for Marriage Equality shows that harnessing emotions and people’s positive values can indeed be a powerful tool for securing genuinely transformative change. Dr Gráinne Healy was the chair of the campaign which culminated in the successful marriage equality referendum. It was a historic result with 62% of the Irish population voting ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a country that was traditionally considered one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.
Dr Healy has since published a best practice guide on values-based campaigning in the hope of enabling other activist groups to replicate her success. Her key findings are understanding the values at the core of your campaign, tell the human story and connect with people’s emotions and core positive values:
“Values based campaigning involves leveraging people’s emotions and connecting people with values they hold dear or to which they aspire. It connects individuals to groups or communities. It increases engagement of supporters. It attracts those open to moving towards your proposition, because they now understand that your proposition links to their values and their aspirations“
During this pandemic, people are hosting and tuning in to webinars and Zoom calls as never before. This time of global pause offers a crucial opportunity to bring the personal stories and lived experiences of women and other marginalised groups to the fore, sharing them with different and more widespread audiences. This can open up fresh spaces for connection, collaboration, and exchange, bringing new actors to the table; and allowing groups to collectively mobilise around feminist, care-oriented, principles.
The success of the Swedish Dads Project and Ireland’s Marriage Equality campaign point to the value of interdisciplinary cooperation and creativity in bringing about change on the issue of care. It could be beneficial to explore combining the perspective of feminist care ethics with other disciplines, especially creative ones. There is also merit in drawing upon broader sociological insights and social research in this endeavour. For instance, researching the values and messaging of love, care (or both) that will best connect individuals to the change we need to see.
Already there is a strong counter-narrative of austerity politics and a return to the status-quo emerging. Economic stories are compelling, but so too are stories of care and love. Why not harness their power? The time is now.
Featured photo by Ben Mater