Black women have a legacy of caregiving that deserves a policy response

OPINION: Caregiving work makes all other work possible. But without policies like paid leave, who cares for the caregivers when they or their families get sick?

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Women’s History Month often focuses on white women. Dedicated to commemorating and encouraging the study and celebration of the vital role of women in American history, the month seldom highlights the accomplishments of Black women. How is that so, when this nation was built upon the labor of Black women? In fact, it was and remains Black women’s caregiving that enables white women’s excellence. This year, we have to talk about it.

Our caregiving history in the U.S. began with slavery. Black women were forced to care for slaveholders’ households and families. We cooked, cleaned, worked the fields and, sometimes, endured rape and raised the children born from those assaults. The economic foundation of the U.S. rested on the abuse and exploitation of Black and Indigenous people’s unpaid labor and caregiving.

After Emancipation, Black women largely found employment as domestic laborers. We were still caregiving: cleaning, raising others’ children and working others’ land. This time, we were caregiving for not-enough pay. Domestic workers had few rights and were left out of census employment counts. This invisible workforce was excluded from legislation improving working conditions. White employers could abuse and withhold domestic workers’ wages with no consequences. They could build generational wealth, knowing that their families were being cared for by un(der)paid Black domestic workers, who were vital to the economic growth of the U.S.

In the civil rights era, Black women were vilified for their ongoing care work. In 1965, a report was issued by Daniel Moynihan of the Department of Labor, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan decontextualized Black women’s experiences, ignoring our history as caregivers and deemed us and our families “pathological” because Black families didn’t resemble white families. The Kerner Commission Report helped popularize the word “matriarchal” to describe Black families. The word entered the US lexicon as an insult and is still used that way today.

Even today, Black women are overrepresented in caregiving work, the fastest-growing labor industry. This work makes all other work possible, yet caregivers are still underpaid with poor working conditions and minimal protections and benefits.

Our history as Black women in this country is a history of caregiving, but who cares for us? What happens when we or our loved ones get sick? One aspect of the Kerner Report was correct: Many Black families may not look like the mainstream nuclear family. Our families can include children who live with their grandparents, an aging parent who has come to live with their adult child, multigenerational immigrant households or a single woman who doesn’t have or plan to have children. All of these families could experience anything from financial difficulty to financial devastation if a caregiver became ill and needed care.

Although Black women have a history of caregiving, when we or our families get sick, we’re often left without care or support. Because there’s no federal mandate for paid leave, we’re often left to decide between caregiving or working. Although President Biden committed to keeping paid leave a federal priority, the administration must overcome the congressional political crisis that seems to threaten that goal. 

Since there’s no federal mandate for paid leave, it’s been left to advocates to demand it at the state level. Results are varied. Eleven states and the District of Columbia offer paid leave, but only some states recognize the wide-ranging ways families are defined. Others don’t. In some states, if a woman took time to care for an in-law who was recovering from a stroke, she wouldn’t be paid for her time off and could lose her job. The same would hold for a grandparent who needed time to seek medical care for their grandchild with severe asthma.

Black women are physically and mentally tired from caregiving without meaningful support. We’ve cared for this nation for centuries, often at our expense. Yet we’ve helped it thrive. It’s past time to recognize and compensate Black women for this work.

Celebrate Women’s History Month, our Black history, and our history of caregiving by contacting your state and congressional legislators. Tell them that we need care and paid leave.

Malawian-American economic justice advocate Josephine Kalipeni is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a movement network working to win paid family and medical leave, paid sick and safe days, and affordable, high-quality childcare.

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