Embodied caregiving: a critique of feminist care ethics

One of the many good things about the new online journal Fairer Disputations (see this post) is that, as well as publishing innovative content on the emerging new (or sex-realist) feminism, it also aggregates relevant articles from a wide range of sources, some of them from a while ago, making it possible to catch up with interesting pieces that you may have missed when they were first published. Recently, the site linked to a 2016 article which somehow passed me by when it first appeared, by Erika Bachiochi, author of the much-praised book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I’ve mentioned in a number of posts on this blog.

Erika Bachiochi (via americamagazine.org)

Bachiochi’s article, entitled ‘Embodied Caregiving’, is basically a critical dialogue with Eva Feder Kittay’s 1999 book Love’s Labour: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, a key text in feminist care ethics. I really liked the article, as it manages to articulate, more coherently than I’ve been able to, some of the ambivalence that I’ve felt for some time about what Bachiochi calls ‘care feminism’. I should say that Kittay’s book is one that I’ve always found enormously sympathetic, and for me she is one of the more appealing feminist writers on care, her writing obviously deeply influenced by her personal experience of caring for a profoundly disabled daughter. As I noted in a post a couple of years ago, Kittay’s emphasis on the inescapability of relationships of dependency, and her critique of a view of human experience that privileges autonomy over interdependence, shares much in common with the thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre, and indeed with that of Bachiochi herself and other ‘new’ feminists. I was privileged to hear Eva Kittay speak at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, in 2018.

However, while noting these synergies, and praising the work done by Kittay and other ‘care feminists’ to ‘shift the feminist paradigm from a vision of sexual equality that prizes autonomy above all toward a view that embraces human vulnerability and ennobles caregiving’, Bachiochi argues that Kittay’s ethic of care ‘ultimately falls short’. One way in which it does this, in Bachiochi’s opinion, is by its support for abortion, which she sees as in tension with Kittay’s emphasis on mothers’ ‘special duty to nurture and protect the vulnerable unborn child’, a moral claim that ‘arises….out of a relationship between one in need and one who is situated to meet the need’. Bachiochi maintains that a ‘pro-choice position’, though ‘common among feminists…runs counter to the logic of Kittay’s argument’. She adds: ‘The affirmative duty of care that arises from the special relationship between pregnant mother and dependent child remains among the strongest arguments against the abortion issue’.  Bachiochi, of course, like a number (but by no means all) of the authors associated with Fairer Disputations, is unequivocally pro-life, holding that a belief in a consistent ethic of life is by no means at odds with a commitment to feminism: indeed her book, by revisiting the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other pioneering feminists, seeks to show that early feminism was also resolutely anti-abortion. I share Bachiochi’s perspective: I remember being brought up sharp by a conference presentation from another prominent feminist care ethicist, who presented the rolling back of abortion ‘rights’ in the United States as a sign of contemporary society’s lack of ‘care’. I wondered: did an ethic of care not extend to the vulnerable unborn child? However, I should say that I’ve always admired Eva Feder Kittay’s willingness – by no means shared by all who hold her views – to debate with those who see things differently. See, for example, this online symposium to which she contributed, organised by Feminists Choosing Life of New York, in which Erika Bachiochi also participated.

Eva Feder Kittay speaking at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, 27th September 2018 (author’s photo)

Another of Bachiochi’s criticisms of Kittay’s book, and by extension of feminist care ethics more generally, also resonated strongly with me. Bachiochi perceives Kittay’s underlying discomfort with the private nature of care and her preference for state provision. In Bachiochi’s words: ‘The optimal situation, for her, is a “public provider”, the state. She envisions government compensating those whose work is the care of dependents’. I have to say that I don’t remember detecting this emphasis quite so strongly in Kittay’s writing as in the work of some other feminist care ethicists, such as Joan Tronto, for example. The latter’s book Caring Democracy, while making the completely plausible case that contemporary western societies have marginalised care, and that care should be foregrounded in public policy, leaps from that to an implicit assumption that this means the state stepping in as the care provider of choice. It was partly my frustration with this tendency in the writings of feminist care ethicists, and a desire to explore a viable alternative, that sparked my interest in writing something about care ethics from a personalist perspective (a work that is still in progress!), one that starts from the primacy of the relationships of care and dependence into which we are all thrown and believes that public policy should support those relationships rather than try to substitute for them. 

Underlying both of these criticisms of Kittay’s work by Bachiochi is her argument that the former – in common with many other feminist writers on care – pays insufficient attention to human embodiment, and specifically to embodied sex differences, which leads to a tendency in her writing to, in Bachiochi’s phrase, ‘degender care work’. So, a third area of critique in Bachiochi’s article centres on what she sees as Kittay’s ‘failure to appreciate sexual difference and the distinct contribution of fathers’. This is where Bachiochi’s article moves into an area of debate that is close to my own research interests, and speaks to my own growing dissatisfaction with arguments for men’s role in care, whether familial or professional, which assume that men’s and women’s care is identical and which overlook embodied differences. And it speaks to my continuing quest to find a way of articulating those differences in a way that does not resort to outdated stereotypes or undermine the struggle for equality between the sexes. Bachiochi is explicitly critical of the argument, proposed by Kittay and other feminist writers on care, that men’s and women’s roles within families, and specifically in their care for children, are interchangeable:

[Kittay] argues that women’s disproportionate role in caregiving is a socially constructed feature of a still prevailing patriarchy. Care work is so critical to a humane society that men ought to undertake it as well. To promote this tendency, she uses the term mother to denote any proper caregiver regardless of the person’s sex. Men, too, can be mothers.

As Bachiochi sees it, the problem with this ‘is that recent findings contradict the claim that caregiving by women is born of social construction alone’ and show that ‘given the choice, women choose to give care at rates far higher than men do.’ By contrast, Bachiochi seeks to redignify motherhood:

After all, as vulnerable and dependent human beings, we enter the world inside of our mothers. Our fragile bodies develop within their protective bodies. They provide complete nourishment until we emerge from our mothers’ wombs and for several months thereafter. Efforts to degender mothering devalue this role, which is enjoyed by women alone. No other caregiving in the common course of human experience better manifests the reality of human dependency and the proper human response.

She continues:

Kittay sees no differentiated role for fathers. If men are going to be involved with dependents (which they ought to be), then they should take over some of the caregiving work traditionally performed by women. Women can then participate in the workplace more freely, and men may enjoy the benefits and burdens of caregiving. Men and women can and should alternate caregiver and provider roles. There is no reason why we should think of a form of paternal care as distinct from maternal care. It follows that two women or two men can raise a child just as well as the child’s mother and father can. So long as a provider offers the caregiver the support needed, the sex of the provider and caregiver is irrelevant.

In following this line of argument, Bachiochi believes that Kittay is undermining her emphasis elsewhere on the embodied nature of human experience, and of care in particular: 

Just as she has a diminished view of women that ignores the role of their bodies in relation to their children, she also has an anemic view of men and their bodies, reducing them to quasi-mothers. In her desire to ensure cultural respect, protection, and adequate provision for caregiving and caregivers alike—and her praiseworthy view that men, too, can care for dependents—Kittay forgets the premise from which she began. In so doing, she trivializes that crucial time of pregnancy and childbearing that epitomizes a woman’s care and dependency, and she disregards entirely the unique relation of fathers to their children.

So how does Bachiochi counter this? As a ‘sex realist’ feminist, how does her view of fathers’ role differ from this ‘degendered’ perspective? She adduces research evidence that men’s active engagement in fathering is good for children, for mothers, for men themselves, and for society in general:

A child wants her mother and father, not two interchangeable individuals playing degendered roles. The same holds for men and women. In fact, for men the paternal role can be especially transforming. When fathers take seriously their paternal duties, all of society benefits.

But what does Bachioci think those paternal duties are? She argues that ‘men’s contributions as fathers are less biological and immediate’ than those of women as mothers, ‘though just as needed by their children, as well as their children’s mothers.’ She writes about ‘the unique contributions men make in the lives of their own children.’ Bachiochi cites a catalogue of problems that she maintains arise for children, and especially boys, as a result of father absence. Conversely, she quotes research that fathers’ involvement in family life is good for mothers too: ‘Moreover, the leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children.’ This is a riposte to those, like Richard Reeves in his recent book Of Boys and Men (see my last post), who argue that women’s new-found autonomy from men is unequivocally a good thing and that trying to revive marriage as a societal ideal is a lost cause. 

‘The leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children’.

(image via pew research.org)

But what does Bachiochi think a father’s specifically male ‘emotional investment’ looks like, and how exactly does it benefit children? She continues:

A father cannot … be a mere stand-in mother, sharing an androgynous caregiving role. But neither should he serve only as a support for the mother. Children whose fathers are attentive and present in their lives have better educational outcomes overall. Fathers seem to be a determining factor in the emotional and social well-being of their children. Children with caring fathers in intact marriages enjoy more security, more confidence in exploring the world, a greater ability to deal with school stresses, and better social connections with peers. Children with attentive fathers are more patient than children with fathers who are less attentiveFathers tend to engage their infants and preschoolers in stimulating, rough-and-tumble play, and researchers think this is one reason why the children of attentive fathers more effectively regulate their feelings and behavior. Girls whose fathers like being with them and their mother experience the benefits of delayed sexual development and delayed sexual experience. Boys with attentive fathers have better impulse control and pro-social behavior, and so have far lower crime rates. And fathers tend to encourage children to do things for themselves at a young age, which helps their competence and confidence later in life. While children who grow up in single-parent or adoptive families can show impressive resilience—and many flourish throughout their lives—researchers from the Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution confirm that children enjoy the best likelihood of positive outcomes when they have a loving relationship with both of their biological parents.

While I agree with much of this, I was a little disappointed to see Bachiochi falling back on what, to me, is a stereotypical view of fathers, and male carers, as engaging primarily in ‘rough-and-tumble’ play. I know plenty of emotionally and practically engaged fathers – including myself, when our children were young – for whom this does not ring true. Then there is Bachiochi’s emphasis on what she terms the father’s ‘relative distance’ from the child:

The embodied human condition, differentiated as it is by sexual dimorphism, offers clues for the care of children that we cannot ignore. If the mother’s initial embodied immediacy with the child influences her custodial care for the child’s physical and emotional needs, the father’s relative distance from the child plays an essential part, too. The father’s attention and affection, uniquely offered to his child, gives the young child the assurance he needs to separate from the mother’s embrace and progress toward independence. The custodial care the mother offers the infant child enables the child’s needs to be met promptly and responsively; the father’s care enables the child to move out into the world with confidence. Both are needed for the child’s development.

If what she’s describing here is simply the biological fact that men are not intimately involved in pregnancy and birth, then that’s fine. But if ‘distance’ means more than this, it risks denying the closeness experienced by many fathers who are equal carers, or in some cases the primary carer, for their child. And what if it’s equally, or even mainly, the mother who is moving ‘out into the world’ as the family breadwinner?

Later in the article, there’s another paragraph that seems to resort to stereotypes about male aggression that aren’t particularly helpful, and again don’t resonate with my own experience and that of many of the men I know:

A full culture of care…demands that men turn their penchant for conquest—a masculine tendency that, when undisciplined, gives way to gangs, gamers, and worse—inward to conquer their passions for the good of their families… Fatherhood curbs instincts of aggression. A culture of care encourages men to give of themselves for the good of their wives and children.

This is quite a negative take on masculinity, I’d suggest. Yes, of course, most people would accept that there’s something distinctive about masculine energy that’s different from feminine energy. But do we have to define the former in such negative terms, as something to be ‘curbed’ or transformed into care? Can’t men also have an innate instinct for care, even if it plays out in differently embodied ways?

I’m a huge admirer of Erika Bachiochi’s writing (as I am, for different reasons, of Eva Feder Kittay’s) and believe her article is a thoughtful contribution to continuing debates about gender, embodiment and care. Even if I don’t agree with some of her specific conclusions, it’s certainly prompted me to question my own thinking, and for that I’m grateful. Finally, I completely endorse the sentiments expressed in the closing paragraph of Bachiochi’s article:

Kittay is right to advocate greater support and provision for caregiving. But universal provisions for caregivers will not bring about authentic sexual equality—even if greater public provision should be made—because sexual equality will never be fully realized at the hands of the state. Rather, it is found in a mutual appreciation of sexual difference, an affirmation of moral duties that arise out of sexual asymmetry, and a deep and abiding trust that the one truly wills the good of the other.


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