A Woman’s Work = Non-Profits?

From a Facebook Note I wrote last night.  (Friend me if we’re not friends already!)

Dear lovely people,

I hope this note finds you well! I’m writing it at the end of an exhausting day of work — cooking, grocery shopping, driving, hosting, facilitating — when all my body wants to do is sleep, but my mind’s got other plans.

Since reading Selma James’ “Sex, Race, and Class” and another work of hers and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s (“The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community“), both offered this week through a rad study group here in the Bay, I’ve been considering parallels between the role of nonprofits (like the one I work for, in exchange for room and board) and the un-waged domestic/reproductive/social labor of (mostly) women, as James and Della Costa explain it. Wanted to share my thoughts with y’all– as always, your insights are tremendously appreciated.

Arundhati Roy names a process by which NGO’s, in ministering to the needs created by gaps in both private and public capitalist enterprise, chill the potential for social resistance. “Non-profits’ real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right.” Folks who work for non-profits often acknowledge that their efforts amount to a Band-Aid approach: covering up the problem, but failing to reach its root causes. But Roy seems to reject the Band-Aid analogy. A metaphor she’d choose might be more like: taking painkillers to ‘heal’ a broken leg. The immediate pain might be numbed, but by continuing to walk on the leg, you’re only worsening the injury.

Similarly, Della Costa and James argue that both trade unions and nuclear families trap us in this painkiller predicament:

Like the trade union [or non-profit, in this case], the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he and she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial.

Unlike trade unions, though, which address the conditions of masculinized wage labor, non-profits often seem to institutionalize the work traditionally associated with feminized labor performed within the family. Need a hot meal? A soup kitchen will serve you one. Sick? A clinic will treat you. Want to come home to a lovely garden? No need to rely on Grandma or the wife: your local eco-NGO will build a permaculture paradise for the whole neighborhood.

There are exceptions, of course, like hotel worker unions which may parallel feminized family housework, or media non-profits that are basically mainstream corporations with an opportunistic tax status. But overall, I’m struck by the resemblance. Is the non-profit an incorporated version of James’ and Della Costa’s working-class woman? Complete with moral imperatives to ‘nurture,’ or in this case, ‘serve the community,’ all the while scraping by on allowances wheedled from donor husbands and grantmaker sugar daddies?

I know a lot of us are thinking and living similar questions right now, and I just wanted to share my own musings. Thank you for all the inspiration and strength you give me! I love all of you and miss those I don’t get to see.

hugs and more hugs,


And let’s not forget that NGO work doesn’t replace the “second shift” of unpaid housework!  After coming home from the non-profit you still gotta wash dishes.  (In my case, throughout the day at the non-profit.  And we wash lots of people’s dishes.)

Happy Monday!



7 thoughts on “A Woman’s Work = Non-Profits?

  1. nathan March 22, 2010 / 10:46 am

    These are some tough issues to consider. Just last night, I told a friend that there are times I want to wash my hands completely of non-profits because of some of the reasons you mention. There have to be better ways of organizing groups to “serve” and “radically shift” at the same time.

  2. kloncke March 22, 2010 / 11:04 am

    Exactly, nathan, and that’s just the point: we can’t just walk away from non-profits, because many of them are literally keeping people alive. Just like how women, pressured and tracked and self-selected in so many ways into doing reproductive labor — feeding spouses, raising kids, keeping house, nursing ill elders — can’t simply abandon it and make their families fend for themselves. The problem isn’t the work itself, but the disproportionate way it’s distributed.

    I’d love to hear more about any encouraging signs you’ve seen in groups that manage to serve and shift simultaneously. Honestly, the best I’ve experienced are Goenka’s Vipassana centers. I’m still really amazed at its whole self-sustaining dana economy, relationship to the earth, the whole 9 yards. There are problems, of course, but…well, I’ll save that for another post, maybe.

    Hope you’re well! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff when I get a minute, especially with Firehorse’s project; this week, however, is a little bonkers. :)

  3. nathan March 22, 2010 / 4:28 pm

    Yeah, I know what you mean about bonkers! :)

    And yes, walking away isn’t the answer – I’ve seen some good work in a few orgs, maybe I’ll post on some of that in future.

  4. Eva March 27, 2010 / 8:06 am

    Katie, I think the Sylvia Rivera Law Project does a great job of providing services in a politicized concept – it’s one of the best organizations I know in terms of social change, not (just) social services. And its founder, Dean Spade, has written on trans resistance to/and the non-profit-industrial complex.

  5. kloncke March 29, 2010 / 4:07 pm

    Eva! I just remembered that I never wrote you back about the Faithful Fools -slash- San Francisco! Are you still thinking of moving here??? I reeeally hope so. :) Sorry about that lapse in contact — March kind of quicksanded on me. I’ll hit you back this afternoon when I can compile some good leads.

    Meantime, I remember Dean Spade as kind of an academic/organizer hero from some of the queer organizing on Harvard’s campus. I’m almost through with Spade’s “The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance,” and I think it lays out a lot of the inherent structural contradictions within nonprofits really well. I particularly like how it suggests the need to mend the rift between the point of provision (of services, i.e. food or housing) and the point of politicization/organization. Reminded me of the Black Panthers’ school breakfast programs, where they fed schoolchildren in their own communities while also providing an analytical framework for militant resistance against state violence.

    I’m sort of inspired to do a bit of an in-depth analysis of my own non-profit soon, using that piece as a tool. I’d certainly love for all of my co-workers/steady volunteers/board members and I to read something like it and discuss it together. Thanks for highlighting the SRLP for me and other folx who might be reading.

    Hope you’re well! Almost done, huh?!? Hooray!!! ;)

  6. Eva March 30, 2010 / 7:52 pm

    Katie, thanks for emailing! I would love to be in your part of the world…I’ll get back to you when I have a sec.

    In the meanwhile, I’m glad you like that article; I find it really provocative and useful, some of his best work. And thanks for reminding me of the Black Panthers’ work! They came up, tangentially, in a book I read about urban farming (Novella Carpenter’s Farm City) and I was thrilled to hear about their breakfast program – I love, love, love service provision in a politicized context and the idea that people have to be able to survive to make change. We can deal with the present and the future at once!

    I’d love to hear about it if you do pursue that analysis or start a group conversation around that piece. Rock on!

  7. LBoogie August 23, 2010 / 7:37 pm

    I’m a little late entering this conversation but was just put onto this blog by the friendly folks in Advance the Struggle. I appreciate the topics you’ve been taking up here. Especially with this post, it raises some important questions.

    I agree with making a connection to Selma James and non-profits (NPs). A growing critique of the NPs is that they defuse (or actively block) more radical or militant working class politics from developing by channeling a lot of social justice oriented youth (especially women) into social-servicey type work that is devoid of a broader theoretical/political content (even if they sometimes use radical sounding rhetoric). An additional critique, related to your post, is the way in which NPs are places of feminized labor – Selma James would call it caring work – where women are employed in what is essentially the reproduction of the working class.

    Another question to add is what economic role have NPs played under neoliberalism? On the one hand, they relieve the state of providing certain social services and are part and parcel of privatizing aspects of state power in the last 40 years. On the other hand, I’m wondering if NPs can also be understood as part of the reorganization of the working class along new lines after the 70s as part of capital’s counter-attack against the movements of the 60s (waves of wildcat strikes, Black Power, women’s and queer lib, etc.). Have NPs employment of large numbers of women actually helped deepen divisions along gender within the working class by maintaining gendered conceptions of “women’s work”? Have they helped stave off deeper economic crises by making available an army of overworked and underpaid “social workers” and “service providers”?

    Anyways, more questions than answers at this point. Thanks for the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s