As one approach to the left of queer, the authors explore the juncture between queer studies and disability studies. Queer disability studies offers ways of conceptualizing the world as relationally complex, thus contributing additional pathways for the long project of rethinking justice in light of the critique of the liberal individual who is the bearer of rights. Debility, disability, care, labor, and value form a complex assemblage that shapes policies, bodies, and personhood. Putting disability and debility in relation to each other creates perverse sets of social relations that both constrain and produce queer potentialities, connecting affect and action in unexpected ways. A queer materialist focus on nonnormative labor opens the possibility of revaluing domestic work and caring labor generally as a first step to shifting relations between disabled people and those who do the work of care. Building social solidarity from the ground up requires both a queer theory of value and a geopolitical model of disability as vital components for queer materialism. Through a combination of embodied narrative and activist examples, the analysis frames the complexities of care and possibilities for a similarly complex coalitional politics.

As one approach to the left of queer, in this article we explore the juncture between queer studies and disability studies.1 Queer disability studies offers ways of conceptualizing the world as relationally complex, thus contributing additional pathways for the long project of rethinking justice in light of the critique of the liberal individual who is the bearer of rights. Debility, disability, care, and labor are complex affects that shape policies, bodies, and personhood. Putting disability and debility in relation to each other creates perverse sets of social relations that both constrain and produce queer potentialities, connecting affect and action in unexpected ways. Through a combination of embodied narrative and activist examples, we develop an analysis of both the complexities of care and possibilities for a similarly complex coalitional politics.2

Christina Crosby’s book about living with spinal cord injury, A Body, Undone: Living On after Great Pain, joins on the shelf many other first-person accounts of disability (Terry Galloway’s Mean Little Deaf Queer, a memoir with attitude, remains one of her favorites). Such narratives, however, most often eschew attitude to tell a happy story. Stories about disability are often formulaic accounts of recapacitation, whether written by a journalist or narrated by disabled writers themselves. The pressure to tell this happy story is driven by the felt necessity of producing a disabled subject who appears to be largely autonomous, independent, and productive, employed and active in the public sphere.3 Such a subject readily claims the rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disability Act and celebrates “disability pride.”4

David L. Eng and Jasbir K. Puar write in the introduction to this special issue of their commitment to showing how “subjects emerge and cohere through geopolitical exceptionalisms that render the material conditions of their production opaque.” The normative happy story of disability is part of what obscures the conditions of the production of the disabled subject, both at the intimate scale of the labor involved in living on with disability and at the geopolitical scale of labor flows and global capitalist relations. The production of disability pride, itself directly modeled on gay pride, obscures the complexity of the care work required to produce the subject who claims standing before the law and asserts her civil rights.5 To claim disability justice, on the other hand, is not to call for one’s rights within existing social relations but to envision and demand a profoundly different set of social relations.

Making this claim on justice orients disabled subjects to the “then and there” of José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopia rather than to the promise of liberal inclusion.6 The common sense of liberalism reasons that some people must wait for their rights and look to the horizon of the future—just like gays, disabled people, in good time, will be included in public life. Muñoz, on the other hand, breaks up this liberal timeline and imagines different possible worlds by attending to queer practices of world-making past, a recollection that leads not to our doleful present but, rather, incites desire for queer-life-affirming practices and relations to come. Faced with profound incapacitation and Christina’s exigent need, we also desire and imagine worlds that break with the present, in which the conditions of production, including caring labor, are no longer elided but are instead brought to the center and recognized as necessary to all livable lives. Thus, we propose a geopolitical model of disability that traces movement not only between intimacies and geopolitics but also between individual and collective action.

Caring Labor

Christina’s dependence on others brings these matters home to us and has vividly clarified both the centrality and invisibility of domestic work. We now see more clearly how autonomy and independence both organize social values and are illusory. Christina’s need for help cannot go unmet; her life quite literally depends on caring labor done by another. Yet for Christina rehabilitation was partially a recapacitation, for she works halftime as a professor of English and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. At work, she appears to be functioning as an independent and autonomous individual, getting around in a wheelchair, driving independently in a van modified by a state program for disabled workers, and able both to read and write using voice-recognition technology. With modifications for access, she seems to come and go as she wishes. The work that produces this illusion about Christina’s life is crucial to document.

The structure of global capitalism means that the work to sustain Christina takes place in the midst of a dynamic set of contradictions, what Nirmala Erevelles has analyzed as the dialectic of care. Erevelles is alert to the dangers either of failing to recognize the implication of caring labor in the exploitative and dominative coercions of contemporary capitalism or of “implicitly designating disabled persons as undue burdens on society.”7 The relation between an employer and wage worker—even a disabled employer—is necessarily a structural one that cannot be shifted without shifting the structure as a whole, meaning that, in the context of racial capitalism, paid domestic work is structured by both capitalist exploitation and racial domination. As a result, social action on behalf of disabled people and the domestic workers who care for them has at times been organized in oppositional terms—the needs of one apparently contradict the interests of the other.

Grace Chang looks to what Erevelles calls “the other side of the dialectic” to argue that care workers and those in need of help are in certain ways structurally aligned. Both are positioned as unproductive, a particularly precarious position given neoliberalism’s ever-increasing demands for productivity:

Certainly immigrant women of color are “always and already” seen as non-citizens, regardless of immigration status—just as disabled people, poor people, and prisoners are seen as sub-citizens. These groups are all viewed by society not as citizens, workers or consumers, but alternately as “charity cases” or “welfare cheats,” helpless souls or dangerous menaces to society—thus deserving of only pity, punishment or rehabilitation instead of fair wages for their “nonlabors.”8

In other words, the needs of disabled people and care workers are simultaneously opposed and aligned creating challenges for ethical and political action along with the necessary complexity of the coalitions advocated by the editors of the “Radical Care” issue of Social Text.9

It is impossible to resolve the contradictions of caring labor at the level of individuals—not of individual employers, of individual strategies employed by care workers, or of individual claimants of rights. Yet, if analysis and action do not attend to the most immediate conditions of embodiment, including disabled embodiment, much about the conditions of production will continue to be obscured. Only by moving from the individual to the collective, however, can these conditions change.

So our analysis engages with a broader project of revaluing caring labor in the context of a materialist analysis. The National Domes tic Workers Alliance (NDWA) was formed at the US Social Forum in 2007 and in 2008 collaborated on a project with the Barnard Center for Research on Women, for which Janet served as a co-organizer and editor.10 We include below some of the voices of domestic workers from this project who are also activists. With NDWA, we argue that the domestic care worker is the paradigmatic laborer in global neoliberal economies, working under largely unregulated and often informal conditions, with little job security. What can be learned by thinking through the relational complexity that connects vulnerable bodies at home (or in group homes) with the vulnerable workers who do the labor of care? What type of labor, including caring labor, is required for living on, and how is it shared or divided, whether within a household or across a global division of labor? Thinking through care requires attention both to work done behind closed doors and to the flows of laboring bodies across national borders as migrants flee violence and poverty.

One reason for revaluing domestic work as a way of both protecting and supporting those in need of care and those who provide it is to shift the focus to the act of caring labor. By shifting the focus of value from groups or identities to an interrelation—the act of caring—it is possible to rethink both ethical possibility and political economy, and to do so in a particularly queer vein. NDWA is not itself a queer organization, nor does it offer a queer analysis. But, as Cathy Cohen suggests in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,” her foundational essay for “Left inter-sectional analysis,” to realize its “radical potential” queer analysis must look beyond a division between gays and straights to how “nonnormative heterosexuality has been controlled and regulated through the state and systems of marginalization.”11 One way to respond to this important exhortation is to attend to nonnormative labor in relation to systems of marginalization, labor that takes place in survival economies rather than in recognized industries, labor that is not done in factories or offices but in homes (whether personal or institutional), and labor that is intimate, even, and part of market commerce.

Dependence and Independence: Illusory Autonomy

In a space separated from public life, one finds the complex contours of Christina’s dependence on the care labor done primarily by three people. When Christina was discharged from the rehab hospital, Donna, an African American woman who had cared for Christina, agreed to take on a second job working part time in our home. She is a certified nursing assistant (CNA), and she introduced us to her sister, Shannon, then a CNA (now a licensed practical nurse, LPN), who works with Christina some weekends. Janet provides care on most weekends and whenever Christina is staying with her in New York (where Janet works as a professor at Barnard College). When it comes to the labor of care, we wish to open the doors of the private sphere and reckon with the fact that the apparently autonomous individual is complexly dependent on the labor of others.

The public-private split allows for those who encounter Christina out in public to think of her as a functioning individual, just like them, with perhaps the small difference of only being available in the afternoons and evenings. Once reasonable accommodation is made, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and disability rights thus ensured, the public illusion of autonomous individualism is maintained even for disabled people. Those who see Christina in the public world may therefore hold a number of misperceptions. They may easily misperceive the pressing nature of her dependence, assuming that a few curb cuts and ramps will fully enable her life, which misses the hours of intimate, daily, basic care that she needs. For example, Christina is dependent for help when she showers and also needs help with both bowel and bladder functions. As she has written elsewhere of this need, “If you cannot evacuate solid waste from your body you will surely die.”12 The public does not see the scope of her dependence as she goes about her business because the labor to sustain her life is done out of the public eye.

Disability rights cannot change these material facts. Formal legal rights do not address the way that paralysis makes Christina’s lived reality fundamentally different from those whose move easily from private to public life, eliding the distinction between the so-called private and public spheres. Nor can disability rights address the fundamental structural conditions of white supremacy that position Janet and Christina as employers and Donna and Shannon as paid care workers. NDWA values the ways that contracts clarify expectations and mutual arrangements, and thereby offer some protection to workers, while they also understand the limits of what contracts can do. We follow their lead in this practical way, just as we have learned from their analysis, and so understand what contractual agreements can and cannot do. As Patricia Williams points out so eloquently in Alchemy of Race and Rights, contracts are no solution to striking inequality of means, but they are necessary nonetheless to afford some protection to those not protected by wealth. Creating overarching legal protections for domestic workers does not revalue domestic work or critique the structural inequities that remain untouched by liberal reform.

The rights approach assumes that everyone wants basically the same thing, whether the capabilities offered by Martha Nussbaum or the happiness critiqued by Sara Ahmed.13 However, Christina is not necessarily striving to be like her colleagues in their public selves; rather, despite their evident differences, her colleagues are actually like her in ways they may not realize. Autonomous individualism is an illusion for them as well, as they are multiply dependent on the service labor of others, very often including the labor of domestic workers—like the workers many professionals hire to keep their homes clean, or their children cared for, and the ubiquitous use of Uber, grocery delivery services, food delivery, and Amazon (with its creepy avatar, Alexa). This illusion of autonomy is part of the epistemological obfuscations of racial capitalism. Indeed, both historical and contemporary research shows that those who understand themselves to be most autonomous are most dependent on the labor of others. The slaveholding framers of freedom in the United States, like Thomas Jefferson, and contemporary capitalists, like Michael Bloomberg, depend on the labor of others to get through the day—like Christina and like many of her colleagues.14

Disability Justice

The material relations of disability articulate with what Jasbir K. Puar calls processes of debilitation. She wrote that “the term ‘debilitation’ is distinct from the term ‘disablement’ because it foregrounds the slow wearing down of populations instead of the event of becoming disabled.”15 Debilitation creates incapacities as global capital, settler colonialism, and white supremacy together create conditions that make it impossible for the bodies and minds of poorly paid care workers to flourish. Those who do the labor of care often become slowly incapacitated themselves, working double shifts and second jobs to pay the bills.

Biopolitical debilitation follows from excluding some populations from goods available to others, such as a living wage, health care, and decent housing, and is a wearing down and wearing out that is actively produced. Materialist critique analyzes the relation of debilitated populations and disabled persons without losing sight of either structuring contradictions or points of articulation. Puar argues that disability justice entails “demanding an end to . . . conditions of precaritization that debilitate many populations”16 and sees points of articulation among widely varying movements that differently address debilitation. She argues, for example, that Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian Solidarity Movement are both part of the struggle for disability justice, because activists fight the enforced vulnerability of debilitated lives drained of capacity and injured both by neglect and state-sanctioned aggression.

Puar thus presents an expansive conception of disability justice that articulates the experience of disabled embodiment to geopolitical forces and connects with the ideas of disability justice activism. Disabled activists also have clearly stated commitments to disability justice, worked out through their ongoing projects and embodied experiences. Disability justice revalues incapacitated embodiment even as it attends to the entangle ment of embodied lives and differential social relations. Sins Invalid, a performance project led by disabled people of color, has an expansive understanding of disability justice and revalues bodies otherwise medicalized, surveilled, and set aside.17 They make “an unashamed claim to beauty” and have a complex, intersectional commitment to disability justice, declaring in their mission statement that “we will be liberated as whole beings—as disabled, as queer, as brown, as Black, as gender nonconforming, as trans, as women, as men, as non-binary gendered—we are far greater whole than partitioned.”18 In the face of normative judgments that devalue their bodies and hold their lives cheap, they actively affirm their beauty and their worth.

Writer and activist Eli Clare also articulates a vision of disability justice in his most recent book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Naming disabling incapacitation a “brilliant imperfection,” Clare queers disability, disarticulating it from the negative surplus that burdens the concept (dis-abled, un-able, in-jured, in-capacitated). Clare repeatedly “grapples” with the commonsense mandate to cure imperfections, valuing what he sees as benign variation unjustly excluded from social relations and civil protections that ensure access to the public sphere. He articulates this unprotected condition with the unprotected ecosystems that capital uses as “natural resources” open to all manner of extractive and exploitative processes, as disability justice seeks to value what is vulnerable and protect it from harm. Clare draws attention to the intersection between activists struggling for disability justice and those who oppose ongoing processes of settler colonialism that dispossess Indigenous peoples and continue to exploit their lands.

Clare sees that the harms done to both the earth and its creatures are beyond “cure” and that what has been taken cannot be restored to its previous condition, thereby cured of imperfection. He nonetheless values efforts to care for land that once was tall-grass prairie along with the ecosystem that once supported it and the Native peoples whose practices sustained the land. He grapples with the meaning of justice as he listens to comrades in the struggle for disability justice and hears that some desperately wish that their chronic pain could be forever relieved, in which case working toward something like a cure can be part of the struggle. For Clare, disability justice seeks rehabilitation, not restoration to an earlier condition, and is an expansive vision of social and political possibility, decidedly queer in its commitment to human, animal, plant, and land welfare, and as decidedly utopian in its vision of flourishing with imperfection.

The types of connections that Clare makes are also relevant to our question of caring labor. As David L. Eng (pers. comm., November 23, 2019) has pointed out, “caring queerly,” both the material practices and the affective ties that it creates, can contribute to reworking these historical patterns of biopolitics in the Americas, and challenging the ways they are embedded in dispossession and slavery. What might it mean to actually value care so that the persons who do the work of care and all who need their labors to survive can actually thrive?

Familialism

Caring labor is devalued both as poorly paid wage labor and as an unpaid labor of love. Revaluing domestic work requires attending to both. In fact, the low pay offered to domestic workers in the market is entwined with the ideology of familialism that sees domestic work as a labor of love or even as not labor at all. When Representative Mick Mulvaney was nominated to be White House budget director in the Trump administration (long before he became Trump’s acting chief of staff), his confirmation faced controversy on precisely this point. When his wife gave birth to triplets, they hired a nanny but failed to formalize her employment, instead paying her cash in an agreement that did not pay Social Security taxes. In response to critics’ charges that this was a disqualifying violation of the law requiring employers to pay federal taxes, he said that the nanny was only a “babysitter.” Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee during his confirmation hearing, he explained that “when [the triplets] came home, we hired someone to help my wife take care of the children. In our minds, she was a babysitter. She did not live with us. She did not spend the night there. . . . She did not cook. She did not clean. She did not educate the children, she helped my wife with the kids.”19 Mulvaney is here arguing that “help” for “my wife” is not really “employment.” Mulvaney is banking on a vision of his wife struggling to care for three infants—surely that would elicit enough sympathetic identification to alchemically transform a worker doing childcare for a wage into an informal “helper” whose time with the triplets blends with his wife’s loving care. What happens when the work is never paid for at all, because done as a labor of love by the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, grandmothers or aunts of the person in need of care. How, then, does one grapple with the cost of care?

The poet Paul Guest broke his neck in a bicycle accident when he was just twelve years old. Like Christina, he works as a professor of English, having made a life for himself that he recounts in his 2010 memoir, One More Theory about Happiness. The title of his fourth volume of poetry, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, displays his dark humor and ironic distance from whatever “knowledge” his poems offer. This irony has a cutting edge to it, as in the opening poem of the book, “Users Guide to Physical Debilitation.” The poem begins:

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until your
death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
you, or your beleaguered caretaker
stirring dark witches brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.
An important first step,
with apologies for the thoughtlessly thoughtless metaphor.20
Edgy irony is one way to cut through the sentiment that too often wraps disabled bodies in narratives of individual triumph and national progress.

Back when he was a boy, Guest was discharged from the rehab hospital he’d been sent to after he broke his neck. Puberty began to work its changes. He grew up in a working-class household, and for next decade his mother did the kind of intimate care that quadriplegia demands. As she did the work, she reassured him of her love, as he reports in his memoir, and he thanks her for the help he could not do without. But in this poem, speaker and caretaker alike simmer in resentment over the loss of “what had been [a] happy life.” How could it be otherwise? Guest is describing conditions of caretaking as it is so often done for those with “the painful condition of irreversible paralysis”: in the home—where we ask mothers to do the impossible, and disabled teenage sons to endure their profoundly intimate and necessary touch.

We need more than the immediacy of lyric poetry, however, to represent the complexities that articulate incapacitated persons in need of care with those who care for them. The type of familialism Guest is writing about makes members of a family responsible for caring for anyone in the family who is disabled. We lead with Guest’s piercing documentation of the affective effects of such familialism because it is a primary demand of liberal capitalism.21 Disabled people must have a family, and Janet has written elsewhere about how she and Christina were turned into just such a “family” through state-based and community-based practices and by both the mandates of her health insurance and the hospital itself as Christina’s discharge from the hospital was formalized.22

We note how particularly pernicious this familialism can be for people whose lives are economically precarious and who must often quit jobs or forgo education in order to care for sick or disabled family members.23 In other words, the demand that family members care for one another too often for poor people is part of the process of debilitation, leaving them balanced between precarity and disposability. This critique does not mean that individuals’ commitments to family or desire for family should be ignored. Janet desires to be in an intimate household with Christina. But this organization of caring labor is not necessary, except under capitalism with its divisions between public and private, production and reproduction. So we turn below to critiques of racial and colonial capitalism, as well the critiques offered by social reproduction theory and queer materialism, as indispensable to any thought of justice that does not reproduce the material conditions of capital.

We also push back against the illusion of independence and attend to the caring labor necessary to support what looks like independence. In his memoir, Guest tells readers of the care that he gets from a Romanian care worker, who eagerly recounts to him how he swam across a river at night to escape Nicolae Ceaus¸escu’s dictatorial regime. In fact, both Guest and Christina have been cared for by workers from eastern Europe who either left repressive regimes or fled the terrors of deadly violence. Several of the caretakers who entered Christina’s life arrived there along paths that began in and often passed through violence, including Jasmina, a Muslim who worked in Kosovo as a nurse until she had to escape the genocidal violence there. When she got to the United States, she worked as a CNA while studying to be recertified as a registered nurse, and fed Christina cornflakes every morning in the rehab hospital. For many months after she came home, Christina could not turn herself over in bed, which put her at risk for developing dangerous pressure sores. Once Janet went back to work in New York City, we paid Tatyana, who fled war in Croatia, to sleep overnight in our home and turn Christina when needed.

There are, of course, many routes to caretaking that don’t cross international borders yet may begin in fleeing violence. Donna came to Connecticut as a nine-year-old girl when her mother moved her five children to Hartford from New York City, where her husband had been murdered in the cab he drove for a living. There she reared the children alone, working as a housekeeper in Hartford Hospital and making sure that Donna and her siblings got to school.

The violence that propels movement along chains of caring labor is often driven by race, ethnicity, religious difference, gender, and sexuality. As a result, much of this labor is done by women of color, among them women who have migrated from the global South.24 The fastest-growing sector of employment is domestic work, including home health care. Some who do what is called “direct care” have training, as “certified” indicates, and are hired by agencies, while others rely on word of mouth to find work, but all do the work of care in order to live on in the face of violence.25 Many who are dependent on their touch need their caring labor in order to live on as fundamentally incapacitated bodies, as Christina needs Donna, Shannon, and Janet. The complexity of that knot of needs is difficult, if not impossible, to address.

A Geopolitical Model of Disability

We have thought long and hard about the relation between disability and debility, specifically about the relation between Christina’s need for care as a disabled person and the fact that caring labor is not socially valued. Moreover, as we outline above, the people who have come into our home to provide paid labor often find themselves doing this work precisely because of “conditions of precaritization” and violence “that debilitate many populations.”26 In other words, the lives of Paul Guest’s Romanian care worker and Christina’s aides Jasmina, Tatyana, Donna, and Shannon were all disrupted by violence that undermined and debilitated their lives. Each person moved in response to conditions of violence that made their lives precarious and later found work doing caring labor that is itself structured to be consistently precarious—underpaid, uncertain, and often without the protections of labor law.27 Precariousness overshadows direct care workers from first to last.

The enclosure of privacy, whether the privacy of an individual home or the privacy of a group home for disabled people, is thus located in the midst of migratory flows that can be driven by violence and/or the economic needs created by neoliberal capitalism that propel people toward migration, as with the Filipinx workers who leave home to do domestic work in the global cities, like Rome and Los Angeles.28 Wages and working conditions depend on their employers, and workers have little recourse if they are cheated or harassed. Zelem Guerrero, a longtime domestic worker and activist, explains the economics and insecurity of domestic work as follows:

With the economic crisis [in 2008, my employers] fired me with no notice. No severance pay. We domestic workers earn our daily bread and pay our bills, doing long hours of undervalued back-breaking work. Our labor enables our employers to do other jobs as professionals and business owners in the city. We are very important to the economy of New York. As consumers, we pay sales taxes, absorbing millions of tax liability from the business sector. We pay income taxes to the city, the state, and the federal government. For these reasons, I think we domestic workers deserve rights and protection, not just disrespect and criminalization. Our employers, the US government, and the Philippine government all benefit from our labor. The US government benefits when we are denied Social Security [payments], unemployment insurance, and health care. . . . The Philippine government remains silent when we are abused, deported or denied our rights. But the Philippine government has no problem calling us national heroes when we need billions of dollars to sustain the Philippine economy. . . . This is a time for action, not fear. Speaking, not silence. We demand justice, as women. We demand justice, as real workers.29

As Guerrero points out, caring labor stands at the center of contemporary economic relations; recognizing this fact shifts predominant understandings of work, the workplace, and the worker. The labor movement in the United States has a long history of being organized around a normative male worker in industrial production, who demands a “family wage” as the man of the house responsible for his dependent wife and children. This worker was also the insistent focus of the Trump campaign in 2016 and of much political discussion in 2020, apparently the only worker who matters, despite the fact that fewer and fewer households are organized around a single (male) earner, and fewer and fewer jobs are in traditional industrial production.

Responding to these economic shifts and backward-looking political discourse, NDWA has powerfully argued that domestic work could be considered the paradigmatic form of work in neoliberal economies, thereby making the organizing of nontraditional labor a newly paradigmatic form of organizing. Domestic workers are claiming the category of worker as their own and simultaneously remaking that very category. Both work and worker are different. Retail work, restaurant work, health care, home care, and domestic work are jobs filled by people of color, white women, migrants, and/or queer and gender-nonconforming workers—notably not the imagined lunch-pail laborer of the past who brought home a “family wage.”

Our analysis suggests that disability justice entails joining in this rethinking—queering—of normative understandings of work and worker, for many disabled people are in need of care, and the workers who help them live on must be part of any movement for disability justice. This is emphasized by the historical injustices committed against those doing the work of care in the home. Historian Premilla Nadasen and activist Tiffany Williams succinctly summarize the racial politics of domestic work in the United States that have excluded domestic workers, along with agricultural workers, from protections and benefits afforded other forms of labor:

For most of US history, domestic work was performed by African American and immigrant women. During the 19th century, domestic workers in the North were mostly Irish immigrant women; in the West, they were Asian or Latina; in the South, African American women—first as slaves and then as freed people—worked in the homes of white families. . . . In the US, the racial politics of domestic work profoundly influenced its treatment in labor legislation in the first half of the 20th century. When New Deal labor legis lation was enacted in the 1930s, Southern Congressmen, concerned about maintaining control over the African American labor force, insisted on the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers from Social Security, minimum wage, and collective bargaining laws.30

This historical exclusion has created gendered and racialized labor markets that now attract increasing numbers of immigrants from the global South.31 Workers in these markets often move between “legitimate” workplaces (rehab hospitals and nursing homes, for example) and various survival economies—the CNA who first works in a rehab facility and then finds a job in private home, or the seasonal agricultural worker who moves from the fields into undocumented factory work. When migrants themselves are denounced as “criminals,” undocumented immigrants fearful of deportation try to find a foothold in jobs not subject to official oversight.3 So it is that the survival of those in need of care depends on caring labor done by persons struggling to survive.

Puar’s work is a necessary theorization that advances our thinking about social relations in a geopolitical order that produces debility as distinct from and yet intertwined with disability.33 Attending to geopolitical context articulates the relationship between disability and debility at several points, including how some populations are put at risk of debilitation. The geopolitical model also creates a context for analyzing the relations that funnel so many people seeking to escape debilitating violence into caring labor.

Specifically, in moving away from various forms of debilitating violence, vast groups of people are swept into global labor flows that propel them into caring labor and other kinds of service jobs. Many people who think of themselves as independent and autonomous depend on caring labor. It can seem as if disabled people are the ones primarily in need of caring labor, but as Saskia Sassen has pointed out, service jobs are essential to the contemporary global economy: “Low-wage workers participate in leading sectors [that are generally understood as] professional sectors, but the [low-wage workers] do so under conditions which render them invisible.”34 The professionals and businessmen in gleaming glass towers are dependent on workers in service jobs, from low-paid clerical and cleaning staff to all manner of delivery services and workers in food trucks, coffee shops, and restaurants.35 Yet when students pick up food from coffee shops or bankers pick up their suits from the dry cleaners they rarely think that they are depending on others to feed and clothe them, in part because the labor of cooking and doing the laundry has often been invisible as work when done in the home. As Puar notes, attending to this labor and to its frequently debilitating conditions “exposes the perceived norm as a fantasy of the social.”36 This fantasy includes the perceived norm of the autonomous individual who does not depend on the care of others.

The reorganization of service labor that Sassen tracks provides the infrastructure in global cities and breaks up “domestic work” into a series of simultaneously public and private exchanges across the entire sector of service labor. Tracing how caring labor is part of a broad sector of service work highlights the ways precarity and injustice are produced through a fantasized split between public and private spheres. The presumption that caring labor is fundamentally “private” in nature hides the intertwining of public policy, economic exchange, and domestic life.

Revaluing Value

Indeed, the presumption of a public-private split is a site for struggles over gender, sexuality, race, class, and nation that are themselves part of the ongoing battle over the institutionalization of capitalism, including in its neoliberal forms, and thus also a site for what’s left of queer. As Angela Y. Davis made clear some time ago in Women, Race, and Class, the “private household” was produced by a gendered and raced capitalism that effectively sequestered white women in the private home and subordinated African American women there as housekeepers, nannies, and cooks under conditions of both enslavement and wage labor. Davis suggests that any approach to justice must understand the power of the ideology supporting “the family” and “the home” and refuse the idea that a private household can be separate from the public world.37 Justice demands a different account.

A central question for what’s left of queer could be thinking through what Davis’s call for the socialization of household labor might look like in an increasingly postindustrial United States. The queer critique of marriage as a contract with the state would be a good place to start imagining a new and different social contract that would support all workers who do the labor of care.38 Furthermore, keeping in mind the fact that the domestic worker is now paradigmatic can highlight the workers who are doing the labor of care for all those who imagine themselves as autonomous individuals responsible for themselves. In this queer framework transformed by centering the labor of care, we can refuse the specious boundaries separating public from private, work from family, and productive labor from reproductive labor.

Social reproduction theory is one important way to conceptualize this political economic context. In particular, social reproduction theory aims to denaturalize the work that contributes to the production of human beings as workers. In both classical economics and Marxian theory, it often seems as though human beings arrive in the world fully grown and ready to work. As Tithi Bhattacharya says, “Against this, social reproduction theorists perceive the relation between labor dispensed to produce commodities and labor dispensed to produce people as part of the systemic totality of capitalism. The framework thus seeks to make visible labor and work that are analytically hidden by classical economists and politically denied by policy makers.”39 This is work that reaches back to the campaign launched by the Wages for Housework collective in the 1970s; they argued that the labor done by work in the home by women—bearing children, rearing them, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the men of the household, and so on—is expropriated labor.40

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak similarly denaturalizes the production of the worker, arguing that the Marxian understanding of the chain of value—labor and resources → labor power → commodities → market exchanges—should begin with the production of the worker rather than with the work’s production. Spivak’s critique broadens the context to include all of the social and cultural relations—the full discursive, material context—that predicate both laborers and the structure of their labor. Indeed, she places labor in the geopolitical context that includes the international divisions and transnational flows that constitute domestic work as precarious and debilitating labor.

Queer critique also denaturalizes the frame of domestic reproduction, which is otherwise normatively reinforced in countless ways through familialism and a sense of linear progress (children grow up and become adults; the current and coming generations solve problems inherited from earlier generations).41 Queer time moves both individual and social futures out of the linear progression from one generation to the next, meaning that not all futures are reproductive futures. As Muñoz suggests, the “then and there” of queer futurity undoes the inevitability of the supposedly chronologically lineal, progressive, universal history in which the past produces the future. Similarly, Spivak’s reading suggests that denaturalizing the Marxian chain of value indicates many possible points of rupture. Each transition point, whether from use value to exchange value, good to commodity, labor to labor power, or labor power to exchange value, might be otherwise. Not all labor that keeps up everyday life is reproductive, nor is it all functionally supportive of capitalism. Conversely, social reproduction is not fully removed from exchange value. Social reproduction is instead a social space suffused with commodities and often supported by waged service labor.

This queer reading suggests a geopolitical model that dislocates basic categories of analysis, shifting away from the autonomous individual, the able body, and the private sphere. Moving left of queer places persons, embodiment, and intimacy in the context of relations that connect the so-called private home and political economy, as well as race and capitalism, disability and geopolitics, queer and materialist analysis. Denaturalizing the chain of value along the lines suggested by Spivak changes not just each of the elements in developing capitalist relations but the very meaning of value. In its naturalized form, the shift from an already existing human laborer, to the sale of labor power because one cannot live without wages, and then to capitalist production leads inexorably to the creation of exchange value. The form of value begins with specific qualities but becomes increasingly quantified and abstract: from use value that is socially determined (wheat is good for making bread, iron is good for making weapons) to exchange value in equivalence (a quantity of wheat = a quantity of iron), to the universal equivalent of money and the production of commodities “without an ounce of use value.” That is, a commodity cannot be used until it is purchased, when it once again takes on its specific useful properties. Thus capital, which is the expression of the social relation, private property, appears to be a monstrous pile of commodities and money.

The only alternative seems to be to focus instead on the use value of goods, moving them out of the realm of commodities and into a realm of needs. Spivak argues, however, that use value is no more natural than exchange value, that needs are produced through social relations and are inextricably intertwined with desire and inseparable from consumption. Moreover, when referring to the social (rather than natural) production of the laboring human being, for example, Spivak refers to the need to create humans with the desire “to consume the (affect of the) work itself.”42 Janet has argued elsewhere that the social production of need and desire means that appeals to use value cannot escape existing relations of domination.43 And this problem with any shift to use value is especially apparent with regard to domestic labor. Keeping domestic work out of the market does not remove it from dominative relations, as familialism makes vividly clear. Even the labor of care as socialized in a community of care may merely serve as the supplement to capitalist exploitation.44

Moreover, because wages remain necessary for survival, removing caring labor from the market does not fully disengage even mutual aid from the market and its exploitation. “Caring for One Another Is How We Survive” is the subject heading for an email appeal to supporters from Eveline Shen, executive director of the radical Bay Area organization Forward Together. And, as the email makes clear, one urgently needed basis for “caring for one another” is passing legislation to guarantee paid sick leave:

We went door-to-door on our block, to identify who are the most vulnerable: people with disabilities, elders and people with compromised immune systems. We’re figuring out how to buy groceries for those who can’t get to the store, take people to appointments, and are exploring childcare co-ops now that many of our schools have closed. This is how families and communities care for each other in a crisis. . . . We want people to be able to take care of their grandparents, their cousin, or their neighbor because our healthcare system can’t afford for us not to. The paid sick days proposal that is part of the Families First Act is a first step. Taking care of one another is what’s going to help end this pandemic—and that’s why we need policies that address the coronavirus to include all of our families and communities.45

This is a two-pronged strategy that makes a claim on the state for paid sick leave as a public good, and also calls for mutual aid that depends on sharing. Because there is no simple outside to capitalist relations, mutual aid projects cannot simply be extracted from the infrastructure provided by the state and or market.46 “Caring for one another” thus requires much broader shifts.

Revaluing domestic labor, then, means not shifting from exchange to use but, rather, shifting the analytic framework for understanding and creating value. It means shifting away from the waged work and exchange value that is part of the system of capitalist exploitation, but also rethinking questions of social need that are imagined to ground use value. A queer reading of value challenges any idea of a natural sociality or of a naturalized use value and instead seeks to build a more just conceptualization of need and its relations.

Revaluing domestic work is thus a complex project. It demands more than a simple reversal of value. The devaluing of domestic work has clear—and clearly negative—effects on the lives of domestic workers, reinforcing low pay and reifying the race, gender, and national dominations of the labor market. Domestic worker activists advocate that the materiality of the work they undertake be justly valued and that they be taken seriously as workers; they do not advocate the privatization of this work so that it can be turned to an unpaid labor of love. In fact, one of the dangers of attempts to revalue domestic work is that the effects can simply return us to ideas of caring work that associate labor with love and turn domestic work into the type of affective labor that has been documented as central to much service labor, where the demand for positive affect is part of the strenuousness of the work itself—Smile! You’re at work!

Erevelles also identifies the affect of domestic work as part of the “dialectic of care.” Some domestic workers take on the work through affective connection with those for whom they physically care. Pat Francois is a domestic worker and part of the activist group Domestic Workers United. She points out that some domestic workers may be particularly committed to their jobs because they genuinely care about the people with whom they work: “The little girl that I was taking care of is a wonderful little girl. She needed me as much as I needed a job. That was [one] reason why I stayed.”47

Affection, however, may be harder to produce when the work itself demands that the worker deal every day with bodily wastes that are unmentionable in polite company. Workers who care for young children, seriously disabled people, and the elderly must deal every day with bodily waste. Some understand this to be an inherently valuable part of the job, as did Winnie, Christina’s nurse in the rehab hospital who taught her about the bowel program she needed to learn. But not everybody who does the work feels that way, nor should they be expected to. Having to do work that is socially devalued, is physically demanding, and involves many of the aspects of embodied life that are themselves devalued, such as engagement with bodily functions and fluids, is part of the oppressive apparatus of the job. As Martin F. Manalansan IV points out, in his study of gay and trans Filipinx care workers in Israel, it is not fair to demand that individual workers overcome all of these social parameters so as to transcend the social relations of caring labor.48 If workers are responsible for valuing the work, then they do the social labor of creating value twice over: doing the work of care, and caring about it. It is possible, however, to do the work professionally and well through what Manalansan calls “disaffection,” to name the affective stance of a gay, trans Filipino worker in Israel whose work is documented in a film that follows a group of workers. He evinces no particular affection for the elderly man for whom he cares, yet he efficiently and thoroughly does the work of cleaning his body. If this work is not valued, however, if no one cares about the work, then it continues to be the devalued realm that leaves the worker in a poorly paid and precarious position.

One important move in shifting the conditions of domestic work is to ensure that the value of the work is inscribed not in individual affect but, rather, in widespread social acknowledgment of the need for caring labor. As domestic worker activist Linda Abad says,

Domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible. Taking care of the children, taking care of the elderly, cleaning the home, cooking the food. These are all fundamental to human and society’s survival. Without doing this work, nobody can go out to the public sphere and seek jobs. But this is the work that is not valued in our society. And it is assumed to be women’s work. This work is important.49

As Abad points out, seeing the work as important challenges its association with gendered domination and points to the interlocking of domination and exploitation, devaluing the work because it is done by women and devaluing the work itself. Pat Francois understands that revaluing the work can only be done collectively, not individually, when she says, “I joined Domestic Workers to help make a systematic change, so that all workers be valued and treated equally, with respect.”50

Such systemic change involves not just acknowledging the use value of work that fulfills social needs but also rethinking and remaking the social relations that currently define social need, unhooking the various links in the chain of capitalist value. For example, in addition to valuing domestic work, activists can join in a collective and queer concern for what Alison Kafer calls “other people’s shit (and pee!).”51 Queer, trans, feminist, and disabled people all have to care about bathrooms—whether they will be harassed in using a public bathroom, whether bathrooms are in fact the private, safe spaces that they are normatively claimed to be, who cleans those bathrooms, and whether the facilities are accessible to all. Thinking about—caring about—bodily waste as fundamental to human well-being is to make a very queer claim about the use value of the work required to ensure the flourishing of all. We are suggesting that such a collective project can also contribute to revaluing domestic work, by making it a collective and political project to acknowledge bodily functions as common to all, rather than as something that care workers must make disappear.52 The systemic change of revaluing caring labor thus involves shifts in the meaning of both domestic and work.

Survival Economies

When common sense locates domestic work within familial parameters, it imagines a labor of love. This presumption is regularly called on, including by those who make policies regulating health, economics, and care. By contrast, caring queerly means creating new relations of care for both those in need and for care workers. The idea of the domestic worker as the exemplary laborer shifts away from the isolation of privacy, which makes it easier to acknowledge social relations among the many people working in “survival economies.” Survival economies represent the multifaceted labor markets of service work, where workers are rarely unionized: jobs in the expanding gig economies that make every worker an individual contractor, sex work, day laborers in construction and landscaping, other informal day-to-day jobs (in restaurants, for example), and of course, domestic work. These are precarious jobs serving others that people do to pay for groceries and rent. New forms of organizing are beginning to develop that bring together workers who are not in factories and offices. For example, activist Amber Hollibaugh organized the Queer Survival Economies project to address the “invisible lives and targeted bodies” of queer and gender-nonconforming people—especially people of color—who have not been seen as workers but who work nonetheless in a range of service jobs.53

This new organizing can create new relations among workers. Restaurant work, for example, is divided. There are those who work in the front waiting tables and workers in the back prepping food, cooking, and washing the dishes. These jobs are often segregated by race and gender. As Hollibaugh and Margot Weiss have described,54 Restaurant Opportunity Center New York (ROC-NY) sought to connect front-of-the-house sexual harassment of wait staff serving tables to back-of-the-house racial discrimination against dishwashers, busboys, and cooks. ROC-NY is part of a movement of worker centers, community-based centers that address the needs of domestic workers, day laborers, and restaurant and retail workers who have been long ignored by traditional labor movements. Worker centers may support both community service and radical organizing, and they sometimes develop links between traditional union workers and workers laboring in the “new” economy.55

When these new labor movements disidentify with the received idea of “the worker” and “the family” and actively rethink the relations among worker, family, and the boundaries of the nation, they also present the opportunity to cut across traditional political fault lines in new ways.56 Journalist and activist Sarah Jaffe has documented the activism of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as an instance of this type of organizing:

Ten years ago, before Donald Trump made anti-immigrant scapegoating into popular politics, a group of organizers in Fort Wayne, Indiana were trying to figure out how to bridge the divide between white workers and undocumented Latino workers. . . . They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them. The Workers’ Project exists to organize the broader community around issues that matter to working people. It is not a union, but it is supported by union members; it is not a community organization, but it is open to the community.57

Creative organizing like this does not separate the project of protecting workers and meeting the material needs of a community from organizing that community for a different political future. It does not presume a public world of “work” separate from a private world of “caring.” It does not separate disability justice from justice for those who face debilitating conditions at work.

As Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA summarized, the agenda for addressing domestic work as work includes many traditional issues of gender justice and sexual politics while also developing a broad vision for rethinking not just the economy but social relations as a whole.

As women, mostly immigrant women and African American women, living in the shadows, working at the bottom of the economy, our experiences actually have become more and more relevant to more and more people in this country. . . . The domestic worker reality—vulnerability, long hours, low wages—increasingly shapes more and more of our American workforce. . . . It’s in that context that for the last twenty years, we have been organizing and finding solutions and telling our stories in a way that is changing the future. We’ve been living the future in both good and hard ways. . . . This movement will rise to the occasion. We’re actually very serious about leading on solutions, about a new social contract, about transforming the women’s movement, the labor movement, about . . . building a new economy from the bottom up, and about really exercising our power. There are big questions ahead in each of our campaigns. . . . What is a twenty-first century framework for a social safety net when over thirty percent of the workforce in this country is in . . . non-traditional employment . . . [:] contingent, part-time, self-employed, temporary work?58

Poo argues that contingent, precarious domestic workers understand that sex, race, gender, and migration are inseparably related. Newly energized forms of organizing, with a different vision of what both worker and workplace look like, and articulated with what Linda Burnham terms “social justice feminism” and queer world making,59 could work toward a broadly based and potentially disjunctive but articulated solidarity. Organizing along these lines could actively connect care, work, and justice. Building a new economy from the ground up (instead of the top down), building justice from the ground up, is a queer project that does not need to enforce proper subjects, whether of labor politics, legal rights, autonomous individualism, or capable embodiment. As Eng and Puar suggest in the introduction to this special issue of Social Text, what’s left of queer is a turn toward the ongoing deconstruction of the logic that put queer critique and the critique of racial capitalism at odds. Such deconstruction means, in part, understanding that reproductive labor is always already a part of productive labor, and that revaluing the labor of care is vibrantly queer.

Particular thanks to the editors of this issue, David L. Eng and Jasbir K. Puar, for fabulous and fabulously helpful comments throughout.

Notes

1

Major contributions to the expanding field of queer disability studies include Chen, Animacies; Kafer, Feminist Crip Queer; and McCruer, Crip Theory.

2

On the import of coalition politics to “radical care,” see Hobart and Kneese, “Radical Care.” 

3

For an incisive analysis of “happiness duty,” see Ahmed, Promise of Happiness, 158.

4

See Garland Thomson, “Becoming Disabled.” Christina has written a short essay that contrasts the celebration of employment and independence for disabled people to silence about their incapacitating needs and the labor of care: Crosby, “October Is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.” 

14

On this history of what Sarah Haley terms “the role of gender ideology in the development of gendered racial capitalism” (No Mercy Here, 4), see Haley, No Mercy Here; Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women; and Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. On the role contemporary service work plays in the type of global cities Bloomberg so values, see Sassen, Global City.

17

Sins Invalid describes itself as “a disability justice based performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and LGBTQ/gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized” (“Mission and Vision”). The group has written an important “primer” on the meaning and scope of disability justice: Sins Invalid, Skin, Tooth, and Bone. To better understand the scope of their projects, see their beautiful website at www.sinsinvalid.org.

19

Weyl and Griffiths, “Mulvaney Defends Nanny Tax Lapse.” Democratic senator Tom Daschle was forced in 2009 to withdraw from consideration as secretary of health and human services after failing to pay similar taxes for a driver, and Zoe E. Baird and Kimba Wood both withdrew for similar failures to pay taxes for childcare workers after being nominated to be attorney general by the Clinton administration. Steinhauer, “Trump Budget Nominee Did Not Pay Taxes for Employee.” 

21

On the relation between liberal capitalism and familialism, see, e.g., Eng, Feeling of Kinship.

23

National Academies of Sciences, Families Caring for an Aging America; see esp. chap. 4, “Economic Impact of Family Caregiving.”

24

Premilla Nadasen and Tiffany Williams describe how these processes have led to immigrant women making up a large portion of the workforce for domestic labor in the United States: “In the 1990s, the rising demand for domestic service was filled by growing numbers of immigrant women. This was also a by-product of the changes in global capitalism and the US labor market over the past twenty years that led to greater reliance on women’s labor. The direct economic effects of globalization (e.g., debt reduction programs that cut social service spending), along with the effects of armed conflict and political oppression, provide the impetus for many women to look outside their home countries for work. Today, women migrate in large numbers from poorer countries, often referred to as the ‘Global South’ [i.e., Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa], to the wealthy ‘Global North’ [i.e., Western Europe and North America] and in increasing numbers to wealthy Gulf states [Indonesia to Saudi Arabia is a noted route]” (“Valuing Domestic Work,” 5).

25

The US Department of Labor defines “direct care workers” as “workers who provide home care services, such as certified nursing assistants, home health aides, personal care aides, caregivers, and companions” (“For Workers”).

27

For documentation of the demographics of domestic workers in the United States, see Sheirholz, “Low Wages and Scant Benefits.” See also Burnham and Theodore, “Home Economics.” 

29

Guerrero, in Abad et. al., 6–7.

32

Historian Mae Ngai has extensively demonstrated how undocumented immigration to the United States was not always categorized as “illegal” but was increasingly treated as such over the course of the twentieth century with expanded institutionalized systems of counting and controlling all immigration. Ngai, Impossible Subjects.

35

Sassen, Global City; see esp. pt. 2, “Economic Order of the Global City.”

37

Davis, Women, Race, and Class; see esp. chap. 13, “Approaching Obsolescence of Housework.”

40

Sylvia Federici is one of the original members of the Wages for Housework collective, and her publications have continued to expand on the analysis developed by the collective in the 1970s. One of her best-known books is Caliban and the Witch, which argues that expropriation of women’s labor was enforced by efforts to eradicate undomesticated women.

46

On mutual aid, see Spade, “Solidarity Not Charity”; on the complexities of Occupy Sandy organizing that built poststorm mutual aid projects on existing infrastructure, see Jakobsen, “The Church, the State, or a Corporation”; and on experiments of mutual care by “sick and disabled predominantly Black and brown queer people,” see Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work.

52

This project might also be connected to what Manalansan has elsewhere called for as queer knowledge production organized by “a sustained focus on the seemingly trashy, dirty, disgusting, and untidy disorganization of bodies, things, and emotions.” Manalansan, “‘Stuff’ of Archives.” 

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