A House Divided

Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward BY Gemma Hartley. HarperOne. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward

IN HER 2007 MEMOIR, Flying Close to the Sun, radical leftist Cathy Wilkerson describes feeling perplexed by women’s liberationists in the late 1960s. Wilkerson, who lived on oatmeal in a group home, had renounced her family’s wealth to devote herself to student organizing. Though she agreed with the feminists’ analysis, she couldn’t relate to their unwillingness to make similar sacrifices:

Many of the concerns of women in the group seemed self-indulgent. I found it confusing to be in discussions about the ways in which business used women, manipulating ideas of beauty, [because] these women continued to use many of these products. . . . Likewise, if they thought marriage was such a big problem, why were they still married? . . . I worried that the focus mostly on the concerns for middle-class women did not bode well for the direction of the women’s movement.

As Wilkerson predicted, feminism’s most visible agenda would remain that of the upper classes over the coming decades, and what she noticed then is still true today: The freest women are often those most hesitant to extricate themselves from circumstances they resent. Wilkerson, on the other hand, wasn’t married and hadn’t had children, because activism was her prevailing commitment. She gave up many comforts in order to live in line with her political beliefs—so why weren’t more feminists doing the same? Refusal is an option available to almost everyone, though the associated punishments and stakes, like everything in our society, are unevenly distributed. As Anne Boyer writes in the first line of A Handbook of Disappointed Fate: “History is full of people who just didn’t.” (Boyer goes on to list babies, the elderly, the poor, the enslaved, and animals as comrades in abstaining arms.) The section is headed with one word: “No.”

For Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, it is unacceptable for a woman to just not. Instead, as she sees it, they must. “I have to monitor my tone so it doesn’t betray the resentment I feel,” she writes of clashes with her husband over incomplete housework. In her preferred voice, the first-person plural, she explains that, for homemaking women, “a fine line must be walked to ensure our frustration doesn’t show.” On the rare occasion when she declares, “I can’t do this anymore,” she immediately backtracks; of course she can, and will. “I was tempted to throw up my hands,” she confesses, “but I didn’t.” For her, there is no other option. The work—managing social connections, placating her husband, producing Martha Stewart–style domestic flourishes—is too important to leave undone. Hartley’s women are mad as hell and they are going to take it some more.

Fed Up is the inevitable end product of Hartley’s viral 2017 article for Harper’s Bazaar, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” which opens with the story of a tearful Mother’s Day during which her husband disappointed her by not hiring a cleaning service like she’d asked. “Delegating work to other people,” she writes, “is exhausting.” The thrust of her article turned book is that maintaining a family home—which used to be known as “housework”—is actually better understood as “emotional labor”: “emotion management and life management combined.” Existing synonyms for housework, apparently, risked insufficiently conveying just how much women don’t like doing “women’s work,” though they swallow their anger and do it anyway. With Hartley’s preferred phrase, women’s emotional suffering is front and center. Or at least that’s a charitable explanation. A less charitable one is that as the physical labor of childcare and cleaning is increasingly outsourced to wage workers, the hiring class of women needs a new handle to indicate their taxing responsibilities as overseers, a role commonly tacked on to the beginning and end of their own (paid) workday. Another title for Fed Up could have been A Manager’s Lament.

Or maybe that’s unfair. Hartley doesn’t write much about hired help, but she does write about the endless, demoralizing struggle of trying to enlist her husband in matching her passion for how the house is kept, a plight with which I (and about a hundred million of my closest female friends) can sympathize. It’s this bitter malaise that “Women Aren’t Nags” so effectively provoked. Though it’s easy to mock the specific circumstances Hartley describes in the article (her husband leaving a box out on the floor long after he is done using it, for instance), her general complaint is valid, and it’s one that’s been left unaddressed for decades. As The Guardian put it earlier this year, in a piece that drew on multiple studies to prove the point, “Housework doesn’t seem to be following the same trends as other fronts in the struggle for equality.” While men are doing more at home than they used to, they’re still not doing as much as women. Many don’t take responsibility for raising their own children or cleaning up their own messes, even when the partner shouldering those burdens implores them for help—which they shouldn’t have to do. Hartley describes being accosted with a pile of paperwork after giving birth and wondering: “Why was this my responsibility? My husband was sitting next to me. . . . It would have been so easy for him to jot down feedings and diaper changes as they happened, to read through the paperwork, to fill out the forms.” Once they’re back home from the hospital, her husband regularly asks her, “What can I do?” The question creates yet another tedious responsibility when she’s already overburdened and exhausted.

The injustice Hartley feels most acutely is that her husband fails to think in the same ways she does. Essentially, he is inconsiderate, not because he doesn’t love her, but because his maleness has, since birth, exempted him from learning how to anticipate and to be attentive in his caring. Why else can’t he see the obvious: that he should take over the hospital paperwork duties; that he shouldn’t leave dishes all over their property; that clothes near the hamper are not in the hamper?

Lily van der Stokker, The Tidy Kitchen (detail), 2015, acrylic on wood panels. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Brian Forrest
Lily van der Stokker, The Tidy Kitchen (detail), 2015, acrylic on wood panels. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Brian Forrest

This recurring experience of being expected to state the obvious may be why Hartley likes the idea that housekeeping is “invisible” labor, though in fact—unlike traditionally defined emotional labor—it rarely is. Truly invisible labor is more often the result of a significant difference in power; it’s what happens when someone laughs at their boss’s bad jokes or feigns deep investment in a client’s personal woes. Revealing this labor as labor—as a calculation instead of an authentic emotional reaction—would create the opposite of the desired effect. The effort must be concealed in order to work. While a husband might not quite register that his wife rinsed and recycled the bottles left over from his poker night, that doesn’t mean it was impossible to witness in the first place, and describing it as such, strangely, lets guys off the hook.

I think there’s another reason for Hartley’s insistence that running a home is “invisible”: Her standards are invisible to her husband, and the nitpickiness they require is, for him, counterintuitive. Obsessive quality control is one of the culprits in the unequal division of home labor. In 2012, a national survey indicated that while many women “believe that their spouse is capable, they don’t think their partner would do the chores the way they want them done.” (Fifty-nine percent of respondents also didn’t want their husbands managing the family’s finances.) The president of the nonprofit behind the survey described it as “critical” that women “shift our standards.” But Hartley doesn’t want to change. “I don’t want to give up the work of caring,” she says—a bit insincerely, since “caring” is not synonymous with “doing laundry every day”—“I just want others to care as well.” Her mantra—that relentless micromanaging “keeps everyone happy and comfortable”—becomes less convincing with every repetition. She, for one, is explicitly not happy. (She’s fed up!) Her husband, who doesn’t care if a box is left in the middle of their walk-in closet for the next two decades, isn’t enjoying life more after it’s put away. And kids are unlikely to be invested in the frequency with which the floor is vacuumed, though they probably are affected by the constant resentment humming around them.

Though Hartley attempts to stretch the thin blanket of emotional labor over all corners of the female experience, with a cursory nod to gay couples thrown in, Fed Up is resolutely preoccupied with the heterosexual home and its traditional values. Hartley has faith in the nuclear family as a bulwark against class decline. (She spends only one page on single mothers, to arrive at the conclusion that “resources to help single mothers find reprieve from emotional labor are simply nowhere to be found.”) Her prescription for “the way forward” involves no policy recommendations—though she does suggest “more diverse representation in government”—but rather a plethora of platitudes. “We need to know how to talk about it,” “to learn to value this work in our own lives,” and to have “partners who fully comprehend.” Just as there is no rejection in Hartley’s worldview—no saying “I’d prefer not to”—there is no politics. This leaves us with the personal and its unreliable negotiations.

UNTIL THE INTERNET, like a dog with a mouthful of homework, tore the term emotional labor into illegible bits, it was most closely associated with the rigorous work of sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. In The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983), Hochschild explained the phrase: “This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.” Something more profound than mere performance is happening when “the emotional style of offering the service is part of the service itself.” This holds true for flight attendants, nurses, hotel staff, restaurant servers, and any other workers who not only project accommodating good cheer but try to conjure those attitudes inwardly, too, to make the display more convincing. Hochschild was curious about what happened to people who reengineered spontaneous manifestations of their personalities in order to make a living. For controlled self-expression in the private realm, she used the phrase “emotion work”—not because it was a lesser form of work, but because the waged aspects of “labor” create a different context, different power structure, and different demands.

Real emotional labor must be invisible because it takes place internally, and if it calls attention to itself, it fails. Moreover, it cannot be split between the person performing and the person receiving. A worker is never going to have a conversation with their boss about how taxing it is to pretend to like them, though Hartley can and does have many conversations with her husband about how he needs to pull his weight. (The work she’s talking about is work that can be shared.) In Hochschild’s book, if emotional laborers don’t placate and please the right people, they lose their job, but throughout Fed Up, the consequences are unclear. “We’re expected to send out the Christmas cards, even when we don’t care about them,” Hartley writes in one typical example, the “we” referring to, I guess, any partnered woman. What happens if that expectation is not met, and who does the expecting? Often, it seems, it’s Hartley herself, meaning the only repercussion of not sending the cards is a sense of guilt and inadequacy—which, though highly gendered, is hardly universal. Whither the coupled women who haven’t memorized every birthday, who leave dirty dishes in the sink for days, who have never sent a Christmas card in their life? (Some of them are my friends, and one of them is me.)

When she wrote “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” Hartley might not yet have read Hochschild; she didn’t cite her, and seemed unaware of emotional labor’s previous life. There are quite a few Hochschild quotes in Fed Up, but her influence on Hartley is negligible. (In the book, emotional labor is identified as, among other things: shopping, straightening a tie, consoling your husband when he loses his job, making a schedule, taking someone on a date, problem-solving, staying in an abusive relationship, navigating street harassment, and not telling people about your rape.) As Slate’s Haley Swenson explained in “Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor,” a piece that cites Hartley’s original article as an irritant: “If we referred to everything we do that requires labor and produces emotions as emotional labor, there would be virtually no labor, aside from the labor done by the unfeeling robots of our future, that didn’t qualify.”

This is exactly the problem. For Hartley, emotional labor is nearly any effort, or even any experience, to which one has an emotional response—a definition so capacious that it renders the concept useless. Though gender isn’t an explicit element in her definition, it’s clear she’s trying to create a more comprehensive map of what women are up against:

Emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor. These terms, when separated, don’t acknowledge the very specific way these types of emotional labor intersect, compound, and, ultimately, frustrate. . . . It made sense to group these formerly disparate terms under one umbrella, because they are deeply connected.

But it’s as if she’s reinventing the wheel as a square: She hasn’t read enough of the existing literature to explain what connects these elements or why they “intersect.” Though she references Hillary Clinton’s What Happened and several contemporary self-help books (Drop the Ball, Better Than Before, Daring to Rest), there’s no mention of the feminists behind 1972’s Wages for Housework campaign, nor any of the Marxist feminists who’ve been thinking about reproductive labor for decades. Silvia Federici would have been especially useful here. “We are seen as nagging bitches, not as workers in struggle,” she wrote in 1975. “By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone.” (Federici also wrote that demanding wages for housework was important because it marked “the first step towards refusing to do it.”)

The interlocking systems of sexism and capitalism, and the gender roles that prop both up, are at the core of Hartley’s take on emotional labor. What feels like an interpersonal struggle is actually a politically imposed plight: Women are devalued, then pressured or outright coerced into fulfilling an uncompensated and useful role. When Hartley maintains that emotional labor is objectively “valuable,” and that “we cannot live without emotional labor and we should not want to. . . . It makes us more attuned to our lives,” she’s only half-right, at best. We should not live, nor want to live, without loving and tending to others. But we also shouldn’t confuse class-coded and minute expressions of domestic prowess with manifestations of care. It turns out that an all-purpose phrase, just like an all-purpose cleaner, yields messy results.

Ultimately, Hartley wants what almost all of us alive in this moment want: less work. But she won’t give up the fantasy of the magazine-perfect home life, nor consider that this ideal’s value lies primarily in its ability to signal power and wealth, not in its capacity to manifest meaningful care. If the women with the most options are unwilling to advocate major political and social change, then for all its grandstanding, Fed Up only predicts a future of more of the same. Women might be exhausted and exasperated, but, sadly, they are still not fed up enough to say “fuck it.”

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and a cofounder of TigerBee Press.