Does motherhood make women more traditional?

By Muzhi Zhou  

As a PhD scholar working on gender and family issues, and as a woman of childbearing age, I spend a lot of time thinking about the balance between work and family. I have witnessed many of my female friends move away from their promising careers to be a dedicated caregiver and educator for their young children. They shared with me their struggles and conflicting feelings in the change of roles. Those who did go back to work after maternity leave told me their lives had changed irrevocably, and they now felt that, despite what they had previously been led to believe, you could not have it all. If motherhood changes women’s lives so much, does it change their views about the roles of women and men as well? I ask this question in my Gender & Society article.

The conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities

I have always been interested in the impact of motherhood on women’s lives and identity. The most striking fact is that in many developed countries, women are outperforming men in education and participating in the labour market at a similar level as men are. However, women’s labour market activity declines substantially once they become mothers. Many leave the labour market, at least temporarily, to fulfill their child-rearing responsibilities. Others are struggling to achieve a balance between work and family.


In the United Kingdom, where I now live and study, employed mothers can have a maximum 52 weeks (up to 39 weeks are paid) of maternity leave. Formal childcare is extremely costly. The cost for a nursery school is high, starting at £30 (about $39) per day. For many women, it is unrealistic, uneconomic, or not ideal to work and spend most of the earnings on day care. National statistics show that in 2014, 61 percent of women with dependent children aged under five were working, of whom 58 percent were working part time. For many mothers, leaving the labour market to care for children seems to be the only choice, despite their earlier needs, efforts, and desires in career development. Those who maintain a full-time job as mothers are subject to great tension between work and family, especially when women are still expected to prioritize the need of children. In other words, the career of a mother, who has to care one or more young children, is likely to be at stake.

Women’s gender attitudes are related to how they settle the conflict

The substantial conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities can be powerful enough to provoke a change in women’s gender attitudes, especially their views about the gendered division of labour. Using a sample of women aged 21 to 45 who were followed up over time in the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013, I discovered that simply the birth of a child, or the shift from full-time employment to a non-working status is not the direct reason for changes in women’s gender attitudes. Women adjust their attitudes when their motherhood and employment statuses intersect. That is, only mothers become more traditional if they withdraw from the labour market. Among childless women, their gender attitudes remain largely stable regardless of whether they change their employment status. If we compare women’s attitudes before and after the birth of a child, those who remain in the labour market, and keep a full-time job, actually become slightly less traditional in their attitudes after becoming mothers, whereas those who withdraw from the labour market as mothers turn to more traditional attitudes. Therefore, adult women adjust their views about the gendered division of labour in family only when they are trying to settle the conflict between their employment and child-rearing responsibilities.

A call for policies targeting the conflict between women’s employment and child-rearing responsibilities

Gender attitudes are usually assumed to be stable during adulthood and work as an important predictor of women’s labour market performance and fertility behaviour. However, I discovered that women’s lived experience can also influence gender attitudes, which can subsequently affect future decisions to balance work and family. A critical step to further improve gender equality is to have more people practicing and supporting a symmetrical family model with dual earners and caregivers. Better work-care policies and cost-effective childcare services would enable more mothers with young children to maintain employed so that fewer women need to compromise their original gender attitudes to conform the reality of staying at home and caring for children.

Muzhi Zhou is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford. She is also affiliated with St Antony’s College. Her areas of interest include gender, family and marriage, and quantitative methodology. Her recent research examines the gendered effect of parenthood and the relationship between gender equality and fertility.


“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right”: How intensive mothering ideologies motivate women to freeze their eggs

By Kit Myers

Elective egg freezing first caught the public eye in 2002 when a fertility center in Los Angeles began offering “commercial” egg freezing to healthy women who were delaying motherhood into their 30s. Predictions of gender-liberated utopias and eugenicist dystopias abounded in the following years and interest in elective egg freezing hit a fevered pitch in the fall of 2014 when Silicone Valley giants Facebook and Apple announced the addition of egg freezing to their benefits packages in an attempt to attract more women. Hailed by some as a move to give women in tech more control over their fertility, many commentators worried that egg freezing was, at best, a stopgap solution that failed to address systemic issues of work-family conflict in the tech industry and beyond. In lifestyle pieces and opinion columns, women who froze their eggs were alternately depicted as hard charging career women putting motherhood on the back burner or as baby-starved women desperate for a shot at motherhood.

When I began interviewing women who had chosen to freeze their eggs in the summer of 2014, I found neither of these stock characters. Instead I found a cohort of women in their mid-30s to 40s who were deeply ambivalent about motherhood. They were high achieving in education and work, but none of them felt they had made a conscious choice to prioritize their careers over motherhood. Most had expected to pursue the standard script of love, marriage, and baby carriage by their early 30s, but setbacks in their love lives —including broken engagements and divorce—had knocked them off track. They generally felt that these romantic challenges were the primary reason why they froze their eggs, but as I spoke to more and more of these women it became clear that their beliefs about the best way to raise children was a major factor as well.

In my Gender & Society article, I explore the life histories of these women in order to understand the role parenting ideologies play in choices that childless women make about their fertility. Women with electively frozen eggs provide a particularly interesting perspective on fertility decision-making because the technology of egg freezing allows women to prolong indecision. Many of these women explain that—before they froze their eggs—the ticking of the biological clock made them feel as though they had to rush to make up their minds about motherhood. Should they:

A) Settle for the next half-way decent guy to come along?

B) Give up on love and pursue single-motherhood-by-choice?

C) Give up on having kids altogether and cultivate a childfree lifestyle?

For women with frozen eggs the answer was: D) None of the above. They weren’t ready to give up on motherhood but they also weren’t ready to settle or go it alone. What they really wanted was a way to keep their options open until marriage, financial security, and career advancement allowed them to pursue motherhood on their own terms. For the women in this study, egg freezing enabled that option. But how did these women arrive at the point of needing to freeze their eggs in the first place? Demanding careers and complicated love lives played a role, but beliefs about appropriate parenting styles also contributed to their ambivalence.


Although parenting styles abound—attachment parenting, child-centered parenting, positive parenting, slow parenting, etc.—most current mainstream parenting styles fall under the rubric of intensive motherhood, which is child-centered, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. While we often presume that new mothers get drawn into particular parenting camps during pregnancy or early motherhood, messages about appropriate middle-class parenting are so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that most women already have a sense of how they should parent, long before they ever have children.

As the name implies, intensive motherhood is intense. It demands a lot of mothers and all of the women in my study were aware of those demands. Despite being fully committed to intensive mothering, Angela worried about the toll it would take on her, explaining, “You have to sacrifice your needs for [your kids’] needs. I think if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to put their needs in front of mine … You have to hand your life over to them. It’s hard… It’s emotionally draining. It’s financially draining.” Most of the women I interviewed didn’t feel that they were up to meeting those challenges without first finding supportive partners and workplaces. Yet most of the women had already encountered inflexible workplaces and unsupportive partners and worried that they might never achieve their ideal scenario for raising children. Freezing their eggs gave these women some peace of mind that motherhood would still be an option for them when (and if) they felt ready to pursue it.

My work suggests that growth of elective egg freezing among professional-class women exposes the gaps between these women’s hopes and aspirations and the realities they encounter in their workplaces and love lives. Insecurity at home and at work leaves these women worried that they won’t be able to live up to their own expectations of good motherhood. Faced with the overwhelming demands of intensive motherhood, these women freeze their eggs in the hope of buying themselves time to find the perfect combination of factors that will allow them to be the mothers they want to be. Yet egg freezing is an imperfect fix that places the burden of resolving work-family conflict on individual women, rather than addressing the cultural and structural factors that make motherhood so difficult for these women to accomplish in the first place.

Kit Myers is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Their research focuses on the intersection of gender, sexualities, and families with science, medicine, and technology. They are currently working on their dissertation on professional class women’s fertility decision making.


External Childcare Services & Gendered Perceptions of Time Conflicts

By Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen and Dominique Oehrli

In recent decades, female contributions to paid work have strongly increased. This trend can be observed in most countries, although to different degrees. This, in turn, has nourished public and scientific discussions on whether and how female employment could be promoted. Most prominently, it has been shown that external childcare services play a crucial role: These measures facilitate the reconciliation of family duties and paid work as they provide women with opportunities to become more extensively employed and also promote the preference to do so.

However, quite obviously, the relationship between external childcare provision and female employment does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, and this is the starting point of our article, if external childcare policies lead to a stronger labor market involvement by women, these policies also may have much broader consequences on what women and men (!) do beyond the labor market, that is at home or in society.  In our study we therefore look at the relationship between external childcare policies in Swiss municipalities and gender-specific perceptions of time conflict. Hence, we are interested in whether childcare policies indeed shape the allocation of time to paid work, work at home and social activities and how the potential time conflicts in handling these different activities are perceived by individuals.

The main finding of our study is that the existence of childcare policies in a municipality mainly affects men’s perceived time conflicts. For men, having small children does not induce any time conflicts if they do not live in a municipality that provides Early Childcare and Education (ECEC) services. By contrast, fathers living in a municipality with ECEC services face substantially higher time conflicts regarding both, leisure and housework activities. Conversely, women’s perceived time conflicts are to a much lesser degree related to childcare services in the municipality. Childcare provision is associated with stronger perceptions of time conflicts only when children get older, probably because mothers typically increase their employment level when their children grow older.


Given these results, do we need to question the positive framing of external childcare provision? While our findings may seem to be somewhat disillusioning at first sight, a closer look leads to a more positive conclusion. In fact, our findings clearly support the hypothesis that the provision of childcare services is associated with a more equal division of labor within households; in particular also with a stronger involvement of fathers at home. It is true that this increased equality induces some “costs” (i.e., stronger perceptions of time conflicts) that are mainly reported by fathers. That is, at least in the Swiss context—changing gender norms provoke more negative feelings and stress in men than in women. This gender difference may be explained by the fact that a more equal division of labor for mothers is strongly related to increased opportunities. Put differently, although a stronger labor market involvement may objectively mean more time conflicts for women as well, this situation does not automatically translate into stronger perceptions of time conflict. In contrast, it can be argued that a more egalitarian division of labor makes fathers’ lives more complex. The advantages of more modernized family roles are less obvious for them, but rather they are confronted with new and stronger constraints. Moreover, at the more normative level, these fathers may feel a conflict between their involvement at home and the still persisting traditional image of how a “real man” should behave. This is a conclusion that seems reasonable at least in the Swiss context. Hence, it is the clash between the different normative ideals that makes the situation particularly difficult for fathers.

Against this background, our results eventually point to the need for policy makers to consider and target not only women but increasingly men when crafting childcare (but probably also parental leave) policies. Most importantly, our article implies that childcare services are a relevant, but not a sufficient mean to promote a sound work-life balance for parents. In this vein, it is also important to acknowledge that childcare policies may have different consequences on different groups depending not only on their specific design but also on the cultural context. In a country like Switzerland, for example, in which a (modernized) male-breadwinner model still dominates and in which childcare coverage is far from universal, the changes induced by these policies may create particular conflicts – including normative struggles. However, these policies may at the same time be a trigger for changing traditional gender norms and moreover provide men also with positive experiences in new roles. Whereas these processes will obviously need some time, this might eventually lead to a situation in which policies promoting more equal gender roles will be perceived as opportunity rather than as constraint also by men.

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen is professor in comparative politics with the University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and political behavior and attitudes. Current research projects aim at linking these two areas by considering potential policy feedback effects, mainly in the field of family and energy policy.

Dominique Oehrli is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science, University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and, in particular, gendered policy effects. In her PhD thesis, she investigated the relationship between conditional cash transfers and women’s labor market involvement in Latin America.

We Don’t Leave, They Kick Us Out: Women’s Exit from Male-Dominated Occupations

By Marga Torre

We all know that women and men tend to perform different jobs, and also that jobs typically performed by males come with more power and status. Indeed, sex segregation at work is the most relevant factor explaining the sex gap in wages, promotion, and authority. Therefore, accessing male-dominated fields is crucial for women’s economic and social advancement.

According to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics, in 1970 about 70 percent of women in the US would have had to change jobs in order to be occupationally distributed in the same manner as men. By 1990, this percentage had decreased to 52, but it has remained rather stable since then. How is this possible when more and more women seem to be entering occupations traditionally dominated by men?  The figure below explains why.  As observed, for every 100 women moving from female- to male-dominated settings, 95 women do the opposite, thereby essentially maintaining existing levels of segregation. In other words, women’s increasing ability to “unlock the door” to male occupations has been accompanied by a substantial movement of women out of male-dominated occupations, reproducing the levels of segregation. In 1989 Jerry A. Jacobs labelled this phenomenon the revolving door, and it continues to be significant today.

Women’s occupational movement


Source: Calculated by the author using NLSY79 (1979-2010).

Why, then, do women leave male-dominated occupations—with their higher salaries and status levels—after clearing the barriers to entry? Understanding the flows between male- and female-dominated occupations requires us to examine women’s careers trajectories. Let us imagine two almost identical women starting to work in the same male-dominated occupation. They went to college together and have the same number of years of work experience. The only difference between the two women is that one started her career in the male sector right after college, while the other did so only after a period of employment in female-dominated jobs. Are they both equally likely to succeed in the male-dominated occupation? Despite their similarities, there are reasons to think that there is a higher risk of attrition with the second woman. This, I argue here, is because the notion of women’s work is imbued with assumptions and beliefs about the worth of the worker, which hinders their integration in the male sector. I use the term scar effect to describe the penalties associated with time spent in female-dominated occupations for women’s opportunities in male-dominated occupations.

The figure below uses data compiled between 1979 and 2010 to show the exit probability for women switching from a male- to a female-dominated occupation one year after being hired. We distinguish three type of women with three different career trajectories: women already working in the male field (insiders), women recently arriving from a female-dominated occupation (newcomers), and women who have experienced previous episodes of attrition from male-dominated occupations (repeaters). Blue indicates lower exit rates, while the spectrum closer to red indicates higher exit rates—all after controlling for relevant demographic characteristics (age, level of education, parental and marital status), and work-related features (tenure, hours worked, year of experience).


          Source: Calculated by the author using NLSY79 (1979-2010)

As observed, the probability of moving to a female-dominated occupation one year after entry is significantly lower for women who have been working in the male field than for women who have recently arrived from female settings. More specifically, the probability of attrition to female occupations is 22 percent for insiders but over 40 percent for newcomers in the case of “high-status” professionals. The probability of exit for repeaters is higher still at about 50 percent, almost twice the probability of attrition for insiders. It could be that co-workers perceive previous episodes of attrition from male-dominated occupations as an indication of failure, or of women’s inability to fulfill their responsibilities; such sentiments and lack of confidence in their abilities could raise the probability of such repeaters exiting and returning to a more supportive environment. The differences among women in low-status occupations are less pronounced. Attrition rates range from 30 percent for insiders to about 42 percent for repeaters, with newcomers at around 40 percent. In short, attrition is substantially higher for newcomers than for insiders among both categories of workers, while professionals suffer extra penalties for earlier episodes of attrition.

This evidence points to the scar effect of female work; in other words, women’s attrition can be partly explained by newcomers’ disadvantages with respect to both men and women employed in male-dominated occupations. This effect is more pronounced in the most prestigious occupations. Incumbents in male-dominated occupations tend to penalize women arriving from outside the world of men’s work, whose presence is seen as inappropriate or peculiar, more than women whose career paths have followed men’s all along.


Marga Torre is Assistant Professor in Sociology at University Carlos III of Madrid (Spain). Her research interests include gender, occupational segregation, labor markets, and social media. Her work has recently appeared in Social Forces, Sociological  Perspectives, and International Migration.



Rural Migrant Men in Urban China: Masculinity and Compromise

By Yinni Peng

Mass rural-urban migration has been sustained in China for over three decades. According to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, the number of rural-urban migrants reached 281.71 million in 2016. Rural-urban migration has not only contributed a vast amount of cheap labor to China’s rapid economic development and urbanization in past decades but has also dramatically shaped the lives of migrants and their left-behind family members in rural China.

In the current discussion of rural-urban migration and families in post-reform China, most of the attention has been paid to left-behind children and migrant women. How migration impacts rural migrant men’s family life and gender identity remains an understudied issue. To enrich the discussion of migration and masculinity, Susanne Choi and I coauthored a book entitled Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China that explores the reconstruction of masculinity of rural-urban migrant men in South China. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 192 rural migrant men in Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, we delineated how these men interpreted and negotiated their gender and family roles as lovers, husbands, fathers, and sons in an intersectional structure of gender, class, and the rural-urban divide in China.

Peng_1 (2)

Despite being internal migrants, these rural-urban migrant men face structural barriers to employment and social welfare in their urban destinations under China’s household registration (hukou) system. Since the 1950s, China has used the household registration system to differentiate, and sometimes even segregate, its rural and urban populations. Inherited from one’s parents, one’s hukou status determines his/her access and entitlement to public resources and social welfare. When millions of rural people migrate to urban China, the majority find it hard to obtain urban hukou in their destination cities, and their rural hukou constrains them from accessing urban public resources and social welfare. As a result, most rural-urban migrants are stuck in the secondary labor market in urban China and must take on dirty, difficult, or dangerous jobs undesirable to urban residents. Long working hours, meager salaries, and limited access to social welfare not only make rural-urban migrants an economically marginalized group in urban China but also force them to leave their dependent family members behind in their rural hometowns. Their rural origin also makes them second-class citizens who are discriminated against by urban residents in their cities.

In rural China, patriarchy grants rural men power and authority in both the public and private spheres. They dominate economic activities, control various resources, and usually hold authority as the head of the household. Although rural-urban migration enables these rural men to earn more economic resources for their families, their socioeconomic inferiority and marginalization in urban destinations puts their masculinity in crisis. Migration exposes these rural men to a hegemonic urban discourse of masculinity that emphasizes men’s economic success and professional knowledge or skills. Compared with their urban counterparts, rural-urban migrant men have limited socioeconomic resources to play the role of a romantic lover via generous consumption or the role of a good husband/father who is able to provide his family with good economic support.

 Meanwhile, the discrepancy between rural patriarchal tradition and modernized urban ideologies of gender and family causes struggles, dilemmas, and tensions in their multiple family relations. In their romantic relationships, young migrant men have to strike a balance between their romantic desire for an urbanized lover with whom they share an emotional intimacy and spiritual communication and their parents’ preference for a filial local wife. In their conjugal relationships, rural migrant men have to negotiate with their wives about post-marital residence, the labor division of housework and childcare, and the allocation of family resources. In their parent-child relationships, they struggle between their paternal breadwinning duty and the emotional turmoil caused by their long-term separation from their left-behind children. They are also caught in the dilemma of being a responsible father/husband who provides for his nuclear family via migration and being a filial son who takes care of his elderly parents in rural China.


Rural-urban migrant men use their masculine promise as a strategy to reconstruct their gender identity and deal with the discrepancy between the cultural ideal of men and their socioeconomic reality in a migratory context. They yield to their parents’ wish for a filial, local daughter-in-law; they participate in housework and childcare, either actively or selectively, and emphasize that they are helping their wives and making the major decisions in their families; they use material compensation and telecommunication to win their left-behind children’s hearts from afar; and they collaborate with their left-behind siblings on elderly care and redefine the meaning of filial piety by emphasizing their obedience to their parents. By making compromises, rural migrant men argue that they are sacrificing for the collective interest of the whole family or to maintain its happiness or harmony. Although they are not as economically successful as urban men, they reconstruct their masculine identity as good, honorable men by emphasizing their efforts to work hard and sacrifice for their families. Their tactical compromises in different family relations make some substantive contributions to the maintenance of their migrant families yet result in no ideological awakening on gender equality. Their masculine compromise is a pragmatic solution to structural constraints or oppression rather than an ideological challenge to or transformation of patriarchy.

Yinni Peng is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include gender, family, migration, labor politics, and social media. She is the coauthor of Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China (2016; University of California Press).

The Potency of Discursive Aggression in Trans Peoples’ Lives.

By stef shuster

Walking into a restaurant in downtown Metromidwest, Charlie orders a half sandwich/half soup to go. Upon placing their order, the person working the cash register looks up, smiles, and says, “Thank you Ma’am. Have a good day. Your order will be ready shortly.” Charlie levels their gaze, mumbles that they are not a lady, and continues to the waiting area for their lunch order to be called. Returning to work, Charlie sees several co-workers congregated around the conference room. One calls out, “Hey man. We were just talking about going out after work. Do you want to join in?” Charlie quietly sighs, and agrees to go out with their co-workers after work. They continue reflecting on the everyday challenges experienced in social life as a 25-year-old White genderqueer person, “I just don’t know what to say. They are my co-workers. Good people. And this is the first job that I have really liked, I don’t want to offend anyone or risk getting fired. I’ve tried before to correct them when they mis-gender me, but they just don’t get it.” Charlie shares that while these moments in interaction are common, they are difficult to negotiate, “I just expect it at this point. You know? Like – strangers don’t know that there people like me who do not identify as women or men. And my co-workers are trying to do the best they can.”

             These moments described by Charlie show us how many trans-identified people confront the limitations of language in everyday life. In my recently published piece in the August issue of Gender & Society, I examine the narratives of 40 trans people and focus on how language and talk uphold social order and regulate gender in interaction. I introduce “discursive aggression” as a term to describe how communicative acts are used in interaction to hold people accountable to social and cultural-based expectations (i.e., other-enforcement), and how individuals hold themselves accountable in anticipating the unfolding of interactions (i.e., self-enforcement). Through talk, discursive aggression regulates trans people in everyday social settings (like when Charlie is referred to as “ma’am”) and produces for them the feeling that they are not received in the ways they wish to be known, that they are made invisible, and that their self-authorship in naming and claiming a gender identity is questioned (such as when Charlie’s co-workers refer to them as “man”). Because language and talk are pervasive features of everyday life, indeed the building blocks for how individuals make sense of our selves and each other, there are limited options to respond to discursive aggression in the day-to-day interactions we have with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family.

Casual team meeting in open office discussing business
Person stands discussing business with team sitting holding documents & mugs in casual meeting in open office

  My work shows how trans people anticipate negative consequences for responding to discursive aggression. In being aware of others’ expectations for how interactions should unfold, trans people may engage in self-silencing to uphold the social order. That moment described by Charlie in seeing their co-workers and not wanting to risk correcting them out of fears of being fired, demonstrates how potent discursive aggression can be and translates to Charlie engaging in self-silencing out of fears of negative consequences they may experience by even the most well-meaning people. This particular dimension of accountability processes further shows us how power inequities play out in interaction, and how subordinated groups put in significant work to help others “save face” by not correcting mistakes, prioritize the needs of family members and friends over their own needs, and are boxed in by restrictive cultural expectations. Moving forward, scholars might consider other intersecting identities, and interactional dynamics to sort through the contexts that set the stage for people using discursive aggression–intentionally or unintentionally–to maintain their privilege in ways previously overlooked in existing scholarship and to document how power is inflected through talk and used to uphold cultural expectations and norms in interaction.

stef shuster is an assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University. Their research examines the social construction of “evidence” in three domains including medicine, social movements, and in the construction of knowledge. Their work has recently appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and Social Psychology Quarterly.

Intersectional Capitalism and the Calculations of Human Life

By Susila Gurusami

Throughout our global history, we see evidence of social institutions shaping the systemic devaluation of people’s lives. This isn’t new, and people have been talking about it for a really long time as part of capitalism. Scholars and activists raise how practices of racism, sexism, transphobia, and other –isms shape inequality. Traditionally, scholars talk about how these isms come from capitalism. But scholar Cedric Robinson argued that racism came before capitalism, and therefore shaped its emergence, while Marxist feminists make a parallel argument about patriarchy. In my article, I argue that it’s both (and more) by developing a theory of what I call intersectional capitalism: the systemic process of demoralizing and dehumanizing racialized and gendered bodies for their exploitation and punishment through market logics.

I came to this theory after conducting 18 months of ethnographic research at a reentry home in South Los Angeles that primarily serves women of color. In my view, there is no greater or more terrible project of human (de)valuation than the United States’ crisis of mass incarceration; it requires calculating the value of human life against time and past crimes against future potential, all while violently displacing people from their families and communities. This year the price tag of locking a single person up in California is expected to exceed $75,000 annually.

But the human cost of incarceration—specifically for Black populations—is far greater, and it doesn’t end when someone is released from prison or jail. In my research, I found that after Black women were released from prison or jail, they continued to be punished by the system of mass incarceration. In my article, I identify what I call “rehabilitation labor” as the government’s effort to transform formerly incarcerated Black women from “criminals” to “workers” by using particular employment parameters as a requirement of parole and probation. I situate rehabilitation labor within the context of intersectional capitalism because it requires that these women prove their worth to the market as a proxy for their value as human beings.

For instance, let’s follow the reentry journey of one of the women—Kendra—I met during the course of my fieldwork. On a hot summer day, I drove her to the doctor while she relayed her struggle to find work. After months of trying to find a steady job, Kendra told me that she couldn’t find a job because maybe she didn’t deserve to—she still felt the pull of her drug addiction, talked about her failure to make enough money to house and feed her children, and even insinuated that she had “earned” the sexual violence she experienced in her lifetime. Kendra struggled with mental illness, disability, a shocking history of abuse, and elementary literacy skills, but still tried to find work and field seemingly-endless rejections for months. She told me that if she could just find full-time employment, maybe she could finally prove to herself she was a good person. But the collective impact of her health, education, and felony record posed significant barriers to finding stable work. Still, in the months following her release from prison, she came to understand her lack of success in finding steady work as a moral failure and talked about employment as her pathway to moral redemption.


Kendra’s story shows how we often come to understand what we do to earn money as a proxy for moral worth. This process of equating morality to employment has enormous consequences for formerly incarcerated people, because their need to find a job isn’t just about building the financial resources to reintegrate into society; employment is also an important part of staying out of prison and jail. A recent report found that about 9,000 people are incarcerated every day in the United States for violating parole and probation employment mandates, even though two thirds of the people incarcerated under employment violations make less than $1000 per month and work full time. Black people are 40 percent of those incarcerated for post-release supervision violations, but they are 70 percent of unemployment incarceration violations. These findings tell us that it’s not just finding work that matters; it’s also about finding particular kinds of work, and Black and African American people are much more likely to be judged as failing in this respect.

In my article, I demonstrate that rehabilitation labor presupposes that employment produces a moral transformation that can lead to legal transformation, in that successful performance of rehabilitation labor can allow formerly incarcerated people to shed their criminal histories and state surveillance. But I also find that the conditions of rehabilitation labor—employment that I characterize as reliable, recognizable, and redemptive—are nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated Black women to reach because of the structure of the labor market, stereotypes that parole and probation agents have about Black women, and because the three conditions of rehabilitation labor contradict one another. These conflicts are not just ideological. By introducing a range of consequences that can include reincarceration, these conflicts amplify the precarity that formerly incarcerated Black women face in their everyday lives.

These contradictions also recall and reproduce the long-standing U.S. tradition of disciplining Black women through their relationship to the labor market, from enslavement, the construction of the Welfare Queen, to the current moment. I argue that intersectional capitalism makes this relationship possible—it provides the ideological and historical tools to subjugate Black women in service of white patriarchal capital. But in a country that manages to spend more than 182 billion dollars a year on mass incarceration, it seems possible that we can put that money to better use.

 As part of the participatory-action method “Photovoice,” study participants graciously provided these photos as partial representations of their everyday lives.

So what is the value of a human life?

Whether or not we can answer that question, we live—and die—in a world in which those calculations are made everyday. Consider the following recent events:

In each of these cases, government officials implicitly and explicitly calculate the value of human life using metrics of race, gender, class, and sexuality. And though individual decision makers are responsible, these decision makers represent social institutions that shape the lives of entire populations. For instance, in Flint, city officials and implicated corporations decided over many years that profit and cost-saving measures were more important than the health and well-being of the city’s residents. The consequences include poisoning the children of Flint—who are disproportionately Black and African American—with lead. Trump’s edict claims that the medical costs of transgender people are too exorbitant for taxpayers to support in the military, despite a recent study that estimates the costs of these expenses are between .004 to .017 percent of the military’s total healthcare spending. Judge Sam Benningfield’s offer for incarcerated people to trade 30 days of sentence time for temporary or permanent sterilization revitalizes eugenicists’ historical (and contemporary) projects of trying to curb the reproduction of criminalized populations of color by citing their children as taxpayer and social burdens.

My hope is that we can understand all these issues—the subjugation of formerly incarcerated Black women in the labor market, the water crisis in Flint, Trump’s transphobic agenda, and the proposed sterilization of incarcerated people—as connected by intersectional capitalism. By naming it as such, hopefully we can find a uniting intersectional thread in our common pursuits for justice without overlooking the inequalities between us.


Susila Gurusami is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Riverside. She will be an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto beginning July 2018. She is a scholar of race, gender, and carceral politics.