The phrase “emotional labor” was never intended to be used this way. Sociologist Arline Horschild created the term in 1983 to describe the professional work that requires employees to manage their emotions—when waiters and baristas, for example, are forced to smile in the face of rude customers. But the phrase has evolved to describe the chores and the caring and the organizing that often fall on women.

Robin Dembroff, a philosophy professor at Yale University who researches feminist theory, says the expanded use of “emotional labor” is not accidental. “I think it’s because the literal walls of the workplace do not constrain capitalist evaluation of people as laborers,” they say. “Once you recognize that fluid boundary, talking about things like the second shift or emotional labor as things that cannot be constrained to the workplace is completely legitimate.”

The new meaning of “emotional labor” is useful, as my colleague Annaliese Griffin has written: It allows women to point at the activities that are so often overlooked and taken for granted, and say that they’re hard, take serious effort, and deserve recognition. The phrase reflects a sincere effort to take personal lives seriously by using the language and mechanisms of the corporate sphere. In a capitalist system, the word “labor” denotes worth. Running personal errands and buying birthday cake and spending hours talking through other people’s worries is valuable, it suggests, because they’re comparable to paid work. 

To understand exactly how those activities are valued, though, we should work to recognize when a capitalist perspective is applied, and why. “I would love to see discussions of emotional labor include that further point,” says Dembroff. “Not only does emotional labor occur outside the workplace, but the reason it occurs outside the workplace is because our workplace is not constrained.”

Phrases such as “emotional labor” do not turn our home lives into a capitalist tool, but reflect that reality. The personal sphere has long catered to profit-making goals. Traditionally, men worked all day to earn a family wage, and women worked at home to produce future workers. The latest manifestation of capitalist feminism, the Lean In approach, was widely criticized for encouraging middle-class women to mimic men’s behavior: work all day and leave the household chores to a paid domestic worker, thus solving gender inequality by exacerbating class inequality. 

The popular discussion around “emotional labor” attempts to challenge that value system. But it still relies on the capitalist framework. Dembroff says within academia, feminist care ethics (a field of philosophy focused on the ethics of caring) often combines terms such as “emotional labor” and “second shift” with “a critique of the reduction of value of personal relationships to capitalist values such as productivity and efficiency.” That critique is often left out in lay conversations. 

There are non-capitalist ways to value activities outside the home. The capitalist reverence for making money is so widespread and deeply held that it’s difficult to see labelling activities “work” as anything other than a token of respect. But if we valued care over profit, surely we’d see more business people celebrated for their selflessness, rather than women applauded for taking managerial strategies to the home.

It can be difficult to notice capitalism’s influence; as the parable goes, fish are blind to water. Similarly, profit-focused values are hardly remarkable when they’re everywhere. Using corporate words to praise personal behavior is a small sign of just how deeply entrenched we are in a capitalist framework. Given this reality, perhaps there’s no better way to suggest that acts have value than to describe them as labor. But loving someone—whether a friend, parent, or partner—takes so much more thought and investment and insight than mere work. 

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