Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Majority Rule #3, Our Work is Valued (with Ai-jen Poo)


March 28, 2023

With Guests:

  • Ai-jen Poo. Ai-jen Poo is an American labor leader, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-founder of Supermajority. She’s also the author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.

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In this Episode:

This Women’s History Month, we’re wondering: What will it take to achieve a society that prioritizes—and achieves—true equality? Our answers to those questions are the Majority Rules: a series of rules, created by Supermajority, intended to guide us to our ultimate goal of gender equality.

Today, we’re diving into Rule #3, “Our work is valued.” In a world that systemically erases and devalues the work of women, and that of women of color in particular, how can we ensure that our work is valued—especially care work, domestic work and other forms of work that often goes unrecognized and is rendered invisible?

Background reading:


00:00:12 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, part of our on the issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine platform. Now, as you know as listeners to this show, we count minutes in feminist terms. That’s because we do report, we rebel, and we tell it just like it is on our own terms, and we dive right in in Fifteen Minutes of Feminism because we want to get right to our guests so that they can tell the story and to tell it in full and give you that quick dose but a meaningful one. 

And in this episode, we’re continuing our series on Supermajority’s Majority Rules. In this episode we dive into rule number three, our work is valued. In a world that systemically erases and devalues the work of women, women of color in particular, how can we ensure that our work is valued, particularly care work, domestic work and other forms of work that often goes unrecognized and is rendered invisible in a time in which in the pandemic there were essential workers that were treated in non-essential ways? What will it take for us to achieve a society that prioritizes, that respects the dignity of all in true equality?

Molly Crabapple

And so helping us to sort out these questions and to set the record straight, we are joined by a very special guest. With me in this episode is Ai-jen Poo. She is an American labor leader, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-founder of Supermajority. She’s also the author of an incredibly important book, The Age of Dignity, Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Couldn’t be more pleased than to have her join me for this episode. Sit back and take a listen. 

It’s such a pleasure to have you joining me. Thank you so much for the important work that you’ve been doing. As one thinks about this pandemic, it is really highlighted in so many ways how jobs are done by women, the scope of jobs that are done by women, and what that means in terms of communities that are economically disenfranchised, and what this means in terms of women of color who have traditionally been overlooked, this value that they’ve given to our American economy and global economy undervalued. And so I’m wondering how you think about just what might change the ways in which labor, women’s labor, women of color’s labor, how that can be reconceptualized?

00:03:12 Ai-jen Poo:

Well, first of all, it’s so great to be with you and talk with you, and this is my favorite topic because I do believe that when we undervalue the work of women we are leaving so much potential on the table. And I often think of, my friend Franklin Leonard once said that the genius of the film Hidden Figures is that it’s impossible to come away from that film where you see the women, the black women in NASA and every single racial and gender-based obstacle that they faced over and over again in the community, in their homes, and then in the workplace, the relentlessness of the obstacles put in front of them, and they still took us to the moon. Imagine. 

00:04:06 Michele Goodwin: 

It just makes you want to pause, right? I mean, it’s chills up the spine, right, to think about that. You are absolutely right. Right? I mean, because the film captured so much of it and we know even more, right? You know, you have to leave the building to go even to the restroom. The microaggressions and macro aggressions because you’re also using the bathroom, the colored bathroom where others don’t have to leave the building, they don’t have to leave the floor. Right. And still, even with all of that…

00:04:39 Ai-jen Poo:

They took us to the moon. Imagine. 

00:04:42 Michele Goodwin:

They took us to the moon.

00:04:43 Ai-jen Poo:

Imagine if those obstacles didn’t exist where we would be as a society, as humanity, if those obstacles for people’s brilliance and unique contributions and talents could just be unleashed, and I think that’s the question of this question, of our work is valued, if each of our contributions were valued for their true worth and these obstacles that have been so deeply ingrained in our culture didn’t exist what might be possible. 

And I think about in particular this whole part of our economy that’s almost the foundation of every other form of work, which is care, and care is work that has historically been seen as so-called women’s work, and then as a profession in terms of the workers in the care economy, it is majority women of color, always overwhelmingly women and working class women doing this work.

00:05:45 Michele Goodwin: 

Yeah. That’s so true.  

00:05:49 Ai-jen Poo: 

And the average wages are about 14 dollars an hour, and for a home care worker who doesn’t often get full time work, full time hours, the average annual income today is about 21,000 dollars per year. So imagine trying to take care of yourself and your family on 21,000 dollars a year, but you continue to do this work because you believe in it and you understand its value even when the rest of society doesn’t. 

00:06:22 Michele Goodwin: 

You know, it’s interesting that you say that, it’s important that you say that because caregivers in particular really seem to fall through the gap, falling through the gap during the pandemic, and it’s also very interesting those who are considered essential workers but not treated in essential ways. 

00:06:41 Ai-jen Poo: 

That’s right. That’s right. Essential jobs are disproportionately minimum wage jobs, and we know that before the pandemic two thirds of all minimum wage jobs were held by women. So when we look at, in our economy, who’s working incredibly hard and still not able to make ends meet, it’s women and disproportionately women of color, and it took a pandemic for us to see that these jobs are actually essential to our safety, to our health, to our well-being as a society, and yet, still we have not raised the wages or adequately compensated the work. 

00:07:28 Michele Goodwin: 

On that point, Ai-jen, it also reminds me of the fact that during the space of the pandemic and during the Trump administration the effort to reshape certain laborers as being essential to make sure that low-income people of color, laborers, workers are doing that work. I think about meat packing. I don’t necessarily tend to think of meat packing as essential, but let’s make it essential, and who are the people that are doing that work, right? Those are people of color who are making so little and working in incredibly dangerous conditions, but it is…let’s make that essential so that those people can do that too for the comfort and benefit of others. 

00:08:18 Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right. And I do want to say on a hopeful note that when it comes to care work and the care that we do, whether it’s as family members for people that we love or we are professionals working in childcare or early education or direct care, we have more momentum for change than we ever have. And you know, I’ve been doing this work for a very long time and it’s largely been screaming out into the wilderness, but now I think we’re all starting to see that we need change, and if this is a country with as much resource and intelligence and capacity as we know it has, we can change the way that we value and support care and caregivers in this country, and I think we’re all starting to come together in new ways to make it happen. 

00:09:19 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, on that note, what can our elected officials do to ensure that our work is valued? What should be taking place now, and not just on the national level, which you pay attention to, but also local? This is a federal issue but it’s also a local issue. So what should people who are in office who say that they care about these issues, what should they be doing? 

00:09:48 Ai-jen Poo: 

Well, they should be enacting policy to build the care infrastructure, and what we mean by care infrastructure is there’s essentially four aspects of this policy and a workforce that will enable us to take care of the people that we love at every age and stage of life and ability while we’re working. And so it’s childcare, affordable, quality childcare and early education support for all. It is paid family and medical leave. We’re one of a tiny number of developed countries that doesn’t have any paid family and medical leave. It’s way, way overdue. It’s aging and disability care, the ability to have supports in place so that you can age and live well regardless of your ability, especially in the home and community, right, not segregated into nursing homes if that’s what you don’t want to do. 

And then the third piece is a strong care workforce. There’s no reason why every single job in the care economy can’t be a living wage job with benefits and real economic security, and if that’s at the heart of our ability to go to work in every other profession, it seems like it’s a collective responsibility that we have as a society to make sure that those workers can sustain in their jobs, take care of themselves and their families too. 

Children from the KU Kids Deanwood Childcare Center complete a mural celebrating the launch of the Child Tax Credit on July 14, 2021 at the KU Kids Deanwood Childcare Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Community Change)

00:11:21 Michele Goodwin: 

It seems something that would also be healthier for society as a whole. I mean, I think in part what I’m hearing you say and how I’m thinking about it is that if we got that right, if we got the care economy right, just what this might mean in terms of psychological health and well-being, physical health and well-being, I mean it’s the right thing to do, but beyond the right thing to do that’s fair, equitable, sensible part of a human right, but that it lifts all boats up. 

00:11:53 Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right, and there’s an economist at Harvard named Larry Katz who says that care jobs are triple dignity jobs because when you make them good jobs they not only benefit the woman who’s doing this work and her family, but they also benefit the family caregiver of the person who needs the support, they can go out into the into the workforce, and they benefit the person who’s receiving the care and receiving the ability to have a dignified life with agency because they have the right supports in place. I mean, that just seems like a win-win-win for everybody. 

00:12:35 Michele Goodwin: 

I think it is a win-win-win for everybody. So Supermajority Super Rule asserts that the people most impacted must be at the forefront of the solutions. That really sounds like what you’re talking about, especially when it comes to matters involving work and whose work is valued and what it looks like and fundamentally questions of dignity.

Before I let you go, and our time goes by way too quickly on our Fifteen Minutes of Feminism platform, I want to ask you, and this we ask all of our guests, what you see as a silver lining going forward. And I’m particularly interested in what this means as I ask you because you are one of the most visible American labor leaders, you’re president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, you co-founded Supermajority, you authored The Age of Dignity, Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Given all of your experience, what do you see, and some of it, you know, looking at the dark side of how we organize labor in the United States and who’s harmed, what do you see as a silver lining? 

00:14:02 Ai-jen Poo:

Well, I look around and I see domestic workers, care workers, women, and workers organizing throughout this economy and domestic workers, nannies, house cleaners, home care workers have organized together and passed domestic workers bills of rights in eleven states and four cities all over this country, and they introduced a national bill of rights that had its first congressional hearing just last July. There is momentum, there is organizing, and we are changing the rules because we are organizing, and it is so powerful. I’m so proud to be along for the ride. 

00:14:47 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you so very much, Ai-jen Poo, for joining me for this very special and important episode of Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, part of our On the Issues platform at Ms. Magazine. Thank you so much. 

00:15:02 Ai-jen Poo:

Thank you so much. 

00:15:05 Michele Goodwin: 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank each of you for tuning in for the full story and engaging with us. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know we’ll be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spiller are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and also Allison Whelan. Our social media content producer is Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Wil Alvarez and Natalie Holland, and music by Chris J Lee.