Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona

By Eliska Bujokova

The term ‘research impact’ has become a buzzword in funding applications across academia, but as the current crisis has shown, its use often seems rather hollow. Doing historical research during the pandemic has become difficult as a result of practical constraints, but mostly due to my own questioning of its purpose, which inevitably seems futile in the light of the world transforming in an uncannily sci-fi fashion. The need for visible impact suddenly becomes pressing and making sense of the present reality penetrates my historical inquiry. My doctoral research studies the histories of care in 18th century Britain, but now I wonder about care in the times of Corona, as the inequalities within the sector are laid bare through increased pressures on health and social care systems and reduced availability of institutional childcare. For many women lockdown means taking full responsibility for childcare, unravelling the lack of progress in the sharing of care between women and men in families and the society as a whole, a fact that is invisibilised under ‘normal’ circumstances as a large part of childcare is carried out in nurseries, schools or by paid carers. Women’s expanding participation in the labour force since the 1960s and 1970s at first glance creates an illusion that their domestic and care responsibilities have somewhat diminished. Yet working women often fit their careers around domestic duties or hire other women for the job, leaving men’s working lives unchallenged. I draw on my historical research to explore the gendering of care and ponder the importance of understanding past care regimes to make sense of the present ones. Painfully aware of the danger of calling strictly gendered models of care ‘traditional’ (as some could always say the traditional is good, tried and tested, ‘natural’ even), I focus on the importance of conceptualising care arrangements as historical as opposed to naturalised and embedded, which allows for its greater potential for change.

Pictures painted by children on the fence of a kindergarten, closed due to the Corona pandemic. Source: Amrei-Marie, Wikimedia Commons.

Histories of care mindful of its social, cultural and economic aspects, however, are few and far between, yet recent work by feminist historians is starting to realise it crucial role in social, cultural and women’s histories. Their work shows a picture of greater fluidity between forms of work, both paid and unpaid, market oriented and for subsistence, and situates care within this myriad of economic activities. Linda Oja’s piece exploring childcare in early modern Sweden shows a lot of overlap between what we as historians habitually demarcate as women’s and men’s work.[1] My own research situated in the 18th century confirms her views and demonstrates that work, productive as well as reproductive, was mostly carried out by whoever was available, including women and men, children and parents, masters and servants. By exposing past forms of care as more fluid and less gendered than often assumed, these histories challenge the traditional narrative of modernisation theory which serves to provide us with a pat on the back for how far we have progressed in terms of gender and social equality. The image of the female-only care worker often seen as the point of departure for our efforts to expand gender equality thorough care redistribution thus seems awfully Victorian and terribly dated. Allowing for a more open definition of care contingent on various social and historical factors thus helps us situate care within the social fabric of past societies as well as their wider economies, and better understand the centrality of care to both. Conceptualising how care was distributed, shared and to what extend it was commodified in the different eras of our past can thus help us understand how present-day care economies have developed and how the association of women with most care work in the present is a product of patriarchal structures as opposed to a ‘natural’ constant. Through exposing the inadequacies of our care regimes, the current crisis can function as a point from which we deliberate the assumptions generally made about care and challenge their universality. Through studying care in the past, we can shed new light on the ways in which it is defined by its politics and its historicity and subsequently how these assumptions can be challenged.    

In the past that I study, care appears more fragmented, fluid, performed by whoever is available, and material as opposed to affective. Much care is imagined in economic terms and men as well as women are seen as responsible for providing for its different aspects. At the same time, however, care is hierarchical and characterised by relationships of dependency and need on one hand and capacity and benevolence on the other. It is also heavily commodified thus shifting the power from the caregiver to the care commissioner. The low status of care and care work is essentially consolidated by socio-economic discourse that prioritises money-generating activities above all else and the politics that draws from that discourse.

The present-day association of women with reproductive rather than productive work and its assumed historicity, then, disadvantages women at home and in the workplace. Many theorists have argued that the domestication and feminisation of care are results of the nucleation of the family during industrialisation and the dominant normative discourse of separate spheres. Care is thus tied to the growing ideal of emotional femininity placed within the privacy of the home and made separate from the public sphere of the economic and the political. [2] Such linear history seems intuitive, however, as new historiographies of care show, women’s strict association with care is much weaker in different eras of our past and highly contingent on regional, ethnic, racial and class variations. The flexible care models observed historically thus allow us to conceptualise our own care practices as created as opposed to timeless, as products of mainstream economic and political discourses.

In a similar effort to explain differences in care regimes in various countries in East and South-East Asia, Emiko Ochiai turns to their historical and sociological specificities. She demonstrates the ways in which care is organised and distributed as dependent on a wide variety of factors, such as pre-existing family and gender models, but also mechanism of female labour markets, welfare regimes and past development processes. In societies with traditional stem-family systems in place such as Japan, we see women as mothers and primary carers (in instances of both child and elderly care) only recently supplemented by the market. Contrariwise, in places like China with a stronger tradition of network-family models, care is historically distributed between nuclear and extended family members and wider communities and habitually less gendered. These differences are also driven by the value of female labour and the opportunity cost of women staying at home. Ochiai’s research provides an example of studying care through a non-linear, interdisciplinary approach and draws attention to the interrelatedness of historical family structures, welfare regimes, market mechanisms and social norms with practices of care. It demonstrates the need to draw upon history to fully understand why and how certain care practices have developed and how they can be transformed. She continues to point out that it is countries with an unequal distribution of responsibilities between men and women in the care sector, such as in Japan, that have more developed discourses on gender equality within care. She argues that this is a result of the pressing need for such initiatives, absent in countries such as China, where care is distributed more widely between female and male members of extended families.[3] Ochia’s findings seem highly relevant in the context of Western care regimes as well. In the light of the Covid crisis, our own care structures appear much less fast progressing towards equal distribution along gender lines than often assumed. In the vein of Ochiai’s argument, perhaps a non-linear historical analysis of the multiple facets that constitute care practices in most Western societies is needed to fully comprehend its social, economic and political underpinnings. Without understanding these aspects and their historicity, we face the danger of never fully grasping what causes the crisis in care we face today.  

Many popular-historical articles published during the current crisis have placed historical subjects studied within a contest of historians’ ‘mission’ to inform the present and provide lessons from the past. At the same time presumptuous (informing the present is a rather ambitious task) and humbling (we have realised the futility of our work and made attempts at making it more relevant, accessible), this ‘mission’ inevitably drives all academic work in times like the present crisis and perhaps will generate new historical perspectives more in touch with the society we live in. Care is a complicated subject as it is so inherent to our human experience and so personal, it almost appears timeless. At the same time, however, it is a concept created by discourse and politics as well as lived experiences, and is therefore historical, dated. The unprecedented effects of the global crisis we face today have made finding solutions to our current crisis of care ever more pressing. They have exposed the deep-seated inequalities (based on gender but also class and race) within care distribution and have posed questions about the assumptions we make about one’s entitlement to care and its value (emotional, economic, social). Reaching a consensus about the need to rethink care is relatively simple; yet tackling the issue is another matter. As Ochiai’s research has shown, there is no global one-size-fits-all solution to the care crisis, as all care regimes remain unique in their historical, social and economic formation. Studying past care regimes has a historical value in itself, but can also help us understand the ways in which our societies operate today. My aim here is to underline the political nature of care and with it the need to treat it as such as opposed to implant the discourse of social embeddedness that perpetuates inequality, in the past as well as today.

This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.

[1] Linda Oja, ‘Childcare and Gender in Sweden c. 1600-1800’, Gender and History, Vol. 27, No. 1 (2015), pp. 77-111.

[2] Maia Green, Victoria Lawson, ‘Recentring Care: Interrogating the Commodification of Care’, Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 12, No. 6 (2011), pp. 639-654. 

[3] Emiko Ochiai, ‘Care Diamonds and Welfare Regimes in East and South-East Asian Societies: Bridging Family and Welfare Sociology’, International Journal of Japanese Sociology, No. 18 (2009), pp. 60-78.

Eliska Bujokova is a first year doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History and a graduate from Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. Her research focuses on care economies in 18th century Britain and explores the relationship between care work and the female labour market during industrialisation.

Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.

Citation: Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.07.2020,

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