How, within structural constraints, did women and the broader working class, as well as capitalists, make their own history in Nancy Fraser's "Contradictions of Capital and Care"?

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"Contradictions of Capital and Care" is a complex essay that requires some explanation in order to address this question. Fraser's main argument in this important and influential piece is that capitalism has led to what she calls a "crisis of care" by making what she calls "social reproduction" more difficult. At the heart of social reproduction are care giving activities, which include giving birth to and raising children, caring for sick and elderly family members, and generally maintaining households. Because these activities have no monetary value, but underpin capitalist society in every way, Fraser claims that capitalism has a sort of "free ride" on them:

Non-waged social-reproductive activity is necessary to the existence of waged work, the accumulation of surplus value and the functioning of capitalism as such...Social reproduction is an indispensable background condition for the possibility of economic production in a capitalist society.

Of course, these activities are heavily gendered. Because capitalism values (literally) only work that produces wealth, and therefore generates wages for the people that do it, the people, mostly women, who do the work of social reproduction become "structurally subordinate" to men who do wage work. Looking at how women in the midst of the Industrial Revolution dealt with this contradiction, Fraser observes that there were fundamental divides among women. Many women's rights advocates saw wage labor as a "route to emancipation." Others saw a vaguely defined "third way" between male domination in the household (which still allowed for social reproduction) and wage labor for women (which did not).

In the twentieth century, many women joined working-class movements which sought to reconcile these two clashing forces. They pushed for the higher wages, better working conditions, shorter hours, and so on that would enable, in their minds, a "stable family life." Their demands were reflected in the liberal initiatives that became known as the "welfare state," but also by corporate welfare, sometimes called "Fordism." By the 1980s, a "dualized organization of social reproduction" had emerged, one that was accessible to those that could afford it, and the principle of the "family wage" was no longer prevalent. Within this, women were held to be the "equals of men in every way," in no small part due to the actions of women. However, this was always supported by extractive economics, and the "care gap" that resulted was filled often by poor people, especially women of color. Still, within these structural constraints, women are attempting to have families, turning to such practices as "egg-freezing" and breast pumps.

Fraser, in the end, is less concerned with looking at women's agency within the structural constraints imposed by capitalism as in looking at how attempts to maintain social reproduction within the family amid these changes have consequences we do not often recognize. In other words, women have made their own history, but the "history" they made is not always liberating because the nature of capitalism is zero-sum: their gains are made on the backs of the systemic oppression of others, including people far away from them. For this reason, she writes that real change must be structural in nature:

What is required, above all, is to overcome financialized capitalism’s rapacious subjugation of reproduction to production—but this time without sacrificing either emancipation or social protection. This in turn requires reinventing the production–reproduction distinction and reimagining the gender order.

In the end, Fraser seems less than optimistic that such a fundamental change will occur.

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