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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-03-25

Women have for too long been socialized to think giving care to others is our role in life, especially unpaid and unvalued caregiving. This is certainly an assumption we must oppose. But yet, giving does tend to make us feel good, with this feeling reinforcing the behaviour. By contrast, getting help doesn't have this appeal: society tends to make us feel inadequate or worse when we call for help—and to attack and stigmatize what is seen as our "neediness" and "dependency." But we do need to value communal getting and giving in feminist collective ways.

This likely isn't a message easy to accept by a generation or more of women who had to learn to be self-sufficient the hard way when divorce, injury, or illness suddenly made us realize our lack of survival skills due to gendered socialization that had limited our education and employment options. For many of us only individual solutions were in our repertoires. A complicated message especially for those heterosexual married women who may have only belatedly felt strong enough to say that they weren't on permanent call to satisfy the whims and needs of others—usually the men in their lives at home and at work.

But perhaps we went too far too often in proclaiming this as our "independence" and in how we viewed "giving." Feminist researcher, Sue Sherwin, has wisely reminded us that women's "autonomy" is "relational" and it's a useful way to envision how we actually do live our lives and make our choices. Put another way, we are who we are in relation to others (for better or for worse). If we at least start to accept how interdependence and our relations with others are probably the real independence of the future—and of now—we just might get things to change without backsliding to gendered stereotypes. No nirvana is promised, but perhaps just a richer existence.

There is at least one potential problem looming and to be avoided, however. Clever marketers have recognized that we need help with many things, and so the "outsourcing" of a full range of personal helpers—from those who find us partners to those who will feed and bury us has become a growth industry kept afloat by the privileged (see Arlie Hochschild's wonderful recent book on this, The Outsourced Self, Picador, 2013). But surely the marketplace isn't really the way to manage our personal relationships, needs, and problems by assigning these as "tasks" to be done by strangers paid unconscionably low wages. Interdependence surely has nothing to do with "outsourcing"—and paying for—the fulfillment of our desires and needs. Nor with approaches that will further gaps and inequities between and among women.

Moreover, it has nothing to do with the increasingly sophisticated "social" robots on offer to not just clean our houses but apparently also to give us emotional support, and even offer sex. The ads gush with suggestions that "If you're middle-aged now, perhaps your closest companion in your dotage will be a wirelessly connected android that traipses after you, bringing iced tea or martinis, and reminding you to take your medications, send a birthday card to your grandson, and sell your Cisco stock" (sic, and also sick). This just flaunts the growing commodification and commercialization of human relationships, something we surely need to reject.

Robots and the outsourcing of our social needs appear to be serious symptoms of—not solutions to—some major societal problems. They are also likely causes of new inequities and injustices. We need to address the problems directly and not search for proxies, people or technologies to replace our human needs to connect and care for each other, or to replace global social and political programs that will enable us to build communities and solidarity. 

To avoid all magical fixes, the oppression of others, and the commodification of care, and to achieve true change for the well-being of all women, we need to ensure that the movements/approaches we want are created by those who will use them and do not become merely another sales option on a realtor's or domestic service agency's list for the privileged few (at the expense, often, of the impoverished many). We are talking about true social housing, about co-housing options, and not condominia with extra services; about collaborating and helping each other respectfully and mutually in solidarity and not about hiring others to care for us or failing to value women's work.

Above all, perhaps, we need to recognize and value our INTERdependence and ensure it develops healthily and respectfully. This will take work; changing individualistic notions of autonomy and well-being won't be easy. Nor will it be easy to remove persisting gendered expectations about women. But feminists have never shied away from resisting cultural norms—and from doing this in solidarity with each other. We can do it again.

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. Also an academic based at McGill University and passionate about writing, Abby is past president of the CWHN, and is now on the board of the FQPN where she works closely with them in building an inclusive reproductive justice movement in Québec.

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