Epistemic Reproductive Labor and the “Academic Wife”

Chronicle Vitae has an excellent post on the ‘academic wife.’ Do go read it over here:

Especially on those days when I’m elbows-deep in someone else’s scholarship, I get a little pang of what could have been if I’d had a wife. I want someone to take care of all the extraneous details so that I can do my research, so that I can focus on that chapter of my book for which I finally have a good outline and a stack of archive notes and interview transcriptions, so that I can actually do work that might get me a chance (however long the odds) at a tenure-track job…

Then I realized: For my scholar-clients, I am an academic wife.


I am sure many readers (and bloggers!) here have had a similar experience: recognizing (maybe for the first time, maybe not) that their epistemic labor (the effortful practical activity they do that improves states of affairs related to knowledge) is, in an important sense, not their own. Many times this kind of labor is freely given out of support, care and concern for an epistemic community in which one is embedded. One attends to the epistemic needs and interests of those around them in order to keep the system running, to improve it, to sustain it. Sometimes this labor is waged (in the sense of service teaching, research assisting, or freelance copy-editing); sometimes it is unwaged (in the sense of committee work, blogging, refereeing, co-curricular event organizing).

Call the kind of epistemic labor that helps to create, improve, and sustain epistemic communities and states of affairs reproductive epistemic labor. Three things are important about this kind of labor that I will emphasize.

First, it is devalued. It is oftentimes thankless, low-status, and marginal. It involves the organization, coordination, care and upkeep of things and lives in order to add epistemic value to a system. This is done in lieu or support of the production of (epistemic) widgets or artifacts within that system (books, articles, drafts, etc). And in the words of Drake, that shit “don’t come with trophies.” It is a devalued kind of work: it is not activity that reaps rewards or accolades, high salaries or honoraria. Sometimes it does not even reap recognition that it is being done at all. Which brings us to our next point.

Reproductive epistemic labor is invisibilized. In much the same way that clean bathrooms, lunch, and changed diapers don’t just happen, neither do functional epistemic communities. No epistemic structure (a department, a field, a research program) can exist without significant upkeep, organization, coordination, and care. This work itself is of course socially necessary — but it doesn’t “show up” in tenure and promotion reviews. It’s at the end of a cv, if there at all, and promptly skipped. It doesn’t win grants.

Third, and perhaps most important, reproductive epistemic labor is feminized. The gendered division of academic labor is apparent at a moment’s notice to almost any academic I know, but it bears emphasizing. Who keeps the department together, if it is together (and who is held responsible if it’s not)? Who mentors, advises, gives prompt feedback? Who responds to emails from students frustrated with radio silence from others?  Who do editors know they can lean on for referee reports? Who sets up colloquium speakers’ schedules? Who makes sure receipts are submitted on time? Who buys the wine and makes the coffee? This kind of “pink collar academic labor” is ubiquitous and necessary for creating, sustaining, and improving the conditions under which knowledge is made and circulated. Many times it is women (and only women) who do it.

The benefits of functional, responsive, flexible, coordinated epistemic communities are significant, and include important social, practical, economic and epistemic rewards. But we need to pay attention to the burdens associated with the upkeep of these communities, and ensure that these burdens are fairly and justly distributed.

Perhaps what this requires is an end to — or a strike of? — academic wives.


4 Responses to “Epistemic Reproductive Labor and the “Academic Wife””

  1. Serene

    This is awesome, Rachel. Question: I wonder if it’s useful to distinguish the affective/social labor of keeping the department together, being the person grad students come to with problems, submitting the receipts, etc. and the labor of editing, etc. that the academic wide article mentions. I ask because I think the latter is something that is often shifted onto graduate students, and thus seems to track gender less closely–where the former seems to me to be something that women can never escape at any phase of career. Thoughts? This is just my initial reaction.

    • Rachel McKinney

      Hey Serene! Yes, I do think it’s important to distinguish the two categories — for one, the former affective/social labor is completely unwaged, while the editing, etc labor is (while low) still putatively waged.

      One important point the author of the Curriculum Vitae piece makes is that many of the academics she works for are THEMSELVES women. So it’s a similar dynamic to domestic labor economies: competition in gendered workplaces encourage high-status women to hire working class women to do low-status tasks so they (the high-status women) can compete with high-status men. Hardly a feminist solution.

  2. Serene

    Rachel, that makes sense. Also I want to be clear that I wasn’t suggesting that grad student labor wasn’t exploited–just not primarily because of being feminized.

    One of the things you say I think it is important to underscore is how reproductive epistemic labor is invisibilized. One of the struggles I have when trying to push against it being disproportionately distributed to me is that many men (and some women) seem to have difficulty seeing it is being demanded. When you say you feel obligated to do it, they tell you the obligation is in your head (but then you get punished when you don’t).


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