In 1974, British feminists called on nurses to strike. As part of the international Wages for Housework campaign, they argued that the hospital had become an extension of the home. In the home, women worked unpaid for “love,” both for and from their families. In hospitals, women were paid poorly – the love for their patients, and from the public, was meant to sustain them. But now, costs were rising, wages were falling, and women across the world were calling for strikes. “Nursing is women’s work. And women’s work is underpaid,” wrote activist nurse Lizzie Stuart in 1974. “So far we have worked for love not money. But the cost of loving is going up.”
Born in 1950, Lizzie was a member of what Eve Worth, in her brilliant new book, has termed the welfare state generation. Born after the Second World War, they were nourished on national milk and orange juice, and educated in Conservative MP Rab Butler’s new education system. When the women of this generation came of age, many of them sought employment within the expanding welfare state that they had benefitted from in childhood. But, unlike Lizzie Stuart, the women of Worth’s welfare state generation did not identify as feminists, or as political in a traditional sense. Instead, they identified deeply with the principle of the welfare state. They believed in equality, redistribution, and expertise. Educated and trained, they sought to wield this expertise as political power from the inside. A welfare state by women and for women, quietly subverting its patriarchal origins.
My trail into the university was blazed by women of this generation, and I recognised a lot of myself and my early assumptions about academic work in them too. When I got my first academic job in 2014, it was at a moment that the male academy was, for the first time, admitting men and women to the profession at an almost equal rate. Our students were mostly women too. I believed – and I’m embarrassed to admit – that my place in the university had a politics. It wasn’t enough, but with a foot in the door I and my newly hired women friends imagined a new kind of university – we foregrounded our care, our teaching, our love of our jobs, and of the sector. We wore bright clothes, defended our vocal fry, and kept tissues in our offices. I resolved that I would be the university I wanted to see: inclusive, feminist, radically caring.
The feminisation of the welfare state was a precursor to its deprofessionalisation. Worth points to a process in which, under Margaret Thatcher, expertise was devalued, managerialism became embedded, and public sector workers lost their autonomy within their jobs. In the first nationally co-ordinated nurses’ strike, which did not come until 1988, nurses wanted better pay. But they also wanted to be recognised as experts in the management of their work, and of their patients’ care. They rejected the disappearance of the matron in favour of the manager, and of an ethos of public medicine in favour of consumer orientated provision. The welfare state of my 1990s childhood – literacy hour and the national curriculum – was a state of diminished authority for public sector professionals. In the following decade, real terms pay, too, began to decline.
The moment when I arrived as a worker in the university – the moment when I as a (cishet white middle class) woman was as likely to be hired as a man – marked the belated feminisation of our sector. As with the feminisation of the welfare state, feminisation in the neoliberal university meant the rise of managerialism, the decline of professional authority, rising administrative loads and, crucially, declining pay. My generation of women might have entered the profession on equal terms to men, but we were not entering into conditions equal to those enjoyed by the – usually – men who had arrived in the decades before (and who, though their pay has continued to decline in real terms too, have continued to benefit from their earlier professional advancement and accrued pensions).
Feminisation wasn’t just about managerialism, administration, and declining pay. It was also reflected in the emotional economy of the job. In 2010, the Times Higher Education Supplement started its #LoveHE campaign, calling for a vocational devotion to the sector. The first cohort of £9,000-a-year tuition fee-paying students started undergraduate degrees in 2012. At around the same time, with changes to the diagnostic criteria for mental health in 2013, the ’student mental health crisis’ began to make headlines. University staff were asked to care more about their jobs, and care more as part of their jobs, than before. I participated in this willingly, uncritically: I wanted to love my job, and I did care, do care, deeply for my students and colleagues. I did not see so clearly then that care work was gendered, undervalued, and that love for the job was what we were offered instead of money.
When I first went on strike in 2018, I brought the language of love out of my job and onto the picket line. This is a tactic that has been used by all of the feminine and feminised professions to try to gain public support for their strikes. Unlike their 1970s feminist forerunners, the organisers of the first national nurses’ strikes in 1988 did not reject the language of love. They embraced it. They described themselves as “angels with empty purses” simply trying to save the NHS. Now teachers, a profession feminised in the post-war welfare state, have also foregrounded their care for students alongside their education of them in the current school strikes. Junior doctors, meanwhile, are in a sector similar to higher education, more recently feminised with stark intergenerational inequality that maps on to this dynamic. They strike, they claim, out of love for the NHS.
But loving or being beloved has not saved any of these professions. It has certainly not saved the NHS. Straight after rainbows in windows and Thursday night clapping, we’ve seen rising waiting lists and dangerously overstretched A&E departments. The NHS has been loved to death. The feminist nurses of the 1970s knew that love was what you were offered instead of money. The strikes they envisaged were part of a wider struggle not to save the NHS or their vocation, but to elevate the value of care work that women do. “The decisive question which the struggle of nurses is answering is this,” Lizzie Stuart wrote in 1974: “If workers who do not produce things, but produce people, have potential social power by refusing to produce these people? Can they withdraw their labour and if they do, can they make it hurt enough to win?”
The idea of a strike not as an act of love but as an act of harm makes us uncomfortable. It is not a quiet politics from within, but a loud politics from outside. For what good is all this inclusion, if you who have been included are not treated well? Our precarious colleagues in the university have always seen how little good the people inside did for those outside, and the inequalities that inclusion masked. With teachers, junior doctors, nurses, we reject a beleaguered love which grits its teeth through institutional decline in order to do no harm.
Striking isn’t an act of love for those we withdraw our care from, and it certainly won’t make people love us. It is an act of solidarity with all the feminine and feminised professions. It is an insistence that the kinds of work that women do – and that people of colour and from minoritized groups do even more of – are valuable. The cost of loving is going up.