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BUIRA IR History seminar Working Mothers 25 March 2021

Working Mothers: 150 Years of Unpaid Care Work and Paid Employment 

17.00-18.45 Thursday 25 March 2021 (through Zoom)

A McKinsey Report (2020) recently concluded that women’s jobs were globally more at risk as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic than men’s, first because women are more likely to act as unpaid carers than men, and second because women work disproportionately in those sectors most vulnerable to decline (such as retail, hotels and catering).

This seminar examines the division commonly made between unpaid care work and paid employment in historical and global perspective, particularly in the light of the pandemic, and its implications for equality at work. It also investigates the perception of unpaid care work as lacking value and esteem.

 For further details or to reserve a place, please e-mail Michael Gold ( or Linda Clarke ( We’ll send the Zoom link a few days before the seminar to those who have reserved a place. 

17.00-17.15: Welcome and introduction: Michael Gold and Linda Clarke (Chairs)
 17.15 – 17.45: Helen McCarthy

Gender, Maternalism and Intellectual Biography: Beatrice Webb and Women’s Work, c. 1880s – 1919

This paper focuses on the thought of Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and how it related to the life she led as the daughter of an upper-class industrialist who moved through the worlds of philanthropy, social investigation and socialist agitation between the 1880s and the end of the First World War. The paper suggests the value of adopting a biographical lens for understanding how beliefs about gender and the family become embedded in labour markets and social policies. Drawing together the genres of feminist life-writing and intellectual biography, it explores the formation of such beliefs at the level of the individual, from the psychic processes shaping Webb’s interior self to the political and intellectual cultures through which she made her public mark.

 17.45 – 18.15: Eileen Boris

‘Indispensable to All Working Women and to Mothers in the Home’: Global Labour Standards and the Care Work Economy, 1919-2021

‘Indispensable to All Working Women and to Mothers in the Home’: that is how the French organizer of garment outworkers Jeanne Bouvier characterized a proposal for an eight-hour day, forty-eight-hour week which a century ago became Convention No.1 of the newly formed International Labour Organization (ILO). In differentiating ‘mother in the home’ from ‘all working women,’ she reinforced the separation of mother work (care) from the world of employment that has haunted the formulation of global labour standards. Until the 2000s, paid care work mostly stood outside of ILO deliberations, while unpaid family care was seen predominantly as a special kind of activity, one performed out of love or duty. Whether the new care work economy, especially during COVID times, touted by the ILO as central for gender equality, merely relabels the old inequalities will depend on the struggles waged in its name.

18.15 – 18.45: Discussion

18.45: Close


Our speakers

Eileen Boris: Hull Professor of Feminist Studies (University of California, Santa Barbara). Most recent book: Making the Woman Worker. Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Helen McCarthy: Reader in Modern and Contemporary British History (University of Cambridge). Most recent book: Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020).


McKinsey Global Institute (2020) Covid-19 and Gender Equality: Countering the Regressive Effects, 15 July. Available at:


2nd March 2021