Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men

Hypatia 38 (1):177-197 (2023)
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Abstract

In recent years, feminist scholarship on emotional labor has proliferated. I identify a related but distinct form of care labor, hermeneutic labor. Hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of: understanding and coherently expressing one’s own feelings, desires, intentions, and movitations; discerning those of others; and inventing solutions for relational issues arising from interpersonal tensions. I argue that hermeneutic labor disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders in heteropatriachal societies, especially in intimate relationships between women and men. I also suggest that some of the gendered burdens of emotional labor that feminist scholars point out would better be described as hermeneutic labor. Drawing on feminist philosophy as well as findings from social psychology and sociology, I argue that the exploitation of women’s hermeneutic labor is a pervasive element of what Sandra Bartky calls the ‘micropolitics’ of intimate relationships. The widespread expectation that women are relationship maintenance experts, as well as the prevalence of a gendered demand-withdraw pattern of communication, leads an exploitative situation to appear natural or even desirable, even as it leads to women’s dissatisfaction. This situation may be considered misogynistic in Kate Manne’s sense, where misogyny is a property of social environments rather than a worldview.

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Ellie Anderson
Pomona College

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