Monday, February 23, 2015

The Feminist Politics of Work

Last night at the Oscars in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette delivered a rousing call for women’s rights. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  

The crowd (and social media) goes wild. 

AND then in her follow-up press interviews, Arquette continued on in this vein: “It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now.”  

It was, to say the least, a disappointing moment, an embarrassing moment, and I think a teachable moment in the challenges of thinking intersectionally. The fight for gay rights and black civil rights is not mutually exclusive from the struggles of gender equality but rather these struggles are connected. Likewise, not all women experience their gender the same way, nor do they experience structures of inequality in the same way. Ever since Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on the legal barriers black women workers faced bringing suit over both race and gender discrimination, scholars and activists have called attention to intersectional oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and social status.  

Women have played a prominent role in a variety of civil rights struggles throughout American history, but often found their critique of gender inequality marginalized. During the 1960s and 70s, women of color also found themselves alienated by a feminist movement that was not modeled on the way women of color experienced their gender. And there is likewise a long history of tensions and divisions between movements led by middle class white women and labor feminism, as women workers found themselves shut out by male labor unions but talked down to by middle class women activists and reformers. (ETA: And while we're on the subject, let's no forget the whole "lavender menace" business, the threat that lesbians supposedly posted to second wave feminism, leading to their marginalization and exclusion.)

My point here is that civil rights movements broadly conceived have historically not had a good track record of being intersectional. We need to keep that in mind when we continue to talk about where and how to define and direct our critiques and activism. This is particularly important, I would argue, when it comes to the issue of labor.

* * *

Last week I delivered a short talk for USD’s Association for the Advancement of Women’s Rights in which I argued that labor is the feminist issue of the 21st century, a site of struggle that shares many of the same contours as the second wave, particularly around the ongoing question of child care costs and the disproportionate number of women in the low-wage labor force, which has only widened in the intervening decades.  The gender-wage gap statistic of a woman’s $0.77 to a man’s $1.00 reflects pay disparities between women and men in the same job, but also the disproportionate number of women in the low-wage labor force.

This needs to be the starting point. The labor politics that feminists need to embrace should extend into the ways in which, for a significant portion of the labor force, the experience of labor itself shifts a major burden on the worker while removing any safety net. Attention to the gender wage gap should draw our attention deeper, to the structural inequalities within the labor system itself that disproportionately effect women, particularly women of color.

As high paying, stable union jobs have disappeared since the 1970s, most waged work in America is nonunionized, minimum-wage work in which workers have few labor protections or bargaining power. And most of this work force is female. Historian Bethany Moreton has chronicled the way the “retail revolution” led by corporations like Walmart has depended upon new labor relations that make workers increasingly vulnerable and unprotected with minimal benefits. As the labor practices of our expanding service-economy has slowly reentered the national conversation, with some stunning shows of labor activism, most notably the Walmart Black Friday protests, there have been some small gestures towards change. For example, in the past week, Walmart promised to adjust some of its labor policies, including allowing workers to take a sick day as soon as they are ill and to adjust its flexible scheduling policy. Flexible scheduling is convenient for management, but terrible for workers, placing them at the mercy of a completely unpredictable and changing work schedule that hits parents particularly hard.

* * *

Arquette’s comments are a reminder that we need to think bigger, we need to think intersectionally, we need to push ourselves to think beyond our own experiences. At the AAWR event, I also talked about the rising costs of child care and the retreat in the 1970s from conversations about policy solutions. (President Obama’s recent proposal of tax breaks for working parents has been extremely controversial, while reigniting a policy debate that I hope will continue.) A student asked me what I thought we as individuals should do about the fact that the women who labor in service industries are often underpaid and lack basic labor protections. (It was only in 2010 that New York and California led the way in passing Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, including domestic workers in basic labor protections that have existed for other sectors of the labor force since the New Deal at least.) I have friends who do not believe in hiring domestic help because of how exploitative the industry is. I have other friends who try to be vigilant about the labor practices in the companies that they do use to hire domestic workers.

We do have power as consumers. Consumer movements have been successful in the past in calling attention to labor exploitation, most famously in the early 20th century around child labor. It’s time to do some research and think about how we, the most privileged, the people with the capital to hire people to work for us, can influence the conditions under which low-wage workers labor. When it comes to the ballot box, I am going to be straightforward here: a feminist labor politics needs to start, on the most basic level, with raising the minimum wage.

* * *

IN my remarks last week, I argued that work is a feminist issue BOTH because women disproportionately perform low-wage domestic labor without access to many of the labor protections that we take for granted in other types of work AND because as professional women and men seeking ways to balance the demands of their career and domestic concerns we will overwhelming turn to this labor force while also struggling to negotiate the demands of the “second shift.”

Right now, activists have been working to rally a new generation of women and men with the hash tag #Ineedfeminism. But what would happen if we shifted our grammar away from the language of individual needs and rights and returned to some of feminism’s theoretical roots in critical analysis of structures of power and privilege? What would happen if we made a more concerted effort to think about the larger structures in which some choices can or cannot occur? What would happen if more of us moved from thinking in terms of “I need feminism because” to “we need feminism because”? Perhaps it might make us more likely to see that gay rights and civil rights struggles have been and continue to be a part of women’s rights, and that women’s rights form a part of these struggles as well.

ETA: Interested in learning more but don't know where to start? Here are a few books and articles that shaped my thinking on these questions and that I drew on for my AAWR presentation and this post.


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