Can Feminism Survive Class Polarization?

Author Barbara Ehrenreich
Photo by Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In 1999, Barbara Ehrenreich reflected on how the widening of the wealth gap thwarted the original goals of the feminist movement.

This story was first published in the November 28, 1999 issue of In These Times. We are reprinting it here as a remembrance of the late author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (19412022), who first wrote for the magazine in 1977.

Here’s a scene from feminist ancient history: It’s 1972 and about 20 of us are gathered in somebody’s living room for our weekly women’s support group” meeting. We’re all associated, in one way or another, with a small public college catering mostly to nontraditional” students, meaning those who are older, poorer and more likely to be black or Latina than typical college students in this suburban area. Almost every level of the college hierarchy is represented — students of all ages, clerical workers, junior faculty members and even one or two full professors. There are acknowledged differences among us — race and sexual preference, for example — which we examine eagerly and a little anxiously. But we are comfortable together, and excited to have a chance to discuss everything from the administration’s sexist policies to our personal struggles with husbands and lovers. Whatever may divide us, we are all women, and we understand this to be one of the great defining qualities of our lives and politics.

Could a group so diverse happily convene today? Please let me know if you can offer a present day parallel, but I tend to suspect the answer is very seldom” or not at all.” Perhaps the biggest social and economic trend of the past three decades has been class polarization — the expanding inequality in income and wealth. As United for a Fair Economy’s excellent book, Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap, points out, the most glaring polarization has occurred between those at the very top of the income distribution — the upper 1% to 5% — and those who occupy the bottom 30 to 40%. Less striking, but more ominous for the future of feminism, is the growing gap between those in the top 40% and those in the bottom 40. One chart in Shifting Fortunes shows that the net worth of households in the bottom 40% declined by nearly 80% between 1983 and 1995. Except for the top 1%, the top 40% lost ground too — but much less. Today’s college teacher, if she is not an adjunct, occupies that relatively lucky top 40 group, while today’s clerical worker is in the rapidly sinking bottom 40. Could they still gather comfortably in each other’s living rooms to discuss common issues? Do they still have common issues to discuss?

Numbers hardly begin to tell the story. The 80s brought sharp changes in lifestyle and consumption habits between the lower 40% — which is roughly what we call the working class” — and the upper 20 to 30, which is populated by professors, administrators, executives, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.” Mass markets” became segmented markets,” with different consumer trends signaling differences in status. In 1972, a junior faculty member’s living room looked much like that of a departmental secretary — only, in most cases, messier. Today, the secretary is likely to accessorize her home at Kmart; the professor at Pottery Barn. Three decades ago, we all enjoyed sugary, refined-flour treats at our meetings (not to mention Maxwell House coffee and cigarettes!) Today, the upper-middle class grinds its own beans, insists on whole grain, organic snacks, and vehemently eschews hot dogs and meatloaf. In the 70s, conspicuous, or even just overly enthusiastic, consumption was considered gauche — and not only by leftists and feminists. Today, professors, including quite liberal ones, are likely to have made a deep emotional investment in their houses, their furniture and their pewter ware. It shows how tasteful they are, meaning — when we cut through the garbage about aesthetics — how distinct they are from the lower” classes.

illustrations by elizabeth mayer

In the case of women, there is an additional factor compounding the division wrought by class polarization: In the 60s, only about 30% of American women worked outside their homes; today, the proportion is reversed, with more than 70% of women in the work force. This represents a great advance, since women who earn their own way are of course more able to avoid male domination in their personal lives. But women’s influx into the work force also means that fewer and fewer women share the common occupational experience once defined by the word housewife.” I don’t want to exaggerate this commonality as it existed in the 60s and 70s; obviously the stay-at-home wife of an executive led a very different life from that of the stay-at-home wife of a blue-collar man. But they did perform similar daily tasks — housecleaning, childcare, shopping, cooking. Today, in contrast, the majority of women fan out every morning to face vastly different work experiences, from manual labor to positions of power. Like men, women are now spread throughout the occupational hierarchy (though not at the very top), where they encounter each other daily as unequals — bosses vs. clerical workers, givers of orders vs. those who are ordered around, etc.

Class was always an issue. Even before polarization set in, some of us lived on the statistical hilltops, others deep in the valleys. But today we are distributed on what looks less like a mountain range and more like a cliff-face. Gender, race and sexual preference still define compelling commonalties, but the sense of a shared condition necessarily weakens as we separate into frequent-flying female executives on the one hand and airport cleaning women on the other. Can feminism or, for that matter, any cross-class social movement, survive as class polarization spreads Americans further and further apart?

For all the ardent egalitarianism of the early movement, feminism had the unforeseen consequence of heightening the class differences between women. It was educated, middle-class women who most successfully used feminist ideology and solidarity to advance themselves professionally. Feminism has played a role in working class women’s struggles too — for example, in the union organizing drives of university clerical workers — but probably its greatest single economic effect was to open up the formerly male-dominated professions to women. Between the 70s and the 90s, the percentage of female students in business, medical and law schools shot up from less than 10% to more than 40%.

There have been, however, no comparable gains for young women who cannot afford higher degrees, and most of these women remain in the same low-paid occupations that have been women’s work” for decades. All in all, feminism has had little impact on the status or pay of traditional female occupations like clerical, retail, health care and light assembly line work. While middle-class women gained MBAs, working-class women won the right not to be called honey” — and not a whole lot more than that.

Secondly, since people tend to marry within their own class, the gains made by women in the professions added to the growing economic gap between the working class and the professional-managerial class. Working-class families gained too, as wives went to work. But, as I argued in Fear of Failing: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, the most striking gains have accrued to couples consisting of two well-paid professionals or managers. The doctor/​lawyer household zoomed well ahead of the truck driver/​typist combination.

While middle-class women gained MBAs, working-class women won the right not to be called "honey"—and not a whole lot more than that.

So how well has feminism managed to maintain its stance as the ground shifts beneath its feet? Here are some brief observations of the impact of class polarization on a few issues once central to the feminist project:

Welfare. This has to be the most tragic case. In the 70s, feminists hewed to the slogan, Every woman is just one man away from welfare.” This was an exaggeration of course; even then, there were plenty of self-supporting and independently wealthy women. But it was true enough to resonate with the large numbers of women who worked outside their homes part-time or not at all. We recognized our commonality as homemakers and mothers and we considered this kind of work to be important enough to be paid for— even when there was no husband on the scene. Welfare, in other words, was potentially every woman’s concern. Flash forward to 1996, when Clinton signed the odious Republican welfare reform bill, and you find only the weakest and most tokenistic protests from groups bearing the label feminist.” The core problem, as those of us who were pro-welfare advocates found, was that many middle- and upper-middle class women could no longer see why a woman should be subsidized to raise her children. Well, I work and raise my kids — why shouldn’t they?” was a common response, as if poor women could command wages that would enable them to purchase reliable childcare. As for that other classic feminist slogan — every mother is a working mother”— no one seems to remember it anymore.

Health care. Our bodies, after all, are what we have most in common as women, and the women’s health movement of the 70s and early 80s probably brought together as diverse a constituency — at least in terms of class — as any other component of feminism. We worked to legalize abortion and to stop the involuntary sterilization of poor women of color, to challenge the sexism of medical care faced by all women consumers and to expand low-income women’s access to care. In many ways, we were successful: Abortion is legal, if not always accessible; the kinds of health information once available only in underground publications like the original Our Bodies, Ourselves can now be found in Mademoiselle; the medical profession is no longer an all male bastion of patriarchy. We were not so successful, however, in increasing low-income women’s access to health care — in fact, the number of the uninsured is far larger than it used to be, and poor women still get second-class health care when they get any at all. Yet the only women’s health issue that seems to generate any kind of broad, cross class participation today is breast cancer, at least if wearing a pink ribbon counts as participation.”

Even the nature of medical care is increasingly different for women of different classes. While lower-income women worry about paying for abortions or their children’s care, many in the upper-middle class are far more concerned with such medical luxuries as high-tech infertility treatments and cosmetic surgery. Young college women get bulimia; less affluent young women are more likely to suffer from toxemia of pregnancy, which is basically a consequence of malnutrition.

The problem is not classism, the problem is class itself: the existence of grave inequalities among women, as well as between women and men.

Housework. In the 70s, housework was a hot feminist issue and a major theme of consciousness-raising groups. After all, whatever else women did, we did housework; it was the nearly universal female occupation. We debated Pat Mainardi’s famous essay on The Politics of Housework,” which focused on the private struggles to get men to pick up their own socks. We argued bitterly about the wages for housework” movement’s proposal that women working at home should be paid by the state. We studied the Cuban legal code, with its intriguing provision that males do their share or face jail time.

Thirty years later, the feminist silence on the issue of housework is nearly absolute. Not, I think, because men are at last doing their share, but because so many women of the upper middle class now pay other women to do their housework for them. Bring up the subject among affluent feminists today, and you get a guilty silence, followed by defensive patter about how well they pay and treat their cleaning women.

In fact, the $15 an hour commonly earned by freelance maids is not so generous at all, when you consider that it has to cover cleaning equipment, transportation to various cleaning sites throughout the day, as well as any benefits, like health insurance, the cleaning person might choose to purchase for herself. The fast-growing corporate cleaning services like Merry Maids and The Maids International are far worse, offering (at least in the northeastern urban area I looked into) their workers between $5 (yes, that’s below the minimum wage) and $7 an hour.

In a particularly bitter irony, many of the women employed by the corporate cleaning services are former welfare recipients bumped off the rolls by the welfare reform bill so feebly resisted by organized feminists. One could conclude, if one was in a very bad mood, that it is not in the interests of affluent feminists to see the wages of working class women improve. As for the prospects of sisterhood” between affluent women and the women who scrub their toilets — forget about it, even at a generous” $15 an hour.

The issues that have most successfully weathered class polarization are sexual harassment and male violence against women. These may be the last concerns that potentially unite all women; and they are of course crucial. But there is a danger in letting these issues virtually define feminism, as seems to be the case in some campus women’s centers today: Poor and working-class women (and men) face forms of harassment and violence on the job that are not sexual or even clearly gender-related. Being reamed out repeatedly by an obnoxious supervisor of either sex can lead to depression and stress-related disorders. Being forced to work long hours of overtime, or under ergonomically or chemically hazardous conditions, can make a person physically sick. Yet feminism has yet to recognize such routine workplaces experiences as forms of violence against women.”

When posing the question — can feminism survive class polarization?” — to middle-class feminist acquaintances, I sometimes get the response: Well, you’re right — we have to confront our classism.” But the problem is not classism, the problem is class itself: the existence of grave inequalities among women, as well as between women and men. We should recall that the original radical — and, yes, Utopian — feminist vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. This of course means equality among the races and the genders, but class is different: There can be no such thing as equality among the classes.” The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class. For a start, let’s put that outrageous aim back into the long-range feminist agenda and mention it as loudly and often as we can. 

In the shorter term, there’s plenty to do, and the burden necessarily falls on the more privileged among us: to support working-class women’s workplace struggles, to advocate for expanded social services (like childcare and health care) for all women, to push for greater educational access for low-income women and so on and so forth. I’m not telling you anything new here, sisters — you know what to do.

But there’s something else, too, in the spirit of another ancient slogan that is usually either forgotten or misinterpreted today: The personal is the political.” Those of us who are fortunate enough to have assets and income beyond our immediate needs need to take a hard look at how we’re spending our money. New furniture — and, please, I don’t want to hear about how tastefully funky or antique-y it is— or a donation to a homeless shelter? A chic outfit or a check written to an organization fighting sweatshop conditions in the garment industry? A maid or a contribution to a clinic serving low-income women?

I know it sounds scary, but it will be a lot less so if we can make sharing stylish again and excess consumption look as ugly as it actually is. Better yet, give some of your time and your energy too. But if all you can do is write a check, that’s fine: Since Congress will never redistribute the wealth (downward, anyway), we may just have to do it ourselves.

Barbara Ehrenreich was a journalist and author who first wrote for In These Times in 1977. Her books include Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. She was a regular contributor to The Progressive, Harpers, Time and In These Times, where she was a contributing editor until her passing in September 2022.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.