A Feminism for the Working Class

Women in Zagreb, Croatia perform at an International Women's Day rally on March 8, 2020, organized by the World March of Women. The organization's statement read: “First and foremost, we are here to argue that fighting against the dismantling of social services is also fighting against sexism. ... How do we combat completely unbalanced domestic work if we do not have high quality and accessible public services?” (Photo by Denis LOVROVIC / AFP via Getty Images)

In 1999, Barbara Ehrenreich charged the feminist movement with advancing only “educated, middle-class women.” Her critique is more pertinent than ever.

Indigo Olivier March 5, 2020

UN Women, the Unit­ed Nations group for women’s empow­er­ment, tweet­ed an info­graph­ic in Feb­ru­ary show­ing that only 7% of For­tune 500 CEOs are women. Retweet if you real­ly real­ly real­ly… want more women CEOs,” it read.

Can we transcend corporate feminism to achieve liberation for all women?

Some Twit­ter users were fast to iron­i­cal­ly agree they real­ly real­ly real­ly” want­ed more female cor­po­rate oppres­sors.” Oth­ers called to eat the rich” or get rid of CEOs entirely.

The exchange high­lights a long­time point of con­tention with­in the fem­i­nist move­ment. As Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich point­ed out in a 1999 In These Times arti­cle, Doing It for Ourselves”: 

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 strug­gle, 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. … 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.

The class con­cerns that Ehren­re­ich observes in 1999 would be, by 2013, over­looked by trendy lean-in fem­i­nism,” tak­en from the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s best­selling, pseu­do-fem­i­nist man­i­festo, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

The Sand­bergs and Hillary Clin­tons of the world con­tin­ue to ped­dle this brand of neolib­er­al fem­i­nism, which goes some­thing like this: Become a #girl­boss, lean into the cor­po­rate world and bask in the empow­er­ment that trick­les down. Don’t wor­ry about oppres­sive patri­ar­chal struc­tures, the think­ing goes, so long as indi­vid­ual women trail­blaz­ers” start tak­ing over cor­ner offices. 

This kind of think­ing is what allowed Clin­ton to sup­port the wel­fare reform leg­is­la­tion of 1996, which stig­ma­tized Black sin­gle moth­ers and dis­man­tled social pro­vi­sions for all low-income sin­gle moth­ers, while claim­ing to break glass ceil­ings — sim­ply by being a woman in politics. 

Ehren­re­ich writes, As for that oth­er clas­sic fem­i­nist slo­gan — every moth­er is a work­ing moth­er’ — no one seems to remem­ber it anymore.” 

The Unit­ed States has cer­tain­ly expe­ri­enced some progress that all fem­i­nists can applaud: the first female pres­i­den­tial can­di­date on a major par­ty tick­et, the land­mark Women’s March, the #MeToo movement. 

Mean­while, the coun­try is expe­ri­enc­ing the high­est lev­els of inequal­i­ty since the Great Depres­sion. While more women are doc­tors, lawyers and CEOs, women also hold two-thirds of the country’s stu­dent debt. And women still dom­i­nate the low-paid occu­pa­tions that Ehren­re­ich not­ed decades ago. 

Ehren­re­ich explains that sex­u­al harass­ment and male vio­lence against women … may be the last con­cerns that poten­tial­ly unite all women,” but there is a dan­ger in let­ting these issues vir­tu­al­ly define fem­i­nism” — espe­cial­ly when 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.” An eman­ci­pa­to­ry fem­i­nist agen­da, Ehren­re­ich notes, should aim to sup­port work­ing-class women’s work­place strug­gles, to advo­cate for expand­ed social ser­vices (like child­care and health­care) for all women, to push for greater edu­ca­tion access for low-income women and so on and so forth.” 

While the nation­al agen­da in the Unit­ed States is final­ly talk­ing about big ideas that could espe­cial­ly help poor and work­ing-class women — like uni­ver­sal child­care, Medicare for All, tuition-free col­lege, a hous­ing guar­an­tee and the Green New Deal (thanks, in part, to politi­cians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez) — the ques­tion lingers: Can we tran­scend cor­po­rate fem­i­nism to achieve lib­er­a­tion for all women? 

Crit­i­cism of cor­po­rate fem­i­nism is spread­ing, and not just on Twit­ter. Cinzia Arruz­za, Tithi Bhat­tacharya and Nan­cy Fras­er pub­lished their Fem­i­nism for the 99% man­i­festo in 2017, draw­ing on tra­di­tions of Marx­ist, Black and decolo­nial fem­i­nisms. It reads, in part: 

Our answer to lean-in fem­i­nism is kick-back fem­i­nism. We have no inter­est in break­ing the glass ceil­ing while leav­ing the vast major­i­ty to clean up the shards. … Unaf­ford­able hous­ing, pover­ty wages, inad­e­quate health­care, bor­der polic­ing, cli­mate change — these are not what you ordi­nar­i­ly hear fem­i­nists talk­ing about. But aren’t they the biggest issues for the vast major­i­ty of women around the globe?

Build­ing on the momen­tum of the Women’s March, the authors joined with thinkers and orga­niz­ers Bar­bara Rans­by, Angela Davis, Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor, Lin­da Martín Alcoff and Ras­mea Yousef Odeh to cre­ate an annu­al Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Strike on March 8, the same day that marks Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day — a hol­i­day orig­i­nal­ly found­ed in 1911 by social­ist women inspired by the 1908 New York gar­ment work­ers’ strike. The idea behind the Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Strike is to bring togeth­er an anti-cap­i­tal­ist net­work of women in more than 50 coun­tries … build­ing a work­ing-class feminism.”

Over 20 years ago, Ehren­re­ich was already in agreement:

We should recall that the orig­i­nal rad­i­cal — and, yes, utopi­an — fem­i­nist vision was of a soci­ety with­out hier­ar­chies of any kind. … 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.

Indi­go Olivi­er is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.

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