A Feminism for the Working Class

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.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH