Monday, April 21, 2008
The majority of commentators with something to say about bitterness in the Rustbelt, including me, have focused on gun-toting, beer swilling, bowling white men. But as we have seen in past primaries, boomer women, especially white, working-class women, have consistently pulled the lever for Hillary. Is this a version of identity politics? Perhaps, but I think there’s something deeper and more interesting going on. It has to do with feminism, its history, and our misunderstandings of it.
Since the 1960s, the right has labeled feminism in extreme terms. Feminists are man-hating and anti-feminine. They are deeply anti-family. They are “Feminazis,” ready to castrate any dissenting man in service of their elitist agenda. The assumption that feminists are anti-male, always radical, and elitist pervades popular culture and shapes the views of even my most liberal students. Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching about the transformations of women, family, gender, and sexuality in mid-twentieth century America. These weeks generate some of the most revealing discussions of the semester. Most of my students are nominally liberal products of privileged suburban households. They see feminism as inherently suspect. Their frames come largely from the political right. Most of my undergraduate women are deathly afraid to be labeled feminist lest they appear to be hirsute, unattractive, castrating lesbians to their male classmates. Most student men fear that self-identified feminists will be sanctimonious and preachy, unappealing sexual partners, and unfit mothers.
Our misunderstanding of feminism (which has analogies in our misunderstandings of the student left and black power) is the result of the media fixation on small groups of theatrical activists and the exploitation of those images by the right. But as Rutgers historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has argued in her important book, The Other Women's Movement, mid-twentieth century feminism was not solely or even primarily the creation of elite women. It differed in important ways from the clichéd accounts of feminism that shape our popular histories of the 1960s. Cobble chronicles an important and largely unknown story of working-class feminism. These feminists defined their struggle primarily in economic, not cultural terms. They represented blue and pink-collar women who, by the mid-twentieth century, were entering the paid workforce in increasing numbers, despite the pervasive rhetoric about the normative family headed by male breadwinners. These women were not, for the most part, in the paid labor market because it offered an escape from what Betty Friedan hyperbolically called the “comfortable concentration camp” of the suburban home. They were working because they had to.
The history of efforts to improve the economic conditions for working women, largely led by female unionists, needs to be foregrounded in our histories of the women’s movement. Historians and journalists spill much more ink on the protests at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, where radical protestors dumped girdles, false eyelashes, and copies of Playboy into a "Freedom Trash Can" before crowning a sheep as Miss America. We (erroneously) describe feminists as “bra burners” rather than telling the histories of waitresses and department store workers who organized unions and the women who used Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a tool for fighting against workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. Most feminists and feminist-sympathetic women in the late 1960s and 1970s were not burning their bras. They were getting up at 6 in the morning and putting on their bras and the rest of their work uniforms before making breakfast, packing their children’s lunchboxes, and then heading to work themselves, usually to insecure, underpaid “pink collar” jobs.
For these women that feminism really mattered. Against the odds, working-class feminists raised their wages and undermined sexist hiring practices, even if both victories were incomplete. Working-class feminists demanded better benefits and affordable child care and fought for family-friendly workplace policies. The feminist workplace revolution is still unfinished. And in fundamental respects it has been rolled back in the last two decades by biparisan indifference to the issues that matter most for ordinary working people, male and female alike.
Blue-collar and pink-collar women experienced the promise of feminism and its limitations. Today they have real reason to be bitter. In most states, family leave policies are still appalling, day care is expensive, and working women's wages are stagnant. Women are disproportionately represented in the ranks of part-time and contingent workers, both sectors of the labor market that are volatile and insecure.
This is a working world that is largely invisible to the young and to the privileged. And I think it helps to explain why so many older women gravitate toward Hillary Clinton. Whether Clinton will actually enact policies that will benefit these women is very much an open question. I’m doubtful. Welfare reform, with its mandatory work requirements, is not very family friendly. It’s a Clinton legacy. The Clintons supported a weak family leave policy, one of the worst in the industrialized west. Working women and men deserve better. Most workplaces are still far from family-friendly, especially in companies like Wal-Mart, on whose board of directors Hillary has served.
If Barack Obama wants to expand his base in blue-collar America, it’s time for him to take off his bowling shoes. Rather than hanging out with men in blue-collar bars, he needs to reach out to middle-aged, working-class women who are the backbone of the expanding service sector, who dominate employment in the now-struggling retail sector, and who are the underpaid care workers who take care of the sick and elderly while usually returning home to take care of their own aging parents or children or both. Their votes will really matter in November, given the persistent gender gap in voting between Democrats and Republicans. It is folly to ignore these struggling working women. Their lives are a reminder of feminism’s unfinished business. Their continued economic insecurity is a reminder of the failure of our public policies. Women, carework, and workplace rights should not be a fringe issue. They matter to us all.