The women's movement and labor
March 21, 2013 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I was watching the PBS series Makers: Women Who Make America and I was struck by the section discussing some of the failures (or missed potential) of the women's movement from the labor perspective. What is the relationship between the women's movement and labor today, and what was the historical cause of the disconnect?

Two quotes I hastily transcribed (3rd part of the series, about 39 minutes in):

Sara M. Evans (Historian)
"They never helped families rework the relationship between family life and work outside the home. And the result is that we still have a structure of jobs and professions that that assumes workers are men, and that men have wives."
Karen Nussbaum (Labor Activist):
"I do think there was a failure of the women's movement to focus more on the economic issues of working people. It should have been about creating an alternative that worked for most women, and that alternative would have included childcare, it would have included community services, it would have included after school care where your kids could get cared for by adults. None of that happened. And I think that's the great failure of the women's movement.
So the question is twofold:

1. Why didn't the women's movement look more seriously into labor issues? The PBS series talks about a few stalled campaigns to institute a national childcare program, but after that not much. What caused the disconnect between what appeared to be two complementary movements?
2. What is the relationship between the women's movement and labor today? (and what articles/books do I need to read?)
posted by 2bucksplus to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A good book to read is the edited collection, The Sex of Class. I don't know how you define the "women's movement" today, i.e. is it specific organizations or something else, but there are tons of organizations working for the rights of women workers, especially low wage and/or immigrant women. There are also a lot of campaigns for policies that primarily but not exclusively effect women. Many of these groups have strong alliances with feminist organizations and individuals. You could take a look at the work of:
Domestic Workers United.
Campaign for Paid Sick Days.
Hyatt Hurts (which focuses especially on housekeepers at Hyatt hotels).
posted by cushie at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2013

My guess is that the answer to your first question is that white middle and upper class women dominated the movement and simply hired the help they needed when they "arrived" at higher paying jobs and better divorce settlements, without much regard for the struggles of working class and poor women.

And in many ways accepted the terms of the debate that wealthy, privileged men put forth, which were basically "you can sit at the table if you can afford a babysitter, because I'm sure as shit not going to do it."

Potentially wrapped up in some capitalist bullshit logic like "they won't notice wages are dropping, because they can make it on two incomes."
posted by vitabellosi at 11:51 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America by Dorothy Sue Cobble is the book you want! She discusses "labor feminism" and the essential role that trade unions have played in the fight for equal rights.

Essentially, it is a class issue. Working class families were strongly invested in the idea of a living wage that would provide for the entire family on one salary (unions in general used this strategy, so it also was necessary so that it didn't alienate men in unions). They wanted economic rights as well as legal ones (or to put it another way, they focused upon families rather than simply individual rights). They often butted heads with the aims of the National Woman's Party because the rhetoric they used did link women to familial roles (identifying women as mothers, for example, rather than simply as equals to men). As Cobble argues, their arguments were actually more radical in many ways, as they insisted that "women's work" had economic value and lobbied for things like federally-funded child care.

A few heroes in this movement: Ester Peterson, Addie Wyatt
posted by susanvance at 12:37 PM on March 21, 2013

The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries looks like a very interesting attempt to address some related questions (I haven't yet read it, it's been sitting on my Kindle for a couple weeks).
posted by enn at 12:46 PM on March 21, 2013

The labor movement was built at a time when women were not welcomed in most jobs, and was set up (and certified by the government) deliberately to exclude work classes that were predominantly women or people of color. For instance, Social Security deliberately excluded maids (all women, mostly women of color) and farm laborers (mostly men, largely African-American). Women's traditional work was not typically unionized (it's also harder to unionize labor that works individually in widely scattered private homes, as opposed to everyone together in a factory. So, in addition to the process you've identified -- upper-middle-class white ladies in the women's movement not addressing the labor movement, you had the reverse: the labor unions paid no attention to women.

Also, the women's movement didn't really get started until the foundations were being chipped away from under the labor movement; by the time women started demanding attention, the unions were preoccupied instead with their demise. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to expand their membership and influence, they perceived women as yet another threat, like people of color. Suddenly, starting in the 70s, they were faced with a double whammy: more and more people demanding a share of the pie, and the pie itself getting much, much smaller, as the manufacturing economy (bedrock of labor) was destroyed.

And the people in charge of the labor movement at that time were usually people who rose up through the ranks, old-timers -- not just men, but conservative, unimaginative, and generally corrupt men. It's not really surprising that men like George Meany, Jimmy Hoffa, and Tony Boyle and women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem failed to find, or even look for, much common ground.
posted by Fnarf at 1:28 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

From a Canadian perspective of a woman active in the labour movement:

1. The women's movement is still dominated by white women with resources who are often unaware of broader issues women outside their social/work circles face. Keep in mind, a woman in the labour movement most likely is fighting for (and aware of) issues that she and her colleagues are facing, which are still significant. If she is a woman facing the issues herself (transitory, unorganised labour or unavailable childcare for shift workers) she probably does not have the resources herself to agitate on the issues that affect her, let alone larger systemic issues.

2. The Labour movement pays lip service to women still. I attend a lot of labour conventions/committees/etc. Almost every time it is commented by somebody that it is refreshing to have a woman at the table. And they sincerely mean that - but the (white) men at the table are simply not aware of how much priviledge brought them to the table and what barriers I face. My large union represents a majority of women workers, many of them diverse. And yet the leadership of the Union itself is older white men. I was just at a Union woman's conference last week - they had done a study that showed that small unions, with unpaid union leadership and few expenses covered, were run almost exclusively by women; as soon as the union leadership position was paid the leadership flipped to men. Even the actions meant to be inclusive are quite minimal - I have access to a subsidy for childcare when I am at specific events. The subsidy for my three children for care for 24 hours (it has to include overnights because these events are a several hour plane ride away) is $50. The actual cost, if I didn't beg favours from family and friends, would be closer to $200-300/per 24 hours. Over a week long conference (which is during my unpaid time) the cost of attending the mandatory union event would be a thousand dollars out of pocket. Meanwhile, the men that are leaders of larger unions have generous expense accounts, are paid for their time, and earn lieu time for the days that run over 8 hours while not minuting meetings similutanously with also txting their children to arrange home delivery of meals or homework help. The men generally leave that up to their wives. For the women that are also carrying for their parents (and/or inlaws) it is even harder.

TL;dr the labour movement is still mostly focused on male issues; women are too exhausted by the second shift of childcare to agitate.
posted by saucysault at 1:31 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I haven't watched Makers yet, but from what I've heard about it, it focuses on the white, middle-class feminism that doesn't reflect what was actually going on in Second Wave feminism. Katha Pollit has an interesting general review of what got left out here.

NOW has been working on economic justice and caregiver issues for a long time, for instance.

You might also be interested in this summary of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which Nixon vetoed because Communism. Would that go over any better in the US today?

Finally -- feminism is not past tense (I get that Makers makes it sound like it, though). And while feminism has certainly fallen down on a lot of issues throughout it's history, asking why the women's movement doesn't fix Labor is like asking why I as someone with a chronic illness don't fix the US healthcare system.

On preview, what Fnarf and saucysault said, too.
posted by camyram at 1:35 PM on March 21, 2013

Some unions did work quite aggressively on behalf of gender issues. My mother was a union organizer, for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union. Think Norma Rae ... largely female members, largely Southern. Some of the first jobs Detroit's Big Three outsourced were textiles, upholstery for car seats and such. My mom's union BEGGED the UAW (male, Northern) for support in keeping these jobs in the U.S. The UAW did not give one happy damn about those lost union jobs, because THOSE lost union jobs belonged to poor Cracker women.

Karma's a bitch.
posted by cyndigo at 5:04 PM on March 21, 2013

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