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The Curve

Where feminism and economics intersect.

What Do the Recent Supreme Court Decisions Mean for Women’s Economic Security?

Supreme Court

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the final days of its 2013–14 term, the Supreme Court handed down three rulings of major consequence for women. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 majority held that requiring some for-profit employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception was a violation of religious freedom. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Court unanimously found that a Massachusetts law creating a thirty-five-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics violated protesters’ free speech guarantees. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was unconstitutional to require homecare workers to pay fees to the unions representing them.

While the McCullen and Harris decisions were adjudicated primarily on First Amendment grounds, and while the Hobby Lobby and McCullen cases, in particular, have often been framed as “culture war” issues, all three rulings have profoundly important implications for women’s economic rights. What does it mean when an employer is able to paternalistically restrict how a worker chooses to use her own health benefits? How does restricted access to abortion and contraception affect women economically? How does the setback the Court dealt to homecare workers—a workforce composed overwhelmingly of women of color—affect their decades-long fight better pay and working conditions, and the feminist project to revalue care work? We explore these issues and more in this week’s roundtable. —Kathleen Geier

Sarah Jaffe: When SCOTUS handed down its decisions, a handful of journalists discussed Hobby Lobby and Harris together—they came out on the last day of the Court’s session, they were written by the same justice (George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito, certainly no friend of women, workers or women as workers), both split 5-4, and both clearly issues of rights in the workplace. McCullen was discussed separately: the abortion clinic buffer zone ruling came out on a different day, was unanimous, and was written by a different justice (Chief Justice Roberts). But McCullen too is a decision that will affect women (and men) in the workplace.

How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers, and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?

An abortion clinic is a fraught location, a front in the so-called culture wars, and an institution with which even some pro-choice people have an ambivalent relationship. Decades of legal and legislative attempts to chip away at Roe v. Wade have isolated abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses and other workers there from other, less controversial medical establishments. Decades of anti-abortion rhetoric that calls doctors murderers has painted targets on the backs of physicians who perform abortions. We understand the need for a buffer zone in order to help the patients reach the clinic in safety, but we should also understand it as a way to keep the workers safe on the job. How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?

The attempts by lawmakers to make abortion more difficult, more arduous, more expensive to access have a disproportionate effect on lower-income people. Waiting period? Try taking several days off of work, and in a post–Hobby Lobby world, do you really want to explain to your boss why you need that time? For the 40 million workers in this country who have no access to paid sick time, it means losing several days’ pay for an expensive procedure not covered by insurance if you’re lucky, and added travel costs if you aren’t. Add to that the prospect of having to run a gauntlet of people trying to shame you, harangue you, and yes, possibly out you.


Image created by NARAL Pro-Choice America

It should go without saying that the decision to have a child or not is one of the most profound economic decisions most of us will make in our lifetimes. The Supreme Court this week made it harder for lower-income women to be able to make that choice for themselves. While I support those who argue for the right of all people to enjoy sex on their own terms, we have spent far too little time elaborating the ways in which the “culture war” is a class war.

Take Hobby Lobby. The hashtag #NotMyBossBusiness gave me some hope that the discussion of this case would turn not on religion, hypocrisy or even just on corporate personhood but on the place where Americans’ freedoms are most curtailed: work. It is, after all, the boss, not the government, who has the most say over what we do and say, whether we can pay the rent or feed the kids, the boss who has increasingly sought the right to influence our political choices and what we wear and track our every move and keystroke.

Instead, I have watched photos of people going into Hobby Lobby stores to rearrange letter-blocks to read “pro-choice” flit across the Internet as if the workers who will have to put those blocks back away are unaware of their boss’s power over them. If we were more aware of this decision as one that will affect women not simply as women but as workers, we might stop and ask ourselves what it would mean to actually be in solidarity with the people who work at those stores, to help them get what they need.

The separation between abortion care and other healthcare that I commented on above plays out in Hobby Lobby, which attempts to paint birth control not as a legally required part of a worker’s compensation package, one that allows women to work on an equal footing with the men, but as something outside, different and worse. Or, in the voices of some dismissive commentators, simply less important, not a big deal, something easy enough for women to buy on their own.

If we recognized Hobby Lobby as a workplace issue, we might reply that the people who work at Hobby Lobby stores make between $9.50 and $14 an hour (and those are actually fairly good wages when it comes to retail work) and that $25 a month (if it’s actually that cheap; that depends on which form of contraceptive you’re using) is a significant extra expense if one is, say, raising children on the wages from that job.

Which brings me to Harris, also a decision about mostly women in the workplace and about healthcare. Even more so than the retail service work Hobby Lobby employees do, home healthcare work is gendered labor that women are expected to do for love, not money. The age-old expectation that women are natural carers, that their highest calling is to care for a family—that very same sexist expectation is at the core of McCullen and Hobby Lobby. It’s an expectation that both denies women’s opportunities to work outside the home, and devalues the caring work they do, waged or unwaged.

Kathleen Geier: There is much to be said about the Supreme Court’s deeply disturbing Harris decision. But as Sarah points out, one important aspect of the ruling has gotten buried in the avalanche of more general commentary: its blatant sexism. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito invented a new, separate-but-unequal category of worker known as the “partial public” employee. Alito’s rationale is that because partial public employees perform care work in the home, they should be treated differently from other employees who work directly for the government. The most significant conclusion of this line of argument is that, unlike public employees proper, partial public workers are not required to pay union contributions. The economic threat this poses to their unions is clear: if enough workers choose to opt out of such contributions, the unions could be bankrupted.

In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Supreme Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work.

The ruling is a devastating setback for hundreds of thousands of organized homecare workers nationwide. These workers, who are overwhelmingly women of color, have fought back against the economic exploitation they suffer by joining labor unions. With its decision in Harris v. Quinn, not only did the Court target this largely female workforce, but it also undermined broader feminist goals. In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work. It attacked the larger feminist project of advancing women’s economic equality by recognizing care as work and insisting that our society compensate female workers fairly.

Domestic workers, including homecare workers, have long struggled to gain the legal benefits and protections that other workers in our society enjoy. It wasn’t until the 1970s that most domestic workers were finally covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which offers overtime protections and a minimum wage. Even so, one category of domestic worker was exempted from the FLSA: workers who provide “companionship services,” a group that includes homecare workers. Precisely because the traditional New Deal–era legislation offered no remedies to this group of workers, they need unions to fight for their rights. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey, because of union contracts, “this almost entirely female workforce has made huge improvements in wages and benefits, in training, and in respect in the states that provide for collective bargaining.” But those gains are seriously threatened by the actions the court took in Harris.

Low-wage homecare workers illustrate a larger problem, which is the role that women’s care work plays in maintaining their deep and persistent economic inequality. Directly, there is the opportunity cost that comes when women cut back hours or drop out of the paid labor force to provide care; economist Nancy Folbre has referred to this cost as the “care penalty.” Unpaid care work also affects women’s compensation in the paid labor market in ways that are less direct. Research has shown that a portion of the gender pay gap is attributable to the fact that women with children are, on average, paid less than their otherwise identical counterparts, regardless of whether they’ve ever taken time out of the work force to devote themselves to full-time motherhood. The disrespect associated with care is so strong that working in a caregiving occupation is associated with a 5 to 10 percent wage penalty, even when skill levels, education, industry and other observable factors are controlled for. Clearly, feminists have a powerful interest in revaluing care, a cause that has suffered a serious setback with Harris.

Why do we devalue care work in the first place? Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein point out in their excellent history, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, that intimate care work is associated with the stigma of handling dirt, bodily fluids, mess. Additionally, in a society based on the myth of individual autonomy, care work provides an uncomfortable reminder of how profoundly the condition of dependency structures human existence. Boris and Klein also argue that the “devaluation thesis assumes the unworthiness of the labor because of the race, class, and gender of the workers.” But more than anything else, they say, what ensures the continuing devaluation of this type of labor is “the way the state chooses to structure it.” With the Harris decision, the state has elected, as it has so often in the past, to structure care work in a way that ensures the continuing economic inequality of those who perform it.

Already, Harris is having an effect. Observers believe that the gains of recently organized home-based Connecticut childcare workers are threatened, because the Harris decision would likely apply to them. In addition, in one of a series of end-of-term orders, the Court sent back a Michigan case to the lower courts “for further consideration in light of Harris v. Quinn.” In These Times’s Moshe Marvit argues that since the legal issues in the Michigan case were somewhat different from those in Harris, the Court’s move “may be a quiet expansion of the Harris decision.”

It would hardly come as a shock if the Roberts Court built on the relatively narrow Harris decision to issue far more expansive rulings against labor unions. According to The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, “in confronting a politically charged issue, the court first decides a case in a ‘narrow’ way, but then uses that decision as a precedent to move in a more dramatic, conservative direction in a subsequent case.” Toobin believes that the Court may eventually use Harris as a precedent for a more radical move against public sector sector unions generally. If they do so, it would be a serious blow to women’s economic equality. As a recent study documents, women in labor unions earn significantly highly wages than their non-union counterparts, and this finding holds for every educational level, from women who dropped out of high school to those with graduate degrees. Unionized workers are also significantly more likely to receive employer-sponsored health insurance, retirement benefits and paid family and medical leave. To the extent that the Court weakens unions, it also undermines women’s economic power in our society.

For now, however, the Court has carefully and cleverly restricted its ruling to one vulnerable group: the overwhelmingly female, nonwhite, low-income group of workers who labor in private homes and receive their wages from the state. The Court’s decision rests on the dubious contention that homecare workers are not public employees. But these workers are paid by the government and the vital work they do, which serves broader public goals of improving public health and enabling families to balance work and care responsibilities, is anything but private. By weakening their right to economic redress through unions, the Court increased the state’s—and by extension the taxpayer’s—complicity in maintaining low-wage markets. We are low-wage employers now, and it is women, and most especially immigrant women, women of color and poor women, who continue to pay the price.

Sheila Bapat: As analyses of the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling in Harris v. Quinn continue to swirl, the potential of this decision to weaken public sector unions becomes more and more clear. The “right to work” movement is exploiting domestic workers’ uncertain status and, as Kathleen notes, the bias against women performing care work, to begin dismantling public sector unions. After the ruling, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander weighed in to support the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating that that Illinois’s collective bargaining program is a “disturbing union scheme to turn private homes into unionized workplaces.”

As a result of this ruling, funding for collective bargaining efforts—efforts that can help raise domestic workers’ wages and improve their overall working conditions—will likely dwindle. Yet there are policy changes we can make to lessen the blow.

How can domestic workers seek higher wages and improved benefits, given the Harris decision setback?

Raise the federal minimum wage, for all workers. A wage hike for all workers would improve earnings for domestic workers, too. Unfortunately, in April the US Senate failed to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. While states and localities have been succeeding in raising wages, disparities in wages across states have been found to hurt domestic workers. Some states that did raise minimum wages are still excluding domestic workers from that guarantee—this includes Rhode Island, West Virginia and Delaware. An across-the-board wage increase for all workers—which is what a federal wage hike can accomplish—helps avoid this disparity.

Create a federal program that pays and advocates for domestic workers. It is primarily Medicaid dollars that pay domestic workers in state programs. We could envision a more robust federal program— as part of Medicaid or outside of it—to support domestic workers’ wages and working conditions. We could envision a federal “association” of such workers that solicits comments from fellow workers, holds public meetings, makes recommendations to the state and speaks on behalf of domestic workers. Given the rising demand for care workers in the United States, it makes sense to develop a federal program that ensures the protection of this crucial workforce.

Support state domestic workers’ bills of rights. The domestic workers’ movement secured domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York in 2010, which expands overtime protections for workers, provides a day of rest and disability benefits. Similar legislation has emerged in California, Hawaii and, most recently, Massachusetts. Most of these bills expand overtime protections for workers. The Massachusetts legislation may be particularly important to look at, as it includes model provisions for workers who are not unionized such as a worker’s right to a contract with their employer that spells out wages, hours and expectations.

Support worker centers who advocate for domestic workers. Non-union actors like 501(c)3 worker centers have been crucial to advocating for domestic workers already. Worker centers may become more important given this ruling. The domestic workers’ movement comprises many of these centers and has achieved success by appealing to the public and to state legislators directly. Such legislation can ensure that workers are entitled to the state’s minimum wage so that exclusions like those found in Delaware, Rhode Island and West Virginia are eliminated. The local and national campaigns undertaken by worker centers also keep domestic workers’ rights on our local and national radar; they help us remember why domestic work is so crucial and why domestic workers should have better working conditions.

Federal legislation may not be politically plausible right now given that Congress cannot even raise the minimum wage. State-focused campaigns aimed at addressing the effects of Harris v. Quinn may have more success. Regardless, in light of the ruling in Harris v. Quinn, we should begin to explore creative solutions to improving wages for domestic workers and other public sector employees—solutions that can improve conditions both for workers and for those who need care.

Will the Democratic Party Deliver for Working Women?

White House Summit on Working Families

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Democrats have made women’s issues—specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the foreseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?

Our participants are Bryce Covert, Nation blogger and economic policy editor for ThinkProgress; Liza Featherstone, a journalist based in New York City and contributing editor to The Nation; Zerlina Maxwell a political analyst and contributing editor to Ebony.com, Feministing.com and more; Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago and libertarian feminist; and me, Kathleen Geier, your host at The Curve. This time we asked our participants to exchange e-mails, producing the conversation below.

Bryce Covert: Hi, everyone! Excited to talk with all of you.

There are workplace issues that affect women that Democrats could solve without incurring costs or the wrath of the business community. National paid family leave could be instituted as a social insurance program that wouldn’t cost businesses anything and would cost the government just what it takes to administrate the program. Paid sick leave has come with little business cost in the cities and states that have implemented it and brings some financial benefits. Republicans, nonetheless, have stood staunchly in the way of both, proving that it’s not just businesses or a limited deficit that they’re protecting but something else—“free markets,” perhaps, and a workplace out of the 1960s.

But some much-needed policies have to cost money. Raising the minimum wage won’t be free of costs for businesses: research differs on how much and what it would mean, but we know it won’t be totally free. We desperately need universal, high-quality childcare and preschool, but that’s very costly. Some Democrats are willing to pony up the money, and President Obama has proposed paying for universal preschool with tobacco taxes. But fiscal hawks or anti-tax Democrats will wither at the challenge. Other policies would require handing businesses mandates: quotas for diversity among top leadership, regular reviews of pay scales to make sure women and people of color aren’t being unfairly paid less.

In the end, what stands in the way of even incremental progress is a Republican party uninterested in legislating. But even if they came on board, some of the policies that require spending money or ordering businesses to change their practices might not get any traction from our Democratic allies.

If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party.

Liza Featherstone: The Democrats are like pickup artists at a bar—women only give them the time of day when the other guys are even more pathetic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is typical, making cynical use of the abortion issue (“Hey, baby, at least I’m pro-choice.”), while supporting education policies that amount to a full-on attack on a mostly-female workforce (teachers), and opposing just about any policy that the business community doesn’t like. If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party, and to build institutions that are independent of corporate America.

This approach already looks promising in some cities and states. Pressure from the Working Families Party—which briefly flirted with a primary challenge to Cuomo– seems to have forced the governor to support raising the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and to allow local governments to set their minimum wages higher than that. (We’ll see if he sticks to this.) Even better, Seattle, due to the work of newly elected Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, has raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And because Sawant and her party are independent of the business community, they’re fighting to close the many loopholes that Democrats have permitted in the new law. Reforms like childcare and paid family leave—and labor law reform making it easier to organize the low-wage sectors in which so many women work—will also require this kind of thinking and organizing beyond the Democratic Party.

Sure, some Democratic politicians will get on board—and many more will loudly remind us that they’re better than Republicans—but to get what we want, we have to be willing to kick the party and its leaders to the curb.

Zerlina Maxwell: One of the preliminary steps we should take in framing this discussion is to break down what we mean by “women voters.” The gender gap does not affect all women equally; those most affected by the gender gap are women of color and single women. With this breakdown in mind, it becomes very clear that not every economic issue for women is created equal. If Democrats, really want to shape policy and messaging that addresses key concerns of women of color, they need to first acknowledge that all women don’t have the same concerns and “a rising tide lifts all boats” isn’t persuasive.

There are Democratic leaders in the White House, like Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, and in Congress, namely House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who are already sounding the alarm on work-life balance issues that affect everyday women. They’re working now to get women’s concerns on the immediate legislative agenda for 2014. The upcoming White House Summit on Working Families is perhaps the perfect forum to set an agenda that will get out the women vote in November around a core of economic messaging.

I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement.

I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement. While this puts us at a disadvantage, women of color labor leaders, including Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta, have won recent legislative victories. They should serve as guides to building a movement and a message that attracts women of color by championing the issues that directly affect them (i.e., minimum wage, affordable childcare, equal pay, zero tolerance policies in schools that put young women of color into the criminal justice system for minor infractions, and paid leave). While it’s true that ties to corporate interests, Big Oil and Wall Street hamper the ability of Democrats to challenge the status quo for working women, that doesn’t mean Democratic leaders cannot work in tandem with the women of color already organizing around these issues to set the path for legislative change.

Kathleen Geier: So far, we seem to agree on some broad points of emphasis: we agree that women need paid leave, childcare, a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K and policies to close gender and racial pay gaps. But there’s considerable disagreement about how we get there. Bryce points out that businesses, Republicans and some Democrats will offer strong resistance to this agenda. Liza emphasizes change through institutions that are independent from the mainstream political parties, while Zerlina highlights efforts by women of color organizers who have worked with Democrats to enact reforms. What’s notable is that the successes that both Liza and Zerlina point to—such as the $15 minimum wage Seattle recently enacted and the landmark Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State—were state and local initiatives. Getting legislation like that passed on the national level right now would be impossible, because Congress is far more divided along partisan lines than is any state or local government.

Is there a prayer that Democrats could win over intransigent Republicans to support aspects of its feminist economic agenda? Recent European history offers a faint glimmer of hope. As political scientist Kimberly Morgan argued in a 2013 paper, in recent years European conservatives in Germany, the UK, and other countries, faced with the need to win more votes in the context of women’s growing workforce participation, abandoned their long-standing opposition to family-friendly policies and began to embrace them. But the European right is a very different animal from its American counterpart and it’s hard to see that happening here—the GOP is becoming more, not less, ideologically extreme.

Also, even though the Democrats’ economic agenda for women has virtually no chance of passing, it’s a tepid document nevertheless. Recent research such as Claudia Goldin’s new economic study and a paper by sociologists Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden shows that the gender pay gap is associated with long working hours and lack of workplace flexibility, but the Democrats’ plan doesn’t address those issues—though it does promise regular reviews of pay scales! The Democrats’ proposal to fund childcare is also weak. Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal childcare system? Given the weakness of the Democrats and our divided political system with its multiple veto points, getting a work-and-family agenda through Congress is going to be a very hard sell indeed. Passage of such legislation will require the talents of a strong, highly organized political movement. Feminists would be well-advised to pour their political energies into building and strengthening such a movement rather than becoming overly invested in the ever-popular quadrennial presidential election soap opera.

Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal child care system?

Bryce Covert: Everyone has highlighted the need to build a movement outside of the two political parties, and I think that this is the key to enacting any family-friendly policy agenda. And it’s important to take stock of how much feminists have influenced the political climate already. Hillary Clinton’s response to whether the United States should have paid family leave came off incredibly tepid, but her tepid answer used to be the political norm. Talking about issues like childcare or paid family leave used to be off-limits. Michelle Obama had been rumored to be adopting these issues when she moved into the White House, but back then they were seen as too hot-button.

Now many national Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand and President Obama himself—talk about them without hesitation. This conversation has become so mainstream, the needs of women voters so important for winning elections, that Republicans felt compelled to offer a package of bills aimed at working families, flex scheduling and equal pay, even if they are predictably bad policies. These political shifts can be chalked up to movement building and organizing—and I would argue feminists have been deeply involved in that work, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance to A Better Balance to the National Women’s Law Center and lots of other feminist organizations and organizers at the national and local level.

Still, we all seem to recognize that a full-scale, federal policy agenda won’t be enacted any time soon. That’s why state-level policy change has become so important, as Kathleen points out. Three states now have paid family leave, and others are working on similar programs. Seven cities and one state have paid sick days. Nine states have raised their minimum wages this year. This doesn’t just help the people who live there, but offers a chance to prove that these things can help workers without hurting economies. They can keep pushing on the national conversation to move it further toward women’s economic needs.

Liza Featherstone: I agree with our emerging consensus that the momentum for state and local policy change—and organizing—is much greater right now at the state and local level than at the federal level. That’s a good place to focus our energies. I also heartily second Kathleen’s suggestion that feminists eschew the sideshow of the presidential election, as it is likely to divert energy and money from the grassroots movement building, and to yield little substantive change.

It’s going to be hard for feminists to resist the drama, especially if Hillary is in the race. The possibility of the first woman president has a certain storybook appeal. There will be harshly misogynist right-wing attacks on her, and her abilities will be unfairly questioned by sexist Republicans, probably in ways that will make invigoratingly outrageous cable TV and social media entertainment. All of this will draw feminists to her cause. But ultimately, she’s a waste of our time. The lives of few women will be improved by electing this particular woman president. As Bryce has noted, her policy ideas about paid family leave are tepid even at the rhetorical level. She is a former member of the board of directors of Walmart—a company that has been the target of the largest sex discrimination class action suit in history. Any movement aimed at helping the majority of working women would have to regard her, like most mainstream Democrats, as more of an obstacle than an ally.

Zerlina Maxwell: First, we would need to establish that Democrats are not trying to win over Republicans, the third of the American voting population that is getting more and more extreme everyday. This incarnation of the American GOP is at war with itself, with the Tea Party emerging as the controlling force in the caucus and the catalyst for obstruction in the House. We aren’t going to be able to win over the types who tweet incessantly about #Benghazi, but there are so many disengaged people, near the center, that can be energized.

If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.

While I do think Democrats need to focus their attention on local, congressional and state races in order to frame a women’s economic agenda, I don’t think the best strategy is to ignore Hillary Clinton and national Democratic leaders. Instead of ignoring the media spectacle that is presidential horserace coverage, we as a diverse and modern feminist movement need to use the media spectacle to our advantage. If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.

I’m also hopeful that through the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Hillary Clinton or Senator Elizabeth Warren can become leading voices for this women’s economic agenda—pay equity, minimum wage, paid leave—and set the stage for a new era of feminist progress. We must ride the Hillary Clinton wave for the benefit of the down-ticket races that could win back the House. We shouldn’t ignore it.

Deirdre McCloskey: The “ties to corporate America” do not, pace Liza Featherstone and Zerlina Maxwell, necessarily “hamper [women’s] ability to deliver on feminist goals.” Corporate America is ahead of the political curve on many matters of human rights—look for example at the stance of the Fortune 500 companies on gay rights. And capitalism has regularly “accommodated equality for women,” giving opportunities, such as employment for married women, that governments or traditional society regularly opposed. Bryce Covert is correct to suggest focusing on programs that business would not oppose, though she’s also correct that the congressional GOP as presently aligned is unlikely to agree to anything agreeable to the president. Kathleen Geier’s call to arms is a call to defeat for feminist projects if we don’t choose them carefully. Universal childcare framed as an investment in the future, and backed by notionally conservative figures such as they economists James Heckman and Claudia Goldin, is worth pushing hard, if only for the next Democratic administration.

What is not a feminist issue is raising the minimum wage to, say, Seattle’s $15.00, since it is women, and especially women of color, who will be first to be shown the door—or, silently, not hired in the first place. And I don’t see dumping on Hillary Clinton as a good idea. She is at present likely to become president. Do we really want to be seen as opposed to the first woman president on account of her imperfect feminist purity?

Kathleen Geier: I believe electing a Democratic president is important, because the Democrats are dramatically better than the Republicans on every issue. But I also think that any generic Democrat will do and feminist energies would be better invested in movement-building activism as opposed to presidential political campaigning. I don’t oppose Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but like Liza, I worry about feminists getting caught up in the Hillary drama. Perhaps Zerlina is correct and feminists use the Hillary media spectacle to promote a feminist economic agenda, but I’m doubtful. This week, the White House hosted a Working Families Summit. Who wants to bet that an initiative like that will get drowned out amid the latest speculation about how Hillary handled a rape case in 1975 (or whatever the next ginned-up Hillary “controversy” is)? It’s a sign of progress that the Democrats are finally addressing feminist economic issues—remember how, a decade ago, they were running away from feminism and recruiting a bunch of macho candidates like Jim Webb? What they are finally doing this year is a step in the right direction, and I hope feminists can build on the most important parts of the message, instead of getting sidetracked.

As for Deirdre’s comments about the minimum wage, there is no question that Seattle’s newly enacted $15 minimum is a bold experiment. But the consensus in the academic research is that the minimum wage has little disemployment effect. Deirdre calls for framing childcare as an investment in the future, and at times in my writing, I have argued for it in those terms as well. But though I’ve been gratified to see some conservative and libertarian intellectuals such as James Heckman and the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey support early childhood education, elected Republicans who advocate for these policies are all too rare. The biggest problem with the Democrats’ economic agenda for women is that the chances of enacting it at this time on the national level are remote. The last time the GOP supported women’s rights in any significant numbers, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, earth shoes and fondues were all the rage.

European countries won their feminist-friendly economic policies through powerful labor unions, and perhaps a revitalized labor movement is our best chance of achieving similar goals in this country. Because of deindustrialization, the old industrial labor unions are a thing of the past, but teachers’ unions and health care workers hold some promise, particularly for feminists, since they represent female-dominated professions. Organizing workers is a huge challenge in today’s economy, but over the long term, it remains the best hope for women’s economic empowerment.

The Editors: Thank you for joining us at The Curve, and please join us in two weeks, when Kathleen will convene a discussion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?

Restaurant workers

Elba Aquino, foreground, and Alex Nunez, center, both waiters at the Cheyenne Diner in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Welcome to The Curve, where feminists talk economics. Twice a month at this site, we will feature a roundtable on a topic of feminist concern, with Kathleen Geier as your host. The Curve’s editors—Betsy Reed, Sarah Leonard and Emily Douglas—began this project with Kathleen because we have long been frustrated by two phenomena.

One is the way in which women’s voices are so frequently sidelined in economic debates. Our voices are few and far between in the economics blogosphere. It’s striking that almost none of the reviewers of Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century were women. And as Media Matters recently showed, women are rarely invited to discuss the economy on cable news.

The flipside of this problem is that, even amongst ourselves, feminists don’t talk enough about economics. Too often, discussions about so-called culture problems like abortion access and domestic violence lack the economic context necessary to appreciate their true causes and repercussions. When topics such as the pay gap or workplace discrimination come up, coverage is often superficial and focused on the experiences of a tiny elite. Meanwhile, the economic pressures on women are mounting: as inequality soars, women make up a growing proportion of the long-term unemployed, low-income women lead a growing majority of single-mother households, middle-income women struggle with few social supports, and even the progress being made by high-income women into the executive suites remains glacially slow.

Hence The Curve—where feminists will hash out economic issues and intervene in feminist debates from an economic perspective. We will draw on the many fine economists, labor journalists, bloggers and academics already producing tremendous work.

Later, we will get more granular, but for the first round of discussion we are asking our contributors to think big. Given arguments among feminists over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and debate about the firing of Jill Abramson at The New York Times, and in the context of ongoing movements to gain rights for low-wage care workers, we’d like to begin by exploring the very nature of feminist success. How much does it matter for women that gender discrimination persists at the top? Does feminist success mean an equal number of corner office suites and stock photos, or something more? Is there an inherent class conflict within feminism—indeed, has feminism lost sight of class? Is there the potential for a cross-class feminist movement that transforms the economy for the benefit of all women?

Joining us for our first conversation are, of course, moderator Kathleen Geier, with Demos president Heather McGhee, Center for American Progress senior fellow Judith Warner, and economist Nancy Folbre. We are delighted to have them with us at the launch of this series.

Over to you, Kathleen.

Kathleen Geier: Whatever you think of Sheryl Sandberg, her chirpy self-help book Lean In achieved at least one very important objective: it exposed the deep class divide within American feminism. Sandberg, the centimillionaire Facebook executive, wrote a book arguing that individual empowerment was the way forward for the women’s movement and ignited a raging debate among feminists. Sandberg’s frank acknowledgement that her message was pitched to professional elites rather than the masses, her enthusiasm for capitalism and her advocacy of a depoliticized strategy that focused on self-improvement rather collective action troubled many feminists on the left. If feminism is defined down as the right of elite women to enjoy equality with men of their class, is that really feminism—which at least in theory advocates the liberation of all women—in any meaningful sense?

Of course, Sandberg’s rationale was that if more women advanced into leadership positions, all women would gain. But there is little reason to have faith that Sandberg-style “trickle-down” feminism will benefit the masses any more than its economic equivalent has.

Sandberg’s book made the class divide within contemporary feminism clear, but it’s a rift that has deep historical roots. During first-wave feminism at the beginning of the twentieth century, when economic inequality reached historic levels, there was tension between wealthy suffragettes like Alva Belmont and socialist feminists such as Mary Ritter Beard. Widely divergent views about economics within feminism have continued ever since. During second-wave feminism in the ’60s and ’70s, these differences were less prominent. While it’s true that second-wave socialist and liberal feminists engaged in spirited debates about the merits of capitalism, crucially, as the sociologist Leslie McCall has pointed out, there was far less economic inequality between women in that era than there is in our own. That eased class tensions, as did the fact that the second-wave feminists were united in the goal of achieving formal legal equality for women.

But after most of the legal barriers came down, the momentum of the women’s movement slowed. There were many reasons for this, but among the most fundamental ones is that the next set of items on the feminist agenda—economic demands like universal childcare and paid parental leave—faced far more formidable political hurdles. In the ensuing decades, economic inequality spiraled, and the class divide between women widened.

Capitalism and feminism are on a collision course.

In 2014, economic inequality is as high as it was during the era of first-wave feminism. Different classes of women—low-income women who make up over half of minimum wage earners, middle-income women whose wages have stagnated for a decade and elite women seeking to shatter glass ceilings—have needs and problems that look very different from one another. Is there a way for feminism to bridge the class divide and advance an economic agenda that will serve the interests of all women?

I believe that there is a way forward for a feminism that meets the economic needs of the vast majority. But first, feminists must acknowledge some perhaps uncomfortable truths. One is that Sandbergism is a dead end. Contra Sandberg, the barriers to women’s progress have little to do with our purported failure to “lean in.” Indeed, researchers have found that even “ideal” women workers who do “all the right things” are far less likely to advance than men are. The barriers to women’s progress are not personal, they are structural, and they are embedded in the workings of American capitalism.

Capitalism and feminism are on a collision course, because capitalism depends on the unpaid care work of women in the family. One major analysis showed that the rate of American women’s labor force participation was slowing compared to the other OECD countries and identified the US’s failure to enact family-friendly labor policies as the chief culprit. Another important study found that the persistence of the gender pay gap was largely due to the lack of workplace flexibility in many sectors and occupations.

It is no accident that the societies ranked as having the most gender equality are the European social democracies, which tend to have the most economic equality, as well. It is also hardly coincidental that in America over the past twenty years, feminism has stalled while economic inequality has skyrocketed. Both feminism’s halt and inequality’s surge are connected to the rise of the neoliberal capitalist state, with its deregulated workplaces, its deep cuts in social services and its reliance on the unpaid labor of women to provide care.

Image created by the National Women’s Law Center

A feminism that recenters itself around economic justice would have much to offer American women. Issues like universal childcare and paid family and sick leave would have the most resonance for low- and middle-income women, because those are the groups most in need of these benefits.

But even many elite women would have much to gain from sweeping changes in the American economy and workplace. They, too, feel torn by the competing demands of work and family—sometimes to the point where they drop out of the workforce altogether. They would benefit from reforms like more workplace flexibility and a European-style cap on work hours. Finally, an economy that provided more economic security for all would likely lead to a more relaxed, less time-intensive parenting culture. Mothers won’t feel as much pressure to fill every waking moment assisting their children with educational and résumé-building activities to assure their future success.

For as long as a class system exists, there will be a class divide among women. But the vast majority of American women have many economic interests in common. However, as history has shown, the only effective and lasting way we can advance them is through collective action—by organizing ourselves and making demands on employers and on the political system. That is hard and frustrating work, but it is the only way to make real change.

Heather McGhee, president of Demos: When Sheryl Sandberg and Jill Abramson—women leading powerful institutions in male-dominated industries—ignite our most robust media conversations about gender equality, we feminists face a quandary. Of course feminists want women who are tantalizingly close to the top to break through, and of course we know that the paucity of women leading our institutions is a glaring symbol of enduring gender hierarchy. But women will not succeed in dismantling one hierarchy by climbing to the top of another. It’s not nearly sufficient for us to become leaders without forcing our institutions to value all who have been undervalued.

The vast majority of women, in America and worldwide, are ill-served by today’s economic paradigm. It is a paradigm that is founded on a steep hierarchy of value for everyone and everything (say, when a retail cashier’s hourly labor is deemed worthy of $7.25 and her boss’s $10,000). With hierarchy so essential to our economic system, it should be unsurprising that businesses exploit society’s undervaluation of women—as well as that of immigrants and people of color who are still mainly stuck at the bottom of our social and political hierarchies.

A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.

An emblematic case is in retail, one of the largest industries where low-paid women work, and the subject of a new report by my colleague at Demos Amy Traub. The gender inequity in the sector is immense: saleswomen at large retailers are paid $4 less an hour on average than their male co-workers, meaning a woman would have to work 103 days more a year to make the same wage as a man in the same job category. More than half of women in retail earn less than $25,000 a year for full-time work—even though the vast majority of women in retail are over 20 years old, a third have children and over a third provide half or more of their household’s income. Demos’s research shows that retail’s gender pay gap costs women an estimated $40.8 billion in lost wages annually, a total that will rise to $381 billion cumulatively by 2022.

A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy and soaring pay in the white male-dominated C-suites will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.

Fortunately, women leaders can redefine success. We’ve calculated that raising the annual pay floor for a full-time worker to $25,000 would benefit over 3 million female retail workers and their families. Businesses could afford it—the largest ten retailers spent more last year than the cost of the raise simply buying back their own stock to inflate share value. A raise would also add to GDP through low-paid workers’ increased spending, boost worker productivity and, ultimately, the companies’ bottom line—as examples like Costco show. That’s changing who and what is valued. That’s our feminism.

Judith Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety: The real work of feminism today—the grassroots activism and advocacy, the political organizing, the policy development, the community outreach and academic research—is, and long has been, focused on improving the lives of the greatest possible number of women. Women who work and struggle. Women in communities that are marginalized and underrepresented in politics. Women dealing with poverty and violence. Women scrambling for decent childcare and for jobs that pay a living wage. Women seeking higher education and career enhancement opportunities. Women sandwiched between two generations of loved ones who need their care. Women heading up families alone, often while dealing with their own under-treated health needs or disabilities.


Image created by the Working Poor Families Project

In the popular imagination, however—and in the eyes of critics—feminism is about something else entirely. It’s about highly successful women “leaning in” for more privilege; rich, highly educated, mostly white professionals wringing their hands over “choices” most women can’t contemplate at all.

Why the disconnect?

It’s largely a question of who produces our mental images. Upper-middle-class women’s stories about “having it all” sell. They reflect the realities of those who write, edit and produce them; they tap into the pressing day-to-day concerns of those who have the time and inclination to consume agenda-setting publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic. Stories of low-income, even middle-class women, don’t make for great “click bait.” They don’t inspire the same pleasurable mix of self-identification and schadenfreude in the readers that these publications and their advertisers aim to reach. If working-class stories appear in these sorts of outlets at all, many readers regard them as homework—the stuff you should be reading, but don’t really want to read. Such stories don’t turn into bestsellers.

There’s a further stumbling block keeping essential feminist issues from moving to the center of “our” national conversations. Many of the policy solutions needed to improve the lives of the vast majority of women in the United States—things like paid family leave, paid sick days and raising the minimum wage—simply aren’t pressing concerns for the upper-middle-class women who create and consume our narratives of women’s reality. As is true in most spheres of our winner-take-all-society, there is an experiential gulf between upper-middle-class, highly educated women, and all the rest. That gulf was not created by feminism. It merely reflects broad American inequality in the twenty-first century.

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Blaming feminists for that divide is completely wrong-headed. It’s as pointless as confusing the media caricature of feminism with the real thing—and then bashing feminism for its narrowness of vision. Instead, we need to identify policies that address the needs of the greatest possible number of women across the socioeconomic spectrum. We need to tap into the experiences that unite us without minimizing the very real differences of class, race, education and empowerment that set us apart. One avenue that might offer hope: fighting for meaningful workplace flexibility. This would mean measures that help workers rather than employers secure the flexible work arrangements they need, enabling anyone to spend time with both work and family.

Opponents of feminism have long castigated leaders of the movement for not representing the voices of “real” women. Back in the days of the suffrage fight, feminist leaders were called “unnatural.” Today, they’re often delegitimized with words like “elite” or “privileged.” I don’t think feminists gain much by contributing to that particular form of backlash, the net result of which is to serve a big “shut up” to women who speak out.

Nancy Folbre, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: It’s a more-than-four-way intersection, there’s no traffic light and people often don’t know which way to turn. Some, driving luxury SUVs, will be perfectly safe. Others, on foot, are likely to get hurt. Gender is an important vehicle of collective identity. So too are class, race, ethnicity and citizenship.

Both women and men often find themselves in contradictory positions, privileged in some respects, disadvantaged in others.

The concept of “intersectionality,” prominent in the writing of W.E.B. Du Bois, has been advanced in recent years by black feminist theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw. Today, it represents the sharpest dividing line between the communitarian tradition of socialist feminism and the individualist tradition of liberal feminism.

There’s nothing intersectional inside Lean In, the much-touted book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg that urges women to compete more assertively for highly paid professional and managerial jobs. The book speaks to women seeking to advance their careers, not those who are struggling to find and keep jobs that pay the bills. Nor is there any focus on forms of inequality not based on gender.

Which is exactly why the book vindicates intersectional analysis: the most photogenic women challenging gender inequality are those unencumbered by other forms of disadvantage.

The most celebrated economic victories for women in the US have come at the top, not the bottom, of the income distribution. Hillary Clinton is even more iconic in this respect than Sheryl Sandberg.

But don’t blame the feminist movement—or feminist theory—for this uneven impact. Blame the underlying intersections of gender, class, race, ethnicity and citizenship. Then, map the roads to economic success shifting under our wheels.

Globalization and neoliberalism have reduced the demand for labor in the US and weakened the bargaining power of wage earners as a group. Workers without a college degree have been particularly hard hit and family incomes have polarized.

Women equipped with the educational background, financial wherewithal and motivation necessary to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher have fared relatively well over the last thirty years, enjoying small wage gains and more family-friendly benefits (such as paid maternity leave) than other women.

The economic rewards for working longer hours have increased over time, giving men a significant edge in the workplace.

The promise of a hefty paycheck gives college-educated women some modest bargaining power with the typically college-educated fathers of their children, who generally earn more and are more likely to marry (and, in the event of divorce, pay child support) than other men.

Dual-high-earner couples can also sidestep some of the emotional discomfort of bargaining over their division of labor by outsourcing: purchasing childcare, housecleaning and restaurant services provided by less-educated women—often immigrants—earning poverty-level wages.

And yet women in relatively secure, well-paying jobs still face gender-based obstacles to professional success. As Sandberg’s book persuasively argues, both women and men have internalized norms of masculinity and femininity that put mothers, in particular, at an economic disadvantage.

As more economically oriented research suggests, corporate pressure to hire only ideal employees who can work long hours (and head for the airport at any time of the day or night) has intensified over time. In a fascinating article just published in the American Sociological Review, Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weeden document the increasing prevalence of “overwork” (defined as working for pay fifty or more hours per week) in the US between 1979 and 2009.

Men are more likely than women to overwork in paid employment partly because they have wives or domestic partners who fulfill the resulting need for overwork at home.

The economic rewards of working longer hours have increased over time, giving men a significant edge in relative earnings almost sufficient to countervail women’s increased educational attainment and job experience—especially in professional and managerial jobs.

As the authors put it, their statistical analysis illustrates how “new ways of organizing work can perpetuate old forms of gender inequality.” It also illustrates how, despite crosscutting differences, women still have a common interest in rerouting the highway to economic success.

The Editors: Thanks to all of our contributors for participating, and to our readers for making it this far! Please join us in two weeks, when Kathleen will bring together an equally astute group to discuss the following question:

Democrats have made women’s issues—and specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the forseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?

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