Citizen Jane

Citizen Jane


A half-century ago T.H. Marshall, British Labour Party social theorist, offered a progressive, developmental theory for understanding the history of what we have come to call citizenship. Taking the experience of Englishmen to define the superior path, he postulated a hierarchy of citizenships: civil rights, political rights and social rights. The last of these became the category in which twentieth-century Europeans have understood claims on the state to health, welfare, education and protection from avoidable risk. They conceived of these citizenships as stages in an upward climb toward an ever better democracy.

Marshall’s schema looked only at European men. Feminists have pointed out that women did not achieve citizenship in this order. In fact, women often won some social rights–for example, protective legislation and “welfare”–before achieving political ones such as the right to vote. And women’s individual civil rights were often overwhelmed and even suppressed by legally imposed family obligations and moral sanctions. (For example, a century ago courts generally interpreted the law of marriage to mean that women were legally obligated to provide housework, childcare and sexual services to husbands.) Equally problematic were Marshall’s obliviousness to British imperialism and what it meant for Third World populations, including the fact that he conceived of the British as civilizers rather than exploiters, and his apparent ignorance of the conditions of second-class citizenship for racial/ethnic subordinates within nation-states. In short, his historical hierarchy was highly ideological.

But no one has yet done what Alice Kessler-Harris has in her newest book, In Pursuit of Equity, reaching beyond Marshall and his critics to suggest a new concept, economic citizenship. In this history of how women have been treated in employment, tax and welfare policy, Kessler-Harris–arguably the leading historian of women’s labor in the United States–synthesizes several decades of feminist analysis to produce a holistic conception of what full citizenship for women might entail. In lucid prose with vivid (and sometimes comic) illustrations of the snarled thinking that results from conceiving of women as dependents–rather than equal in heading families–she offers a vision of how we can move toward greater democracy. In the process, she also shows us what we are up against. Her book illustrates brilliantly how assumptions about appropriate gender roles are built into all aspects of policy.

She aims to resolve what is perhaps the central contradiction for policy-makers and policy scholars who care about sex equality: the contradiction between, on the one hand, valuing the unpaid caring work still overwhelmingly performed by women and, on the other hand, enabling women to achieve equality in wage labor and political power. Today, for example, although all feminists oppose the punitive new requirements of the policy that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, repealed in 1996, they are divided about what would constitute the right kind of welfare system. Some find it appropriate that all adults, including parents of young children, should be employed, assuming they can get a living wage and good childcare. Others, often called maternalists, believe a parent should have the right to choose full-time parenting for young or particularly needy children. Behind this difference lie two different visions of sex equality–one that emphasizes equal treatment of the sexes and individual rights and responsibilities, another that seeks to make unpaid caring labor, notably for the very young, the old and the ill, as honorable and valued as waged labor.

Kessler-Harris would resolve this contradiction through a labor-centered view of citizenship, a notion of economic citizenship based on equity, or fairness, in the valuation of socially worthy labor. Previously, the policy proposal closest to this principle of equity was “comparable worth.” Second-wave feminists saw that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had failed to equalize male and female wages. Because the labor force is so segregated, and female jobs are so consistently undervalued, equal pay alone cannot produce justice to women (or men of color). The comparable-worth strategy called for equal wages for work of comparable expertise and value, even when the jobs differed. For example, consider the wage gap between truck drivers and childcare workers. Truck drivers earned much more even than registered nurses, whose training and responsibility was so much greater. The women’s movement’s challenge to inequality in jobs took off in 1979, when Eleanor Holmes Norton, then head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, called for evaluations of job skills to remedy women’s low wages. But her successor, Clarence Thomas, refused to consider comparable-worth claims. Although some substantial victories were achieved in state and union battles–for example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) won wage increases averaging 32 percent and back pay retroactive to 1979 for Washington State employees, 35,000 of whom shared a $482 million settlement–the comparable-worth campaigns faded in the 1980s.

But even had the comparable-worth strategy been adopted, it could not have recognized the hours spent in caring for children, parents, disabled relatives and friends, not to mention the work of volunteering in underfunded schools, cooking for homeless shelters, running kids’ basketball teams. Kessler-Harris is arguing for a citizenship that respects unpaid as well as paid labor.

She has worked out the arguments in this book systematically over many years. Several years ago, an article of hers with the deceptively simple title “Where Are All the Organized Women Workers?” enlarged the understanding of gendered “interests” from an exclusive focus on women to take in men as well. She demonstrated that so long as men dominate, aspirations understood and characterized as class interests often express gender interests equally strongly. She uncovered how unions often operated as men’s clubs, built around forms of male bonding that excluded women, primarily unconsciously but often consciously, too. In this new book she extends her analysis of men’s gendered interests to reveal how labor unionists’ inability to stop defending the privileges of masculinity have held back labor’s achievements. One vivid example was unions’ opposition to state-funded welfare programs and health-and-safety regulation, stemming from anxiety that they would deprive workers of their manly independence. Of course, unionist resistance to state control over workplace and work-centered programs also derived from a defense of workers’ control. But this vision of workplace democracy was inextricably masculinist, and workingmen’s understanding of their dignity rested on distinguishing themselves from women.

In A Woman’s Wage, Kessler-Harris showed that both Marxist and neoclassical economics were mistaken in their joint assumption that the wage was somehow a consistent, transparent token of the capital/labor relation. By contrast, wage rates, wage systems, indeed the whole labor market were constructed by gender interests and ideology as well as by supply and demand or surplus value or the actual cost of subsistence. A wonderful example from her new book: The Hawthorne experiments of the late 1920s have been interpreted to show that women workers were more tractable than men. In one study, a group of women workers adapted more cooperatively and quickly to a speedup than did a group of male workers. In seeking to explain this behavior, investigators examined the women’s home lives and even their menstrual cycles, while paying no particular attention to the fact that the collective rather than individual wage structure imposed on them was such that higher productivity could only increase their total wages, while the men’s piece-rate wage structure offered no such guarantee–in fact, the men had reason to expect that the piece rate would be lowered if they speeded up. We see here not a “natural” gendered difference arising informally from culture and socialization, but female and male workers responding rationally to a gendered system imposed by employers.

In Pursuit of Equity argues that no one can enjoy civil and political rights without social and economic citizenship. Marshall’s alleged gradual expansion of civil and political rights not only excluded many others but actually strengthened women’s exclusion from citizenship. One fundamental premise of democratic capitalism–free labor–was never fully extended to all women, whose labor was often coercively regulated, not only by husbands but by the state. Kessler-Harris shows how free labor developed in tandem with the “family wage” ideal, that is, that husbands/fathers should earn for the entire family and that women’s destiny was domestic unpaid labor. The correlate was that men “naturally” sought economic and social independence while women “naturally” sought dependence. Ironically, most feminists of the nineteenth century went along with this dichotomy and tried to root women’s citizenship in their essential family services rather than in the free-labor definition of independence. That is, they argued for rights on the basis of women’s spiritual and material work in unpaid caretaking labor.

The book demonstrates particularly effectively how the dominant modern gender system–the family-wage norm–made it difficult for women to become full citizens. In one closely documented section, Kessler-Harris exposes the condescending and defensive assumptions of those who drafted the Old Age Insurance program (which later became Social Security). The drafters agreed, for example, that the widow of a covered man with young children should be able to receive three-quarters of his pension until she remarried or the children reached 18. A widow without children lacked any rights to her husband’s pension. But if this pension was her husband’s by right, as the designers insisted, then why were his heirs not entitled to all of it as with all other parts of his property? If the widow remarried, she would not have to give up the bank account or house or car he had left her–why should she give up a Social Security pension? One Social Security drafter argued that retaining such an annuity after remarriage would make widows “a prize for the fellow that has looked for it,” assuming that women are entirely passive in marriage decisions! The drafters were all convinced that “once a woman was no longer dependent on the earnings of a particular male (dead or alive)…his support for her should cease.” In other words, his status as breadwinner should continue even after his death. The drafters rejected the idea of granting all widows of covered men an equal stipend or one based on the number of children. It was important for her benefits to be calibrated to his earnings so as to feed “the illusion that families deprived of a father or husband would nevertheless conceive him…as a continuing provider.” “Why should you pay the widow less than the individual himself gets if unmarried?” Because “she can look after herself better than he can.” Imagining women as less capable of handling money than men, the designers removed the option of a lump-sum benefit to widows, requiring them, unlike men, to receive monthly stipends. To avoid “deathbed marriages,” they allowed a widow to collect only if she had been married and living with her husband for at least a year before he died.

The concern with male status was reflected particularly comically in discussions about the age at which a wife could start to receive her share of her husband’s benefits. Some argued for an earlier “retirement” age for women because if both men and women were eligible at 65, this would mean that men with younger wives–a common phenomenon–might not get their full pension for a number of years after they retired. But others argued that since men who married much younger women were more likely to be those who had married more than once, granting women an earlier retirement date might reward these men over single-marriage retirees.

Several decades ago economist Heidi Hartmann pointed out that patriarchy was as much a system of power and hierarchy among men as a male-female relation, and Kessler-Harris confirms that insight. For example, the entire debate about whether married couples should be able to report separate incomes for IRS purposes concerned the inequalities this would create between men with employed wives and men with nonemployed wives. Fairness to women was not a prominent concern. The fact that employed women’s old-age insurance benefits were restricted according to their marital status while men’s weren’t “did not seem like sex discrimination [to the Social Security designers] but rather like equity to men.”

At the core of In Pursuit of Equity is the understanding that what is “fair” is historically changing. The problem we face today is not that men deliberately built policies to subordinate women but that when our basic economic policies were established, men and women alike tended to see male breadwinning and female domesticity as “fair.” That standard is far, far from reality today. One result is a double standard in which supposedly ideal family life, requiring a full-time mother, is a privilege of wives of high-earning husbands.

In the United States, the resultant damage is worse than in Europe, because here many fundamental aspects of citizenship flow from the labor market. “Independence” today is generally defined as earning one’s living through wages, despite the fact that the resulting dependence on employers leaves workers as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than dependence on government stipends. Social rights vital for survival, such as medical insurance, retirement pensions and workers’ compensation, typically derive from employment in this country, in contrast to most developed countries, which provide such help as a matter of right to all citizens or residents. This is one way in which American wage workers, as Kessler-Harris says, were “in a different relationship to the constitution than those who did care-giving work.” As a result the development of democratic capitalism, even the growth of working-class power in some ways failed to strengthen women’s economic citizenship, even weakened it. Indeed, she shows how victories against sex discrimination in the labor force in the 1960s inadvertently confirmed the assumption that all women could and should work for wages, thereby contributing to the repeal of welfare without creating the conditions that would make it possible for poor women to support themselves through employment.

This gendered citizenship became more visible and more obnoxious to women as wage-earning became the female norm and as “alternative families” gained political clout. For example, if every individual was entitled to an old-age pension and unemployment compensation, we wouldn’t have to struggle about the inheritance rights of gay partners or stay-at-home parents’ need for support. Even today, banning sex discrimination is difficult because it is difficult to get agreement on what constitutes discrimination. In a few cases division among feminists has held back the struggle. Kessler-Harris ends the book with a brief reprise of EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., a 1980s marker of this division and a case in which she herself played a significant role. Sears admitted that very few women held any of its well-paying commission sales jobs but argued that women were not interested in these jobs because the positions were competitive, pressured, demanding. Another historian of women testified for Sears against the women plaintiffs, using her expertise to argue that women’s primary attachment to unpaid domestic labor led them to want only jobs which did not conflict with it. Her arguments illustrated vividly the continuing influence of this emphasis on male/female difference, not necessarily as “natural” or essential but nevertheless beyond the appropriate scope of legal remedy. Sears won the case.

There is one pervasive absence in Kessler-Harris’s book–race–and the omission weakens the argument substantially. Her understanding of how the family-wage ideal works would have to be substantially complicated if she made African-American women more central, for they were rarely able to adopt a male breadwinner/female housewife family model and often rejected it, developing a culture that expects and honors women’s employment more than white culture. Mexican-American women’s experience did not fit the family-wage model either, despite their reputation as traditional, because so many have participated in agricultural and domestic wage labor throughout their lives in the United States. Equally problematic to the argument, prosperous white women who accepted the family-wage model often didn’t do unpaid domestic labor because they hired poor immigrants and women of color to do it for low wages. These different histories must affect how we envisage a policy that recognizes labor outside the wage system, and they need to be explored.

One aspect of Kessler-Harris’s economic citizenship concept is being expressed today by progressive feminists trying to influence the reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program for poor children and their parents that succeeded AFDC. We are pushing a House bill that would recognize college education and childcare as work under the new welfare work requirements. This book is a sustained argument for that kind of approach and should help it become part of the policy discussion. It probably won’t win. Some will call it unrealistic. But today’s policies are already wildly unrealistic, if realism has anything to do with actual life. If we don’t begin now to outline the programs that could actually create full citizenship for women, we will never get there.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy