Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?

Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?

Whatever you think of Sheryl Sandberg, her book Lean In achieved one very important objective: it exposed the deep class divide within American feminism.


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.

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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