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.