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A Feminism for the Working Class

In 1999, Barbara Ehrenreich charged the feminist movement with advancing only “educated, middle-class women.” Her critique is more pertinent than ever.

Women in Zagreb, Croatia perform at an International Women's Day rally on March 8, 2020, organized by the World March of Women. ,(Photo by Denis LOVROVIC / AFP via Getty Images)

UN Women, the United Nations group for women’s empowerment, tweeted an infographic in February showing that only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. “Retweet if you really really really… want more women CEOs,” it read.

Some Twitter users were fast to ironically agree they “really really really” wanted “more female corporate oppressors.” Others called to “eat the rich” or get rid of CEOs entirely.

The exchange highlights a longtime point of contention within the feminist movement. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in a 1999 In These Times article, “Doing It for Ourselves”: 

For all the ardent egalitarianism of the early movement, feminism had the unforeseen consequence of heightening the class differences between women.
… It was educated, middle-class women who most successfully used feminist ideology and solidarity to advance themselves professionally. Feminism has played a role in working-class women’s struggle, too—for example, in the union organizing drives of university clerical workers—but probably its greatest single economic effect was to open up the formerly male-dominated professions to women. Between the ’70s and the ’90s, the percentage of female students in business, medical and law schools shot up from less than 10% to more than 40%.

There have been, however, no comparable gains for young women who cannot afford higher degrees, and most of these women remain in the same low-paid occupations that have been “women’s work” for decades. … While middle-class women gained MBAs, working-class women won the right not to be called “honey”—and not a whole lot more than that.

The class concerns that Ehrenreich observes in 1999 would be, by 2013, overlooked by trendy “lean-in feminism,” taken from the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling, pseudo-feminist manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

The Sandbergs and Hillary Clintons of the world continue to peddle this brand of neoliberal feminism, which goes something like this: Become a #girlboss, lean into the corporate world and bask in the empowerment that trickles down. Don’t worry about oppressive patriarchal structures, the thinking goes, so long as individual women “trailblazers” start taking over corner offices. 

This kind of thinking is what allowed Clinton to support the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which stigmatized Black single mothers and dismantled social provisions for all low-income single mothers, while claiming to break glass ceilings—simply by being a woman in politics. 

Ehrenreich writes, “As for that other classic feminist slogan—‘every mother is a working mother’—no one seems to remember it anymore.” 

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The United States has certainly experienced some progress that all feminists can applaud: the first female presidential candidate on a major party ticket, the landmark Women’s March, the #MeToo movement. 

Meanwhile, the country is experiencing the highest levels of inequality since the Great Depression. While more women are doctors, lawyers and CEOs, women also hold two-thirds of the country’s student debt. And women still dominate the low-paid occupations that Ehrenreich noted decades ago. 

Ehrenreich explains that “sexual harassment and male violence against women … may be the last concerns that potentially unite all women,” but “there is a danger in letting these issues virtually define feminism”—especially when “poor and working-class women (and men) face forms of harassment and violence on the job that are not sexual or even clearly gender-related.” An emancipatory feminist agenda, Ehrenreich notes, should aim “to support working-class women’s workplace struggles, to advocate for expanded social services (like childcare and healthcare) for all women, to push for greater education access for low-income women and so on and so forth.” 

While the national agenda in the United States is finally talking about big ideas that could especially help poor and working-class women—like universal childcare, Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a housing guarantee and the Green New Deal (thanks, in part, to politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)—the question lingers: Can we transcend corporate feminism to achieve liberation for all women? 

Criticism of corporate feminism is spreading, and not just on Twitter. Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser published their Feminism for the 99% manifesto in 2017, drawing on traditions of Marxist, Black and decolonial feminisms. It reads, in part: 

Our answer to lean-in feminism is kick-back feminism. We have no interest in breaking the glass ceiling while leaving the vast majority to clean up the shards. … Unaffordable housing, poverty wages, inadequate healthcare, border policing, climate change—these are not what you ordinarily hear feminists talking about. But aren’t they the biggest issues for the vast majority of women around the globe?

Building on the momentum of the Women’s March, the authors joined with thinkers and organizers Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Martín Alcoff and Rasmea Yousef Odeh to create an annual International Women’s Strike on March 8, the same day that marks International Women’s Day—a holiday originally founded in 1911 by socialist women inspired by the 1908 New York garment workers’ strike. The idea behind the International Women’s Strike is to bring together “an anti-capitalist network of women in more than 50 countries … building a working-class feminism.”

Over 20 years ago, Ehrenreich was already in agreement:

We should recall that the original radical—and, yes, utopian—feminist vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. … There can be no such thing as “equality among the classes.” The abolition of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition of class.

[Indigo Olivier is an editorial intern at In These Times.]

Reprinted with permission from In These Times. All rights reserved.

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