Symposium | The Unseen Election

Remember Working-Class Feminism!

By Thomas J. Sugrue

Tagged Donald TrumpFeminismHillary ClintonWomen

When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” said Hillary Clinton when accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency. The elevation of Clinton to the top of the Democratic ticket has symbolic significance to many, for the same reasons that Obama’s nomination in 2008 appeared as the culmination of the civil rights struggle. “Because of Hillary Clinton,” said Michelle Obama, in her own lauded convention address, “my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States.” Over the course of four days in Philadelphia, the Democrats positioned Clinton as the anti-Trump, touting her leadership experience, but also contrasting the boorish developer with Hillary’s experience as wife, as mother, as grandmother.

Hillary is following a venerable path for women politicians—talking of serving as a role model and bringing a “motherly” disposition to the political system. But if she wants to mobilize all women voters, she will need to do more than break the political glass ceiling. She will need to speak more forcefully to the majority of women who are living on the economic brink.

So far this election season, Donald Trump has dominated the discussion of economics, largely by focusing on an important but shrinking segment of the electorate—white men who work (or who used to work) in the manufacturing sector. Rhetorically, it’s a return to the early 1990s. In a reprise of Ross Perot’s 1992 insurgency, he pledges to roll back the North American Free Trade Agreement and halt the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump angrily evokes a long-lost world of high-paying manufacturing jobs (though, like his Republican comrades, he won’t even utter the key missing adjective—unionized). Without minimizing the damaging long-term consequences of deindustrialization, Trump’s red meat misses the point. The American economy has changed dramatically since Ross Perot promised to lift the hood and fix it. It’s not the shuttering of steel mills that’s the problem today, it’s the proliferation of insecure, poorly paid service-sector jobs, most of them held by women.

Today, women are the major breadwinners in four out of ten families, but full-time women workers still only make 79 cents on the male dollar. A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that “[w]omen, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data for both men and women to calculate an earnings ratio.”

The America that Trump pledges to make great again is a largely male world. He speaks to male grievances. He foregrounds those economic changes that have disproportionately fallen on male breadwinners. But Trump can’t simply rely on angry white men to pull him over the top. He needs to make a dent into the persistent electoral gender gap—winning a large enough share of women’s votes, especially among white women, to win in November.

Clinton will undoubtedly win those women who are justifiably outraged at Trump’s misogynistic rhetoric, whether his denunciation of Megyn Kelly or his defense of her former boss Roger Ailes against charges of sexual harassment. But Clinton will need to do more to widen the gender gap. And she might do it by taking lessons from the neglected history of working-class feminism and appealing to the economic interests of women who are still scraping by decades after women’s liberation took to the streets.

For years, uttering the “F” word has been a dangerous political move outside of left-liberal political circles. Since the 1960s, the right has labeled feminists as man-hating, anti-feminine, and anti-family. They are, in Rush Limbaugh’s term, “Feminazis,” ready to castrate any dissenting man in service of their supposedly elitist agenda.

Most feminists aren’t on campuses demanding safe spaces. They’re getting up at 6 a.m. and heading to underpaid, “pink-collar” jobs.

The distorted view of feminism overlooks the forgotten history of working-class struggles for equal pay and against discrimination. As Rutgers University historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has argued in her book, The Other Women’s Movement, mid-twentieth century feminism was not solely or even primarily the creation of elite women. Cobble chronicles an important and largely unknown story of working-class women who advocated a commonsense feminism focused on economic rather than cultural issues. These women were not, for the most part, in the paid labor market because it offered an escape from what Betty Friedan hyperbolically called the “comfortable concentration camp” of the suburban home. They were working because they had to. Most feminists and feminist-sympathetic women in the late 1960s and 1970s were not burning their bras. And most of their successors today aren’t on campuses demanding safe spaces. They are getting up at 6 a.m. and putting on their bras and the rest of their work uniforms before making breakfast, packing their children’s lunchboxes, and then heading to insecure, underpaid, “pink-collar” jobs.

For these women—and their descendants today—feminism really mattered. Against the odds, working-class feminists raised women’s wages and undermined sexist hiring practices and fought for family-friendly workplace policies, even if their victories were incomplete.

Blue-collar and pink-collar women experienced the promise of feminism and its limitations. Today they have real reason to be bitter. In most states, family leave policies are still appalling, day care is expensive, and working women’s wages are stagnant. Women are disproportionately represented in the ranks of part-time and contingent workers.

This is a working world that has been largely invisible during the campaign. The 2016 Democratic platform gestures toward equal pay for equal work and ending wage discrimination, but it says nothing about contingent, insecure, poorly paid women’s work. Clinton supports paid family and medical leave, but why not show up outside a Trump-branded hotel, where a legion of women clean bathrooms and make beds? Or pull the campaign bus into a chain restaurant parking lot and talk about low wages and unpredictable work schedules?

Trump has been silent on the travails of working-class women. If he wants to have a chance, he’ll have to reach out to the working-class women who are the backbone of the service sector, who dominate retail employment, who are the underpaid care workers who take care of the sick and elderly while often returning home to look after their own aging parents or children or both. He won’t get far enough if women’s work remains a fringe issue in his campaign. It’s up to Hillary to beat him to it. It shouldn’t be hard.

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Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His most recent book is These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present, with Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.

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