By ANN MONTAGUE
The economic burdens on women are triple—working in undervalued jobs, domestic work, and cutbacks in social services used by women.
In the first place, women’s work continues to be undervalued and underpaid. Women are half the labor force and continue to earn 76 cents on the dollar earned by men.
There remains strong deep-seated and pervasive discrimination that maintains a system of gender segregation. This means women are still marginalized in undervalued jobs because of discrimination in hiring as well as by male co-workers in skilled blue-collar jobs in industry and transportation. And now, many are forced into part-time, temporary, or seasonal work.
U.S. capitalism is increasing attacks on public-sector jobs, where women workers are in the majority—and in most cities they are women of color. Moreover, many jobs in the public sector are unionized. The jobs and benefits in this sector are major targets for austerity—with demands upon the workers that include lay-offs, furloughs, and increased workload.
In addition, women are being assaulted by the ideological attacks that seek to destroy every gain of the Second Wave of Feminism. Women are facing levels of sexism and inequality throughout society that have not been seen since the 1950s—not only attacks on abortion rights but even on the right to contraception. Not only do we see persistent acts of violence against women but the growth of an entire rape culture.
At the same time, the ruling class makes the ideological argument that social services are the responsibility of women within their extended family and not a responsibility of society as a whole. While many women perceive the Republicans as the generals of this war on women, they do not yet understand that the attack has been fostered by politicians from both ruling parties.
A big part of the capitalists’ plan is to cut the growing costs of social services (as meager as they are) and to transfer the economic burden and responsibility for these services back onto the individual or family. In the home, women are expected to pick up what the ruling class wants to dump because it is a drag on their profit margin.
This is a major purpose of the ideological offensive against women’s equality and independence. It reinforces the stereotypic roles of wife, mother, caretaker, and housekeeper. It is now more difficult, of course, to push women who are integrated into the workforce and more economically independent back into the home. But the ruling class has been bombarding women with manipulative propaganda about their individual “responsibility” for child care, elder care, education, and health care.
Naturally, as polls show that 57% of the country supports Marriage Equality for LGBT people, the ruling class must argue: “this is not what we had in mind when we talked of family values!”
When I was a case manager for Senior and Disability Services, my job was to do holistic assessments of Medicaid clients to see if they qualified for In Home Care. I would sit down with a paper and pencil and talk about their personal care needs. If it looked like a home-care worker could come in and assist them (we would keep them out of the nursing home, and the state would save money), I would write up a plan.
Then in about 2002 we got laptops—which captured all the information and decided if they qualified. A couple of years later we were informed that we needed to inquire whether they had anyone (parents, children, church members, etc.) who could help them in their personal care. So this social service was being moved back onto the individual, their family, or acquaintances. As a consequence, the cases of elder abuse greatly increased, while home care workers became increasingly stressed.
This is the direction things are going in all social services. One of the largest and most popular federal programs is that of food stamps. (They changed the name to indicate that it would not cover all the food that people might need; it is now SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) Now food stamp workers have to make sure everyone has the information about food banks or churches where they could go in the third week of the month, when their stamps run out.
You can see this process also in medical care. In my home state of Oregon, even if people have no income or resources—which means they are categorically eligible for Medicaid—their names must go into a lottery, and the state officials only pull so many names a month. It can take years to receive benefits. The alternative is to ask a family member to pay the medical bills.
Due to unequal wages and employment discrimination, women are 30% more likely to be officially poor during our working lives, which means the bipartisan discussions of cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and pensions are devastating. These social benefits are already on the low end for women because of pay disparity and loss of pay for those years out of the workforce to have and raise children, or as caretakers for children, parents, and siblings.
A mass fightback is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, the organized U.S. labor movement has done little to protect the rights of working people, with practically the only shining light being struggles by the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United. One big reason that the unions have been ineffective is the kowtowing of the bureaucratic officialdom to the Democratic Party.
In the late 1980s my union decided to take on the issue of undervalued work and poverty wages in job classifications that were predominately women. They spent two years at the Oregon state legislature—testifying, lobbying, and negotiating with the Democratic governor. In the end, the governor announced that he would veto the pay equity legislation he received because it contained too many job classifications. But he welcomed us to return next session and try again!
At that point the union said, “Nope, don’t think so—see you at the bargaining table.” It was only then that the actual organizing of women workers began. We held statewide public hearings, rallies, worksite actions, and eventually a strike. And we won our upgrades.
This year the union is starting over again with a Living Wage Campaign. However, without the continuity of a rank-and-file women’s movement and a left-wing rank-and-file organization, they will have to start from scratch.
A militant union movement is not possible without half of the working class. To win the war on women we are going to need to end the profit system that depends on our second-class status—and is determined to deny our basic needs.
To accomplish this will require a mass movement of working people that is led by those who understand the historic demands for reproductive freedom, child care, equality, and affirmative action. Women will need to be at the center of the fight, and we need to be at the point of production where profits are made. All working-class organizations must fight for gender equality and relief for women’s triple economic burdens.