In These Times

Doing it for Ourselves: Can feminism survive class polarization?
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Here's a scene from feminist ancient history: It's 1972 and about 20 of us
are gathered in somebody's living room for our weekly "women's support
group" meeting. We're all associated, in one way or another, with a small
public college catering mostly to "nontraditional" students, meaning those
who are older, poorer and more likely to be black or Latina than typical
college students in this suburban area. Almost every level of the college
hierarchy is represented--students of all ages, clerical workers, junior
faculty members and even one or two full professors. There are acknowledged
differences among us--race and sexual preference, for example--which we
examine eagerly and a little anxiously. But we are comfortable together, and
excited to have a chance to discuss everything from the administration's
sexist policies to our personal struggles with husbands and lovers. Whatever
may divide us, we are all women, and we understand this to be one of the
great defining qualities of our lives and politics.

Could a group so diverse happily convene today? Please let me know if you
can offer a present day parallel, but I tend to suspect the answer is "very
seldom" or "not at all." Perhaps the biggest social and economic trend of
the past three decades has been class polarization--the expanding inequality
in income and wealth. As United for a Fair Economy's excellent book,
_Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap_, points
out, the most glaring polarization has occurred between those at the very
top of the income distribution--the upper 1 to 5 percent--and those who
occupy the bottom 30 to 40 percent. Less striking, but more ominous for the
future of feminism, is the growing gap between those in the top 40 percent
and those in the bottom 40. One chart in Shifting Fortunes shows that the
net worth of households in the bottom 40 percent declined by nearly 80
percent between 1983 and 1995. Except for the top 1 percent, the top 40
percent lost ground too--but much less. Today's college teacher, if she is
not an adjunct, occupies that relatively lucky top 40 group, while today's
clerical worker is in the rapidly sinking bottom 40. Could they still gather
comfortably in each other's living rooms to discuss common issues? Do they
still have common issues to discuss?

Numbers hardly begin to tell the story. The '80s brought sharp changes in
lifestyle and consumption habits between the lower 40 percent--which is
roughly what we call the "working class"--and the upper 20 to 30, which is
populated by professors, administrators, executives, doctors, lawyers and
other "professionals." "Mass markets" became "segmented markets," with
different consumer trends signaling differences in status. In 1972, a junior
faculty member's living room looked much like that of a departmental
secretary--only, in most cases, messier. Today, the secretary is likely to
accessorize her home at Kmart; the professor at Pottery Barn. Three decades
ago, we all enjoyed sugary, refined-flour treats at our meetings (not to
mention Maxwell House coffee and cigarettes!) Today, the upper-middle class
grinds its own beans, insists on whole grain, organic snacks, and vehemently
eschews hot dogs and meatloaf. In the '70s, conspicuous, or even just overly
enthusiastic, consumption was considered gauche--and not only by leftists
and feminists. Today, professors, including quite liberal ones, are likely
to have made a deep emotional investment in their houses, their furniture
and their pewter ware. It shows how tasteful they are, meaning--when we cut
through the garbage about aesthetics--how distinct they are from the "lower"

In the case of women, there is an additional factor compounding the division
wrought by class polarization: In the '60s, only about 30 percent of
American women worked outside their homes; today, the proportion is
reversed, with more than 70 percent of women in the work force. This
represents a great advance, since women who earn their own way are of course
more able to avoid male domination in their personal lives. But women's
influx into the work force also means that fewer and fewer women share the
common occupational experience once defined by the word "housewife." I don't
want to exaggerate this commonality as it existed in the '60s and '70s;
obviously the stay-at-home wife of an executive led a very different life
from that of the stay-at-home wife of a blue-collar man. But they did
perform similar daily tasks--housecleaning, childcare, shopping, cooking.
Today, in contrast, the majority of women fan out every morning to face
vastly different work experiences, from manual labor to positions of power.
Like men, women are now spread throughout the occupational hierarchy (though
not at the very top), where they encounter each other daily as
unequals--bosses vs. clerical workers, givers of orders vs. those who are
ordered around, etc.

Class was always an issue. Even before polarization set in, some of us lived
on the statistical hilltops, others deep in the valleys. But today we are
distributed on what looks less like a mountain range and more like a
cliff-face. Gender, race and sexual preference still define compelling
commonalties, but the sense of a shared condition necessarily weakens as we
separate into frequent-flying female executives on the one hand and airport
cleaning women on the other. Can feminism or, for that matter, any
cross-class social movement, survive as class polarization spreads Americans
further and further apart?

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 struggles 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 percent to more than 40 percent.

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. All in all, feminism
has had little impact on the status or pay of traditional female occupations
like clerical, retail, health care and light assembly line work. 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.

Secondly, since people tend to marry within their own class, the gains made
by women in the professions added to the growing economic gap between the
working class and the professional-managerial class. Working-class families
gained too, as wives went to work. But, as I argued in _Fear of Falling: The
Inner Life of the Middle Class_, the most striking gains have accrued to
couples consisting of two well-paid professionals or managers. The
doctor/lawyer household zoomed well ahead of the truck driver/typist

So how well has feminism managed to maintain its stance as the ground shifts
beneath its feet? Here are some brief observations of the impact of class
polarization on a few issues once central to the feminist project:

Welfare. This has to be the most tragic case. In the '70s, feminists hewed
to the slogan, "Every woman is just one man away from welfare." This was an
exaggeration of course; even then, there were plenty of self-supporting and
independently wealthy women. But it was true enough to resonate with the
large numbers of women who worked outside their homes part time or not at
all. We recognized our commonality as homemakers and mothers and we
considered this kind of work to be important enough to be paid for--even
when there was no husband on the scene. Welfare, in other words, was
potentially every woman's concern.

Flash forward to 1996, when Clinton signed the odious Republican welfare
reform bill, and you find only the weakest and most tokenistic protests from
groups bearing the label "feminist." The core problem, as those of us who
were pro-welfare advocates found, was that many middle- and upper-middle
class women could no longer see why a woman should be subsidized to raise
her children. "Well, I work and raise my kids--why shouldn't they?" was a
common response, as if poor women could command wages that would enable them
to purchase reliable childcare. As for that other classic feminist
slogan--"every mother is a working mother"--no one seems to remember it

Health care. Our bodies, after all, are what we have most in common as
women, and the women"s health movement of the '70s and early '80s probably
brought together as diverse a constituency--at least in terms of class--as
any other component of feminism. We worked to legalize abortion and to stop
the involuntary sterilization of poor women of color, to challenge the
sexism of medical care faced by all women consumers and to expand low-income
women's access to care.

In many ways, we were successful: Abortion is legal, if not always
accessible; the kinds of health information once available only in
underground publications like the original Our Bodies, Ourselves can now be
found in Mademoiselle; the medical profession is no longer an all-male
bastion of patriarchy. We were not so successful, however, in increasing
low-income women's access to health care--in fact, the number of the
uninsured is far larger than it used to be, and poor women still get
second-class health care when they get any at all. Yet the only women's
health issue that seems to generate any kind of broad, cross-class
participation today is breast cancer, at least if wearing a pink ribbon
counts as "participation."

Even the nature of medical care is increasingly different for women of
different classes. While lower-income women worry about paying for abortions
or their children's care, many in the upper-middle class are far more
concerned with such medical luxuries as high-tech infertility treatments and
cosmetic surgery. Young college women get bulimia; less affluent young women
are more likely to suffer from toxemia of pregnancy, which is basically a
consequence of malnutrition.

Housework. In the '70s, housework was a hot feminist issue and a major theme
of consciousness-raising groups. After all, whatever else women did, we did
housework; it was the nearly universal female occupation. We debated Pat
Mainardi's famous essay on "The Politics of Housework," which focused on the
private struggles to get men to pick up their own socks. We argued bitterly
about the "wages for housework" movement's proposal that women working at
home should be paid by the state. We studied the Cuban legal code, with its
intriguing provision that males do their share or face jail time.

Thirty years later, the feminist silence on the issue of housework is nearly
absolute. Not, I think, because men are at last doing their share, but
because so many women of the upper-middle class now pay other women to do
their housework for them. Bring up the subject among affluent feminists
today, and you get a guilty silence, followed by defensive patter about how
well they pay and treat their cleaning women.

In fact, the $15 an hour commonly earned by freelance maids is not so
generous at all, when you consider that it has to cover cleaning equipment,
transportation to various cleaning sites throughout the day, as well as any
benefits, like health insurance, the cleaning person might choose to
purchase for herself. The fast-growing corporate cleaning services like
Merry Maids and The Maids International are far worse, offering (at least in
the northeastern urban area I looked into) their workers between $5 (yes,
that's below the minimum wage) and $7 an hour.

In a particularly bitter irony, many of the women employed by the corporate
cleaning services are former welfare recipients bumped off the rolls by the
welfare reform bill so feebly resisted by organized feminists. One could
conclude, if one was in a very bad mood, that it is not in the interests of
affluent feminists to see the wages of working class women improve. As for
the prospects of "sisterhood" between affluent women and the women who scrub
their toilets--forget about it, even at a "generous" $15 an hour.

The issues that have most successfully weathered class polarization are
sexual harassment and male violence against women. These may be the last
concerns that potentially unite all women; and they are of course crucial.
But there is a danger in letting these issues virtually define feminism, as
seems to be the case in some campus women's centers today: 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. Being reamed out
repeatedly by an obnoxious supervisor of either sex can lead to depression
and stress-related disorders. Being forced to work long hours of overtime,
or under ergonomically or chemically hazardous conditions, can make a person
physically sick. Yet feminism has yet to recognize such routine workplaces
experiences as forms of "violence against women."

When posing the question--"can feminism survive class polarization?"--to
middle-class feminist acquaintances, I sometimes get the response: "Well,
you're right--we have to confront our classism." But the problem is not
classism, the problem is class itself: the existence of grave inequalities
among women, as well as between women and men.

We should recall that the original radical--and, yes, utopian--feminist
vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. This of course
means equality among the races and the genders, but class is different:
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. For a start, let's put that outrageous aim back into the long-range
feminist agenda and mention it as loudly and often as we can.

In the shorter term, there's plenty to do, and the burden necessarily falls
on the more privileged among us: to support working-class women's workplace
struggles, to advocate for expanded social services (like childcare and
health care) for all women, to push for greater educational access for
low-income women and so on and so forth. I'm not telling you anything new
here, sisters--you know what to do.

But there's something else, too, in the spirit of another ancient slogan
that is usually either forgotten or misinterpreted today: "The personal is
the political." Those of us who are fortunate enough to have assets and
income beyond our immediate needs need to take a hard look at how we're
spending our money. New furniture--and, please, I don't want to hear about
how tastefully funky or antique-y it is--or a donation to a homeless
shelter? A chic outfit or a check written to an organization fighting
sweatshop conditions in the garment industry? A maid or a contribution to a
clinic serving low-income women?

I know it sounds scary, but it will be a lot less so if we can make sharing
stylish again and excess consumption look as ugly as it actually is. Better
yet, give some of your time and your energy too. But if all you can do is
write a check, that's fine: Since Congress will never redistribute the
wealth (downward, anyway), we may just have to do it ourselves.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a contributing editor of In These Times.