Spring 2012 Feature: Working Women & Feminism

31 Jan

Hello readers! This semester, I’m introducing a new feature that I’ll be writing bi-weekly highlighting women and organizations who promote labor feminism and work to better the status of working-class women.

I know what you’re thinking, “But femistorian, don’t we live in America, where classes don’t exist?” How I wish that were true. We live in a society still deeply divided along class lines, despite what we like to tell ourselves. Even within the feminist movement the class divide rears its ugly head now and then.

So why do I care? Because I’m a working-class feminist. I grew up in a working-class family, my mother is a nurse at a non-profit hospital and my dad is a carpenter. My paternal grandmother raised NINE children on her own working as a paralegal. I pay my way through school (yes, even my rent, even my tuition, even my food), so the rights of the working-class are extremely important to me.

Aside from my own personal reasons, I also find the history of the women’s labor movement fascinating, and hope to study it in graduate school. When history teachers go over the feminist movement, they often gloss over the divisions within it. And many people believe that real division didn’t come about until the third wave. But as I’ve learned, a great deal of division has existed within the feminist movement since it’s inception. The talking heads of the movement were middle and upper class women who went into factories and union meetings and told working class women what they should believe and what they should strive for. Working class women were (and still are) often looked down on for their interest in dime/romance novels and fashion. Many activists just assumed that because they weren’t “educated” enough, working class women were unable to make decisions for themselves or be serious political actors. There were also great divides between labor and equality feminists over the Equal Rights Amendment. Many labor feminists petitioned against it because they felt that the removal of all “sex specific” legislation would greatly harm women who worked in blue-collar jobs, not to mention those in pink- and white-collar jobs by stripping them of the hard earned laws that protected their wages and hours. Labor feminists felt that the main supporters of the ERA-the National Women’s Party-were only supporting the bill to promote the capitalist institutions that they knew next to nothing about, because they had never been mistreated by them. Women like Myra Wolfgang and Addie Wyatt vehemently fought the ERA with the support of many unions.

The issue of class is problem commonly seen in Leftist movements. But I believe it is crucial for women’s historians and feminists to study the mistakes of past feminist movements, so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and reform the feminist movement so that it works for all women and allows room for all of us to speak, not just those of us who were lucky enough to attend college.

I hope you’ll all enjoy this feature once it gets started, and I welcome any and all suggestions of women or organizations to cover!

5 Responses to “Spring 2012 Feature: Working Women & Feminism”

  1. eszenyme 01/31/2012 at 1:04 pm #

    Hi Femistorian:

    I will definitely be looking forward to these posts. I think there are things that anyone can relate to when talking about working women, the working class, and feminism. I think you’re right, our location will dictate how we see an issue within any movement. So even if we aren’t within/weren’t brought up in the working class, there is still much to learn and think about. I am also excited to see how you relate these posts to specific policies that were/n’t passed. I think you’re also right that discussing divisions within the movement is crucial. One example I have always found intriguing is why the African American movement and the women’s movement stopped collaborating. In hindsight, it seems to have really halted momentum for both groups for a time. In general, though, a great way to improve our understanding of where feminism is going is to look at where it’s been and its successes and failures.

    • femistorian 01/31/2012 at 1:15 pm #

      Thanks eszenyme! I’m definitely looking forward to writing these posts, I think it will give everyone a new view of the feminist movement. Interestingly, during my independent study discussion today, I started exploring the idea of racial divide within the women’s movement. One thing I’ve found in my research is that the labor movement actually gave all women a common ground to work from, and many union women were very supportive of civil rights. I think class divide is a big reason why the feminist movement became so divided along racial lines. Middle class white women couldn’t possibly understand the struggles of working women of color, and that became apparent particularly in the 70s.

  2. femonfire 02/01/2012 at 6:24 pm #

    I’m really glad to see this being discussed! Although feminism inherently has core principles, there are a lot of different things each feminist brings to the discussion, and the various life experiences and social/cultural boxes we are put into certainly play into the way we view feminism as individuals. I’m excited to see what you discuss in this series.

    • femistorian 02/01/2012 at 9:55 pm #

      Thanks femonfire! I’m really excited to be covering this issue, I think it’s so vital to the current women’s movement. I also really hope it will broaden some people’s perspectives on what is and is not a women’s issue.

  3. Carol 02/05/2012 at 7:27 pm #

    I work for a company in NY that is dominated by men. I just read this story and feel inspired. Do you think Diane Garnick can make the difference we all need?

    http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-01-20/diane-garnick-seeks-lift-for-wall-street-women-with-new-firm.html

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