Women's Economic Rights Have Suffered Most- Why Women Need to Reclaim the Revolution Now
In all the years we've struggled just to uphold Roe v. Wade and prevent the erosion of the rights to our own bodies, we have lost more and more ground in the area of work and economic well-being.
Conservative members of government have really had us over a barrel by constantly raising the threat of restricting access to abortion, contraceptives, and affordable health care. It's critical that women have control of our bodies, our medical decisions, and our decisions about how many children we want to welcome into our lives and accept as our responsibility. Without that control, the men who would keep us down know very well that that we are less free to live our lives and to fight for our rights in other areas.
It's time we recognize the ploy for what it is. They see what an uproar they produce in us whenever they raise the specter of rolling back rights we've worked so hard to win. It is so effective a tool of manipulation that the women's movement as a whole has all but forgotten our goals and larger struggle. Republicans threaten to tear up our reproductive rights. Democrats promise to keep our reproductive rights safe. As long as they both keep us on the ropes between them, neither capitalist party has to worry that women will organize and fight to claim the rest of our rights.
Many women know that we deserve more. We know that it is harder and harder to reach a decent standard of living no matter how hard we work. Women haven’t been asleep; we’ve been assailed. We have been assailed by poverty. We’ve been assailed by poverty so widespread the economists won’t even dare to measure it. According to the official measure, women living in poverty climbed to 14 and a half percent last year, the highest rate in 17 years.
And if you look around, maybe even if you look in your own window, you might say that still sounds low to you and you would be right. The official poverty measure has never been accurate. It was based, in the 1970's, on the lowest possible cost of food that added up to the minimum calories needed for survival and was multiplied by 3. This has nothing to do with real costs of food, let alone real costs of housing, utilities and transportation to work. As the economist, Fred Goldstein puts it, "The government has deliberately held the definition (of poverty) to such a low income that the proportion of people officially living in poverty always remains within a range of approximately 11 percent to 13 percent, regardless of economic reality." Even so, current government acknowledged poverty levels are now breaking the boundaries they were designed to always fall within.
The same measure includes another measure based on that’s called the “extreme poverty” rate. That’s when you live on half the income that counts as “poverty.” Today, at least 7 and a half million women are living on that, living below subsistence. “Living below subsistence,” isn’t that another way of saying “starving to death?”
We’ve been assailed by homelessness and the threat of it. No matter how hard we work, at any moment, we could be turned out of our homes—whether you “own” your home with a mortgage or whether you rent from a landlord, the slightest breeze could blow you out of your home and then not even a mighty wind can return you inside. In just the first three months of the foreclosure crisis of 2008, over a million families were forced to leave their homes. Women were disproportionately exploited and discriminated against in the process. In order to obtain a mortgage and pay the best interest rate, lenders require proof of an ability and willingness to pay debts. In a desperate effort to escape landlords and high rent payments that disappear every month, never to return, women will scrimp and sacrifice to achieve a credit rating considered worthy for a mortgage loan. Even though women’s credit ratings are, on average, higher than men’s, still one third of women who obtained a mortgage were made to accept it on terms of high interest even though they qualified for the lowest rate.
And still we are the refuge of our own aging mothers and fathers, our unemployed mates, and our children—the young and the young adults. An undocumented worker and his baby won’t be separated because a woman has taken them in. A black, gay living assistant I know lost his job and he will not have to sleep outside or in the dehumanizing shelter because a woman* I know has taken him in. We are struggling against the economic disaster that is this falling down house called capitalism. We’re doing our best to make room for those who are fleeing its inhospitable cells.
Women are the unacknowledged welfare safety net of the working class, even when our own situations are untenable.
We share whatever we have in solidarity. Somehow we know that we are preserving our own dignity along with the dignity others abused by capitalism.
Women have long struggled simply to be allowed to earn a paycheck. We struggled for an end to discrimination and limitations on women that kept us doing only unpaid work. We struggled against men whether they were the owners of mills and factories or the rulers of our households—we struggled against any men who felt it was their prerogative to make the rules for us.
So we got into the workplaces. But, were our troubles over then? The demand for women’s political rights—legal rights, to the vote, to reproductive rights--these pierced deeply into the institutions that defined us and confined. But no legal status change can make the broad changes women need to see without the movement to work against the powers that rely so intensely on exploitation for their existence.
It was quickly discovered that women wage earners aren’t taken seriously when we stand up for our equal rights, our economic rights, or our rights to dignity in the workplace. The most fortunate among us have found their way into a union and the most fortunate of all have found their way into a union where women are among its leaders. Most of us are more likely to work in situations where union organizing is structurally difficult either because we’re isolated in a small business with just a few people all doing different work, or we're contract workers, or salon seat renters, office assistants, retail clerks, customer service, health care workers –all jobs without a living wage. When making attempts to shine in order to get a raise, instead of praise, we hear, “We’re not paying you to think.” The news of no raises again for the 8th year in a row is accompanied by, “at least you have jobs,” as if this should soften the blow.
Women, just by entering the workforce, gained a little bit of personal freedom, but by and large did little to increase our political power as workers or as women.
Capitalism has found ways to its advantage to absorb women into the workforce. Women's isolation from organized labor unions has left us with unequal bargaining power and thus lower wages.
Capitalism keeps workers of all kinds on the ropes. For many years we’ve been feeling the attrition of jobs overall. Increased technology permanently decreases workers. Workers who have given up looking for jobs and are part of informal economies (living with relatives, bartering, odd jobs or even illegal work) are taken out of official statistical measures. Without a sense of the long term unemployed, it’s difficult to assess the real unemployment rate, but it is growing and it will continue to grow.
We are not in a recovery. We are in a prolonged, contracting economy that will not see genuine job growth and will not rebound to previous levels.
Today, jobs are going away because there are fewer things capitalists can do to make a profit. Demand is waning. High tech jobs are expensive to create, they require expensive equipment, and fewer hands to work them. Housing stocks were built in massive supplies during the boom and now sit empty across the country. Construction work is down and few can afford to buy houses, even at slightly depressed prices. Manufacturing is nearly extinct having been almost entirely shipped to even lower waged women workers overseas.
A women's movement that doesn't challenge capitalism will never win economic rights for women
The total wealth we, as a society, are creating is growing, but jobs are not. Jobs are more productive. Fewer workers are doing them and the owners and stockholders are reaping the profits. It's not an illusion that we are working harder. Many people are taking two and three jobs to get by, and we are getting less for our efforts.
We need to go further than defending our rights. What we need is real decision making power over the economy, the kind of decision making power that the capitalist system and the governmental structure that the capitalists own doesn't allow.
We need a society in which everyone has enough. As a society, we have the resources to fulfill this need.
The sum total wealth produced annually by U.S. workers, if divided equally, would amount to over $50,000 per person.
What could we do if we could decide?
· If excess housing stock were paid for at cost, we could grant housing rights to everyone. People who build and repair houses could be paid for their work and for the cost of materials. Under capitalism, housing is used as a tool of exploitation that enriches landlords, banks, and developers. We make money for our bosses at work and turn what little we make over to the landlords and banks. What would your savings be, over a year, if you didn't have to pay a mortgage or rent?
· How many hours do you work to afford a place to live? Would you prefer to spend them growing your own garden? You would have fresh food for having done the work.
· What freedoms would you feel if you had access to health care whenever you needed it?
· Socially organized energy costs that go into renewables would give us years of not needing to pay utilities. And the air would be cleaner.
· Caring for anyone who is dependent is a labor of love, but society could pay caregivers and recognize its economic value to us all. It would recognize the quality of life it is securing for the recipient and we would all know that if something happened to us, we would be cared for.
Capitalist ideology would have us believe that people who are not desperate will not sacrifice and work and then soon, you wouldn't see the productivity you had before. What they are really afraid of is that when people have enough, they can bargain and won't work unless the organization can pay them fair compensation. A worker owned and controlled cooperative would distribute profits fairly and democratically. And why should anyone work jobs at all that are degrading or environmentally harmful, or too physically dangerous? Some work that is carried on now must change how it is done or else thankfully go away.
It is our task as a society, as human beings dependent ultimately on nature, as workers, as social beings, to provide for everyone. We will need to study and practice living within the means of the earth. We will need to live within the means of our communities so that we could end wars and trade manipulations that force the subjugation of workers in other parts of the world to meet our needs. We need to work enough to ensure some surplus to provide for those of us who have suffered unexpected blows or losses.
We can move beyond the assertion of our rights to our bodies and claim the right to our lives in full. We can build a society in which our real needs matter most. We need direct decision-making, not just over laws—so many of which are constructed to keep property and wealth away from us--but over the areas of life where our real concerns, our intelligence, our human development and growth, our chosen relationships, our material needs, and our well-being matters most.