Remember Working-Class Feminism!

tags: feminism, womens history

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.

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. ...

Read entire article at Democracy Journal

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