Modern Feminism Should Focus More On Traditional Labor Issues

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones

I was raised predominantly by a single mother. During my life she’s done everything from journalism to selling life insurance to being a COO for a statewide organization to being an Executive Vice President at a private college. She’s done everything and she’s worked her way up. She’s educated, self aware, tough, and kind. She’s amazing. She’s always been a proponent of removing obstacles to women achieving success in the workplace and I was raised that way. However, the focus in the media and in academia seems to have become almost solely fixed on the plight of educated women achieving success. I have to ask, and I believe I’m right to, what about the poor women? Where is their workplace?

New York City women shirtwaist workers on strike, having a lunchbreak

Now there are plenty of advocates for fair pay and fair treatment in the workplace. I’d argue that the SEIU is the primary and most energetic advocate. However, unless you’re a labor advocate who’s invested in knowing about ongoing labor issues in the US and the world then you’re unlikely to know much about them. And I don’t believe, no, I know that women working in professional positions after college and women in college don’t live around poor people for the most part unless they grew up poor. And, as we know, most poor people don’t make it to college. Many of them don’t even make it out of high school. So where is their advocacy within mainstream activism?

I think about this a lot but here’s what spurred this article today instead of some other day. The Atlantic published an article yesterday entitled ‘U.S. Women Are Dying Younger Than Their Mothers, and No One Knows Why’. It details a study by the Journal of the American Medicine Association which indicates that women in poor areas of this generation are dying earlier than their mothers did. Their life expectancy is shorter today than their mothers. Nearly 50% of US counties saw in an increase in the female mortality rate between 1992 and 2006. Only 3% of US counties saw an increase in the male mortality rate. So, what is going on here. I have some thoughts on it.

Poor people have no money (obviously) but more importantly they have fewer prospects for getting money than they did just 30 years ago. Traditionally, textile and other factory work was available to poor Americans as a way to move into the Middle Class, generationally. That is no longer the case. America functionally has no textile industry and while manufacturing has increased in the US in recent years it’s still so far from where it was prior to the NAFTA that a comparison simply is not possible. This is why you see so many poor people, poor women working in service jobs which require almost no skills and teach almost no skills.

But where are these women? They’re in rural and semi-rural areas, predominantly, in counties that have overwhelmingly lost entire industries over the last 30 years. They live in forgotten places, in red states, states where modern feminism doesn’t have a presence or, perhaps because of political differences, an interest.

Health Affairs

So when there are no jobs in these areas for women to even attain in the first place much less use to get a leg up in society then where should the focus of women’s advocacy groups lie? I believe it should lie with job and industry creation for communities at large rather than what often seems to be a myopic focus on urban women, mostly college graduates.

Feminism and women’s advocacy was not intended to be an academic enterprise. It was not intended to mostly focus on the predominantly Middle Class or the predominantly urban, and while those demographics are important, I believe that it’s largely political differences that have kept Feminism’s advocacy interests away from rural West Virginia. In today’s climate, it seems, campus feminists would rather advocate for Indonesian women’s rights than the right for a Conservative mother of three with two part time jobs in rural Alabama. For my part and for the purpose of women’s self reliance and stability, I don’t care what you think about Church and State, we can talk about that another time and in another context, I care about your ability to find work and provide for your family and your own well being. I want you to be gaining skills and life experience that will serve you in the future as you progress economically. But that isn’t possible unless there are jobs available to got to, money to make.

Now I foresee two primary objections to the thesis that Feminism should refocus to address labor issues at large.

  • Feminists already advocate for fair wages for women, robustly.

This is true but it’s primarily in urban areas and it doesn’t address the economic situation at large. Inequality is so great and upward mobility so limited that fair wage issues, while important, are essentially negotiating from a position of weakness. Corporations don’t have to do anything because they can always replace you with someone else who’s unemployed. It’s a losing battle, for the most part.

  • Women in rural and semi-rural areas, Conservatives, are not open to Feminist ideas.

Maybe, but I think it’s more accurate to say that they aren’t open to politically Leftist ideas or non-traditional family ideas. But that doesn’t matter. All workers are for having work to do. To me the point is empowering women to live their lives as they want to live them with confidence and self sustainability. Again, I care about the ability of women to raise their standard of living and take care of themselves. I don’t care where you go to church on Sunday or even if you go. It’s totally immaterial.

IWW activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the inspiration for Joe Hill’s song, “The Rebel Girl”

Feminists should be advocating, as unions do and did, for more US based industry, for less outsourcing to China and the Phillipines. As President Obama said, “a rising tide lifts all boats” but the only way to produce a rising tide is to have a rise in US industry that is internally competitive, that can create competition and a demand on the part of US companies for workers. Advocating for more women at the top is wonderful and necessary but it leaves out what is quickly becoming an entire generation of poor women and not only they, but their entire families, suffer.

Money is power. This, we all know, is true. If we want to empower poor women then we have to empower them where they are, not where we are. TC mark

Related

More From Thought Catalog