bell hooks, “Women at Work”
“Women at Work”
Chapter Nine, Feminism is for Everybody, South End Press, 2000. [PDF]
More than half of all women in the United States are in the workforce. When contemporary feminist movement first began the workforce was already more than one-third female. Coming from a working-class, African-American background where most women I knew were in the workforce, I was among the harshest critics of the vision of feminism put forth by reformist thinkers when the movement began, which suggested that work would liberate women from male domination. More than 10 years ago I wrote in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “The emphasis on work as the key to women’s liberation led many white feminist activists to suggest women who worked were ‘already liberated.’ They were in effect saying to the majority of working women, ‘Feminist movement is not for you. ” Most importantly I knew firsthand that working for low wages did not liberate poor and working-class women from male domination.
When reformist feminist thinkers from privileged class backgrounds whose primary agenda was achieving social equality with men of their class equated work with liberation they meant high-paying careers. Their vision of work had little relevance for masses of women. Importantly the aspect of feminist emphasis on work which did affect all women was the demand for equal pay for equal work. Women gained more rights in relation to salaries and positions as a result of feminist protest but it has not completely eliminated gender discrimination. In many college classrooms today students both female and male will argue that feminist movement is no longer relevant since women now have equality. They do not even know that on the average most women still do not get equal pay for equal work, that we are more likely to make seventy-three cents for every dollar a male makes.
We know now that work does not liberate women from male domination. Indeed, there are many high-paid professional women, many rich women, who remain in relationships with men where male domination is the norm. Positively we do know that if a woman has access to economic self-sufficiency she is more likely to leave a relationship where male domination is the norm when she chooses liberation. She leaves because she can. Lots of women engage feminist thinking, choose liberation, but are economically tied to patriarchal males in ways that make leaving difficult if not downright impossible. Most women know now what some of us knew when the movement began, that work would not necessarily liberate us, but that this fact does not change the reality that economic self-sufficiency is needed if women are to be liberated. When we talk about economic self-sufficiency as liberating rather than work, we then have to take the next step and talk about what type of work liberates. Clearly better-paying jobs with comfortable time schedules tend to offer the greatest degree of freedom to the worker.
Masses of women feel angry because they were encouraged by feminist thinking to believe they would find liberation in the workforce. Mostly they have found that they work long hours at home and long hours at the job. Even before feminist movement encouraged women to feel positive about working outside the home, the needs of a depressed economy were already sanctioning this shift. If contemporary feminist movement had never taken place masses of women would still have entered the workforce, but it is unlikely that we would have the rights we have, had feminists not challenged gender discrimination. Women are wrong to “blame” feminism for making it so they have to work, which is what many women think. The truth remains that consumer capitalism was the force leading more women into the workforce. Given the depressed economy white middle-class families would be unable to sustain their class status and their lifestyles if women who had once dreamed solely of working as housewives had not chosen to work outside the home.
Feminist scholarship has documented that the positive benefits masses of women have gained by entering the workforce have more to do with increased self-esteem and positive participation in community. No matter her class the woman who stayed at home working as a housewife was often isolated, lonely, and depressed. While most workers do not feel secure at work, whether they are male or female, they do feel part of something larger than themselves. While problems at home cause greater stress and are difficult to solve, those in the workplace are shared by everyone, and the attempt to find solutions is not an isolated one. When men did most of the work women worked to make home a site of comfort and relaxation for males. Home was relaxing to women only when men and children were not present. When women in the home spend all their time attending to the needs of others, home is a workplace for her, not a site of relaxation, comfort, and pleasure. Work outside the home has been most liberating for women who are single (many of whom live alone; they may or may not be heterosexual). Most women have not even been able to find satisfying work, and their participation in the workforce has diminished the quality of their life at home.
Groups of highly educated privileged women previously unemployed or marginally employed were able through feminist changes in job discrimination to have greater access to work that satisfies, that serves as a base for economic self-sufficiency. Their success has not altered the fate of masses of women. Years ago in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center I stated:
If improving conditions in the workplace for women had been a central agenda for feminist movement in conjunction with efforts to obtain better-paying jobs for women and finding jobs for unemployed women of all classes, feminism would have been seen as a movement addressing the concerns of all women. Feminist focus on careerism, getting women employed in high-paying professions, not only alienated masses of women from feminist movement; it also allowed feminist activists to ignore the fact that increased entry of bourgeois women into the work force was not a sign that women as a group were gaining economic power. Had they looked at the economic situation of poor and working-class women, they would have seen the growing problem of unemployment and increased entry of women from all classes into the ranks of the poor.
Poverty has become a central woman’s issue. White supremacist capitalist patriarchal attempts to dismantle the welfare system in our society will deprive poor and indigent women of access to even the most basic necessities of life: shelter and food. Indeed a return to patriarchal male-dominated households where men are providers is the solution offered women by conservative politicians who ignore the reality of mass unemployment for both women and men, and the fact that jobs simply are not there and that many men do not want to provide economically for women and children even if they have wages.
There is no feminist agenda in place offering women a way out – a way to rethink work. Since the cost of living in our society is high, work does not lead to economic self-sufficiency for most workers, women included. Yet economic self-sufficiency is needed if all women are to be free to choose against male domination, to be fully self-actualized.
The path to greater economic self-sufficiency will necessarily lead to alternative lifestyles which will run counter to the image of the good life presented to us by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal mass media. To live fully and well, to do work which enhances self-esteem and self-respect while being paid a living wage, we will need programs of job sharing. Teachers and service workers in all areas will need to be paid more. Women and men who want to stay home and raise children should have wages subsidized by the state as well as home-schooling programs that will enable them to finish high school and work on graduate degrees at home. With advanced technology individuals who remain home should be able to study by watching college courses on videos augmenting this with some period of time spent in classroom settings. If welfare not warfare (military spending) was sanctioned by our government and all citizens legally had access to a year or two of their lives during which they received state aid if they were unable to find a job, then the negative stigma attached to welfare programs would no longer exist. If men had equal access to welfare then it would no longer carry the stigma of gender.
A growing class divide separates masses of poor women from their privileged counterparts. Indeed much of the class power elite groups of women hold in our society, particularly those who are rich, is gained at the expense of the freedom of other women. Already there are small groups of women with class power working to build bridges through economic programs which provide aid and support to less privileged women. Individual wealthy women, particularly those with inherited wealth, who remain committed to feminist liberation are developing strategies for participatory economics which show their concern for and solidarity with women who lack class power. Right now these individuals are a small minority, but their ranks will swell as their work becomes more well known.
Thirty years ago contemporary feminists did not foresee the changes that would happen in the world of work in our society. They did not realize that mass unemployment would become more of a norm, that women could prepare themselves for jobs that would simply not be there. They did not foresee the conservative and sometimes liberal assault on welfare, the way that single mothers without money would be blamed for their economic plight and demonized. All these unforeseen realities require visionary feminist thinkers to think anew about the relationship between liberation and work.
While much feminist scholarship tells us about the role of women in the workforce today and how it changes their sense of self and their role in the home, we do not have many studies which tell us whether more women working has positively changed male domination. Many men blame women working for unemployment, for their loss of the stable identity being seen as patriarchal providers gave them, even if it was or is only a fiction. An important feminist agenda for the future has to be to realistically inform men about the nature of women and work so that they can see that women in the workforce are not their enemies.
Women have been in the workforce for a long time now. Whether we are paid well or receive low wages many women have not found work to be as meaningful as feminist utopian visions suggested. When women work to make money to consume more rather than to enhance the quality of our lives on all levels, work does not lead to economic self-sufficiency. More money does not mean more freedom if our finances are not used to facilitate well-being. Rethinking the meaning of work is an important task for future feminist movement. Addressing both ways women can leave the ranks of the poor as well as the strategies they can use to have a good life even if there is substantial material lack are vital to the success of feminist movement.
Early on feminist movement did not make economic self-sufficiency for women its primary goal. Yet addressing the economic plight of women may ultimately be the feminist platform that draws a collective response. It may well become the place of collective organizing, the common ground, the issue that unites all women.