The Feminist Movement Has a Capitalism Problem
I’m uncomfortable using capitalism as a means to attaining gender equality.
We can never be equals in a system where the size of your stack is used as leverage to demand human rights. While I understand how feminists came to see the right to have a bank account and a credit card independent of a man as foundational, it’s time to aim higher. We certainly can’t wait for equal pay and an end to systemic sexism to ask for more because we’re gaining ground at an excruciatingly slow pace. I’m here for honoring our predecessors—while we also push for a right to live not just independent, but fulfilling lives.
In her new best-selling book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, author Rebecca Traister quotes Susan B. Anthony:
“No genuine equality, no real freedom, no true manhood or womanhood can exist on any foundation save that of pecuniary independence.”
We fought for the right to go to work because economic power was the path to liberation. It’s not that we were wrong. It’s that I’ve already worked as many hours as some do in a lifetime and I think there must be a better way than perpetually reestablishing work as the bedrock for equality when it should be a stepping stone. It’s not as if Anthony called for financial freedom to be the goal or end of the revolution.
For centuries women have known that they could assert few rights without economic independence; having a bank account was a predecessor to having a place to live, transportation, food—everything. Women were regularly denied bank accounts and lines of credit without a male co-signer until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974. The need to be tied to a man for simple survival—unless luck made you a very wealthy widow with a place to stash your cash—was real until just a generation before mine. I’m 36.
Our lack of economic power wasn’t simply used to force us into marriage; our country’s entire economic system and our progress (Industrial Revolution, etc.) were built on specifically women’s labor. In just one example, after the mass casualties of the Civil War the governor of Massachusetts discovered he had what Traister describes as “38,000 ‘excess’ women.” So he tried to ship female residents west—like a product to be traded.
The proposal was turned down not because it was laughably unjust, but because there wouldn’t be enough women left to do the jobs no one (read: men) wanted. Which brings us to what Traister calls the “piles and piles of asterisks” that should accompany any commentary referencing women’s economic progress. Not everyone went to work because they wanted to, or as a political statement; a troubling percentage of us continue decades later to work long hours at physically damaging jobs out of necessity. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage and tipped jobs are held by women.
“For many women, the pursuit of work and money has far less to do with fulfillment, excitement, or identity than it does with subsistence,” writes Traister. “And, for many single women, scraping by is as hard as it has ever been. For most Americans, work is the center of life, not because they yearn for it to be, but because it has to be.”
Why? Why does it have to be? Because we’re a country founded on a piece of satire about “bootstraps” from the mid-1800s where rugged individualism was a sign of strength and weakness is for the un-American? Horse shit. That is boring and unimaginative and hardly in concert with creating a just society.
And even if bootstraps were something you could pull yourself up with, not everyone in this country has access to them. As Traister describes, women are at the top of the bootstrap-less list:
“[W]hile some women are enjoying more educational, professional, sexual, and social freedom than ever before, many more of them are struggling, living in a world marked by inequality, disadvantage, discrimination, and poverty. It’s crucial to unpack what’s true and what’s not true about female advancement . . . When it comes to female liberty and opportunity, history sets an extremely low bar.”
I say, let’s look history in the face and raise the bar.
Here’s where we are right now: Most Americans must consider their employment ahead of all other needs. Work schedules dominate our abilities to see friends and family, to care for our health concerns, to squeeze any drop of joy out of our day.
Simple access to a job determines everything about our lives—where we live, who we associate with, who we partner with, what we’re able to do with our free time (if we have any). This has always been true. Why did the colonists go west? Looking for gold or land to tend. Why did people begin, instead, to move to cities? Jobs. Particularly the kind of jobs that the marginalized, formerly enslaved, single, female or all of the above would be allowed to hold.
“In the nineteenth century United States, new mills and factories, especially in New England, actively recruited young women as cheap labor. Improvements in infrastructure—better roads, canals, and the railroad boom—made it easier for women to leave rural homes and head to growing cities to work as seamstresses and milliners, governesses and laundresses. Many of the poorest women, including free blacks in the north and south, worked in domestic service for the growing class of urban industrialists.”
Our station in life continues to determine which jobs we’re suited for. The shouting about “fair pay” focuses on the discrepancy between how men and women are compensated. We hear a lot about “77 cents on the dollar!”—the gap between white men and white women. Not only does this conveniently ignore how much worse it is for women of color—64 cents on the dollar for black women and 52 cents for Latinas—it ignores the likelihood that men and women of any background will be working the same jobs. When you look at the strides women have made inserting themselves into traditionally male fields, that pay gap is quite an indictment.
“In the decades since the second wave encouraged middle-class women to seek fulfillment and remuneration outside their homes, the flood of women into schools and workplaces has been immense,” Traister writes.
“In 2010, women held the majority of all jobs in the country, along with 51% of all management positions. About a third of the nation’s doctors are female, and 45% of its lawyers. Women now graduate from high school more often than men; they receive about half of all medical and law degrees and more than half of master’s degrees. The percentage of not just bachelor’s degrees but also of master’s, law, medical, and doctoral degrees being awarded to women is the highest it has ever been in the history of the nation.”
Yet, here we are. Hundreds of years, dozens of hard-won political and social battles, and we still don’t measure up in monetary equality—the only equality capitalism recognizes. Why are we continuing to fight to work more? Why are we fighting to work at all?
What if we didn’t have to work at an unhealthy pace? What if our lives weren’t job-first? We are a resource-rich country on a resource-rich earth—a truth that could continue in perpetuity if we were strategic about how we grew food and how we distributed energy. And how we spent our money.
Our elected officials make monetary decisions—that is, determine priorities—every single day. Few of the legislation and bills that make the news manage to be “budget neutral”; they have to be paid for. The simplest large, well-known discretionary price tag of this generation is affixed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As economist Richard Wolff so thoroughly covered on his show “Economic Update” in December 2014, conservative estimates say that as of a little over a year ago, Afghanistan had cost us $1 trillion and Iraq almost $2 trillion. Not only could we, as Wolff pointed out, nix all the student loan debt in the country with that first figure, we could feed everyone pretty much forever. According to the USDA, we spend a monthly average of $126.83 per person enrolled in food assistance programs. If there are an estimated 46 million food insecure people in this country (a number that wavers, but always stays in the 10s of millions), we could feed all of them for 175 years just with what we spent so far on the Afghanistan war.
I’ve tracked this issue rather close as being hungry is something I’ve dealt with off and on over the past almost 15 years—more on than off, really. Budget priorities for our legislators since the start of the Bush administration have perennially included attempting to take food out of American’s mouths—mine among them last summer. By choosing not to go to war in 2001, all of us could have had enough to eat for dozens of generations.
When I wake up every day on a bed that family and supporters paid for in a room that was given to me for free for a year, go to work on a donated desk in that room, and check in with my bankruptcy attorney for questions on my case, I think to myself: “Is this all there is? Don’t I—don’t all of us—deserve more?” Why, exactly, did I work two or three jobs at a time on my feet, destroying my back and my longterm health for over a decade? For this?
Well, I want more. I deserve more. You deserve more. We deserve lives—real ones.
So while we continue to Fight for 15 and note today as #EqualPayDay (the one that accounts for the white men to white women pay discrepancy) while screaming that we need better enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, let’s start including some next level requests.
Traister outlines a slate of crucial, life-improving policies at the end of All the Single Ladies. She’s not meek about the asks; she wants increased welfare spending across the board and subsidized child-care and universal healthcare. Of all her bullet points, though, two made me cheer like I was watching a sporting event:
1. “We need a system of economically supported leave time for Americans, regardless of whether they have children or parents to care for, so that they might care for themselves.”
2. “There must be adjustments in the American attitude toward work, leisure, and compensation. We are increasingly a land of free people, who at various times in our lives enjoy companionship and care, and, at other times, do not. We must not continue to function as if every worker has a wife caring for his home and his children for free, or as if every wife has a worker on whose paychecks she must depend. We need shorter workdays, and more space cleared for social, emotional, psychological, and familial thriving.”
Imagine: we could reshape society so that people thrived instead of merely survived. She doesn’t tell us what that has to look like and I’m not going to either; I can hardly picture it. But, we have much smarter, more visionary people around here who probably can. We should be asking them to do it and our elected officials to buy in to the better society that they conjure.
We can, in fact, do that. To quote a cliche, we put a man on the moon. If that sounds like forever ago, currently a man is building a two-mile long test track for the Hyperloop—a “train” that will move people faster than a plane, able to transport you from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 20 minutes. That also sounds impossible—but it’s happening right now.
I know that somewhere in this broad feminist movement is a young idealist with a burning desire and enough strength of will to create a better world. I’d wager there are many of them. As we enlist the next generation and tell them the stories of what we’ve fought for over these many centuries, let’s ask them what theymight want their stories to be. Rather than passing the torch still burning for the battles we’ve not yet won, we should ask them to dream big and then have them light their own. Equal pay is just a jumping off point.