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Workers' Rights, Women's Rights, and the Social Roots of Economic Inequality

From Wisconsin to my home state of Michigan to New York, it seems as though half the country is embroiled in a battle for the rights of the working class. Hardly a week goes by without news of protests taking place at yet another state capitol in response to yet another draconian state budget that benefits the rich at the expense of the working people. The AFL-CIO has called for a national day of action on April 4th, organizing under the slogan “We Are One.”  The rallying of the people in the face of oppression is encouraging; at no other point in my life can I recall unions and labor rights occupying so much of the national consciousness. But one thing that seems to be largely left out of the dialogue is the fact that women are disproportionately impacted by union busting, attacks on public-sector employees, and slashes to social service programs. Katha Pollitt offers an excellent outline of these impacts in a recent piece for The Nation, pointing out that slashing jobs and benefits in the public sector disproportionately targets jobs held predominantly by women, that women account for a majority of people relying on social services, and that many proposed cuts target programs that specifically benefit women such as WIC and the Title X funding for family planning. As Pollitt says, “it’s almost as if there was some kind of concerted plan to undo forty years of progress for women—and, especially, to make sure poor women stay poor.”

As we strive to raise awareness of how these attacks on working people particularly affect women, we need to also take the opportunity to illuminate the broader social picture. Namely, we need to ask: why are the conditions of our society such that women are in this position to begin with? Why is it that 28% of unmarried working women with children fall below the poverty line, compared to just 6% of men? Statistics this staggering are not the result of any new GOP budget plans—though such budgets will surely make the statistics even worse (while at the same time offering far less in the way of assistance). Rather, they are a result of the structural inequalities that have never ceased to exist in our society. What we need is to open up a dialogue about why women are disproportionately the ones living in poverty and in desperate need of social services in the first place. We need to take this opportunity to send a wake-up call that in spite of all the gains we’ve made in the past fifty years, in spite of greatly improved access to education and employment, male privilege is still very much alive and well.

We cannot ever fully achieve economic equality without achieving social equality as well; systems of economic and social privilege serve to reinforce and uphold one another. As long as women shoulder an unequal responsibility for children—both financially and in the role of primary caretaker—we will remain at an inevitable disadvantage, a disadvantage that is further compounded when we lack the ability to even make reproductive choices. As long as women are viewed as inferior to men, jobs that are held primarily by women—such as teaching and nursing—will continue to be devalued by our society. And without real strides in social justice, women of color—lacking both gender and racial privilege—will continue to be even more severely harmed by attacks on the working class. These few examples are merely the tip of the inequality iceberg, but they serve as a starting point for recognizing how impossible it is to work for economic justice without also dismantling the underlying structures of social injustice.

This is not—as some will claim—about trying to co-opt a workers’ movement and use it to our own personal advantage. It is about trying to build a movement that recognizes the degree to which inequalities of class, gender, race, and sexual orientation are entangled. We are only fighting half the battle if we fight to defend the poor without also examining—and fighting to change—the social inequities that determine who is more likely to be poor in the first place.


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