Remember all those trend stories about the death of feminism? These days, feminism is everywhere: online, in the bookstore, on the small screen. Beyoncé is a feminist and so are Emma Watson and Taylor Swift, to say nothing of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer. Feminist issues make headlines: sexual assault on campus, domestic violence in the NFL, revenge porn, Gamergate, and, of course, the ongoing Republican war on women’s reproductive rights.
Five years ago “rape culture” and “intersectionality” were barely comprehensible to anyone who hadn’t majored in women’s studies. Now they’re familiar expressions.
For anyone who lived through the “I’m not a feminist but” decades when the typical op-ed by a woman was a plaintive sigh about picking up her husband’s socks, today’s outspokenness comes as a huge relief. Full credit goes to the young activists who are taking up the torch, suing their universities for ignoring rape complaints, and founding new organizations. There are groups like Hollaback, which protests street harassment, and Vida, which monitors the number of women’s bylines in magazines. There are a host of new abortion funds. Fund Texas Choice, which helps organize and pay for travel for Texans whose near-by abortion clinics have been closed by stringent state laws, was founded by Lenzi Sheible, a twenty-year-old student.
Young women are bringing new creativity and vitality to old causes. To demystify abortion, Emily Letts videoed her own procedure and put it on YouTube; to encourage women to consider getting the most effective contraceptive method, Alison Turkos tweeted her IUD insertion.
Young women are bringing new creativity and vitality to old causes.
Far be it from me to knock any woman—or man—who is trying to make life better for women in any way. The new feminism is great, and the issues it concentrates on are crucial. (Well, maybe we didn’t need quite so many posts about Miley Cyrus fellating a giant hammer or Jaime’s rape of Cersei in last season’s Game of Thrones.) Issues of sexual self-determination—whether it’s the right to decide when and if to have a child or the right to wear what you want—have always been central to feminism.
But there’s a fundamental piece that gets a lot less attention than it deserves: economic issues. Of course, I immediately have to qualify that, because reproductive rights, which get plenty of attention, are an economic issue. Controlling the timing and frequency of childbearing is basic to women’s ability to get education and training, hold a job and advance at it, and raise their children well. Progressives who echo mainstream pundits by treating birth control and abortion as “cultural issues” have really not grasped what unplanned pregnancy does to the lives of girls and women. This late in the game, I wonder if they ever will.
But there’s a fundamental piece that gets a lot less attention than it deserves: economic issues.
But women need more than birth control and abortion access if they are to be full participants in economic and public life. Most women do eventually have kids, and many raise those kids on their own. Mothers or not, women need equal access to good jobs, equal pay, and an equal chance of promotion. A robust feminism has to tackle the many obstacles they face. Feminists have spilled barrels of ink over the limits of self-help manifestoes like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, with its emphasis on individual career strategizing in the corporate world. But where is the mass movement for the things these critics rightly argue are the real keys to women’s advancement: paid parental leave, quality affordable childcare, universal public preschool, an end to job discrimination against pregnant women and mothers, and a renewed commitment to enforcing—and strengthening— laws against sex discrimination? Why slutwalk and not workerwalk or momwalk?
One reason is that activists tend to be young and childless. It’s understandable: Those are the people who have the time and energy—and optimism—for political organizing. From their perspective, sex assaults on campus present a more immediate threat than lack of daycare on campus. (Nonetheless, millions of students are parents, especially in community colleges, and lack of affordable childcare seriously hampers their ability to stay in school.)
The trouble is, by the time a woman has a baby, it’s too late to demand daycare. Besides, she’s too busy and too tired. So she cobbles together the best solution she can for her immediate problem. Daycare, as a friend of mine noted when we were new mothers together, is something you really need for a few years, and then it’s over and you move on.
Similarly, job discrimination isn’t as obvious as it was back when young women went directly from the dean’s list to the typing pool. Today a woman can easily think she and her male classmates start their careers on an equal footing. But ten years later, she looks around and the men her age have somehow leaped ahead. What does she do then? In today’s fluid and increasingly precarious work world, where unions are taking a royal beating, it can be hard to find solidarity.
But there’s a deeper, more depressing reason why economic issues haven’t caught fire. Childcare, afterschool, support for families– despite pockets of improvement, like Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious preschool-for-all plan for New York City, or paid parental leave in California, New Jersey, and Washington—these issues, for the most part, haven’t budged in decades.
In some areas, like government assistance to poor families, they’ve gotten worse. With feminist issues, as with so many other aspects of American life, anything that involves spending public money, let alone setting up new “government bureaucracies,” is going to be a heavy lift. Just look at the struggle around the Affordable Care Act.
Daycare may not be as controversial as it was ten or ffteen years ago. The recession made it clear that mothers’ income was essential to keeping families afloat. But paying for it? Regulating it? Setting standards for teachers and providers? The last time publicly funded childcare was a real political possibility was in 1971, when both houses of Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Care Bill, which President Nixon vetoed as “a communal approach to child-rearing” with “family-weakening implications.”
Unlike campaigns against rape or street harassment or domestic violence, with their obvious villains—entitled men, misogynist cops, universities and athletic teams eager to avoid bad publicity—economic issues are rather dull and earnest. They don’t generate many galvanizing headlines. They’re more about dozens of obstacles and assumptions that taken together push women into second-class status at work, and into doing the bulk of domestic labor at home. Which is, of course, a socially approved role women have been raised to accept, even if they don’t necessarily like it.
Fear of violence is engrained in women virtually from birth. But how many women really believe having a baby means they’ll never have an interesting job again? Or that having a second baby might mean it’s too difficult and too expensive to have a job at all? These are the realities young women suddenly confront in this country, because, despite the feminist transformation of our culture, we still have no system for making family life sustainable for women, unlike the rest of the developed world. By the time reality hits, it can be too late.
In the end, economic issues are crucial to the continued progress of women: They are what will either expand women’s freedom, or limit it. Without paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and strong laws against job discrimination, women will always be held back at work, and their lesser earnings and opportunities will mean they have less bargaining power in their relationships with men. It is not an accident that women’s labor-force participation has stagnated since around 1990, and so has the amount of time their male partners spend on household chores.
You can talk all you want about the importance of the unpaid caring labor women do in the home, and how unfair it is that society devalues this work. True gender equality is not going to happen as long as the workplace privileges men and lack of family supports push women out of their jobs and back into the kitchen.
Let’s let Cersei take care of herself in her imaginary kingdom and make 2015 the year of the real world economic woman.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation and the author of PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.