Women cloakmakers’ strike, 1910, USA
By Peggy Wang, APA/Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) (personal capacity)
In 1909 the Socialist Party of America in New York organized the first National Women’s Day, attracting thousands of people to various rallies and events. One year later, German delegates to the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference suggested that a special day for women be organized annually. 111 years later, we look around at a world still driven by capitalism and oppression. While the women’s movement has won crucial gains like the right to vote and better access to birth control, the struggles of a hundred years ago share the same roots as today’s problems: the capitalist system.
Then, as is the case now, women did work that was invisible, poorly compensated, and underappreciated. Today, women are predominately the ones caring for the sick, teaching children, cleaning homes and offices, and doing childcare and eldercare: work that keeps society functioning. In the US, they are 54% of essential workers, 60% of fast food and grocery store cashiers, and 78% of social workers. However, these jobs are often low-paid, temporary, part-time, nonunion, and physically difficult or dangerous.
Worsening Conditions Under COVID
The COVID crisis exacerbates the effects of capitalism on all of us and has hit women particularly hard. Left in its wake is a level of devastation working people have not experienced since the Great Depression. The US jobless rate skyrocketed to 14.7% in April 2020—the equivalent of losing 20.5 million jobs. Compare that to the high of 800,000 job losses in May 2009 of the Great Recession or the 2 million lost in September 1945 at the end of WWII.
What has that looked like for working people in the US? Last month, 11% of families couldn’t put enough food on the table, a three-fold increase from 2019. 20% of renters are behind on their monthly payments. 57% of the jobs lost since the pandemic have been low-wage jobs.
Meanwhile, the 664 U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth grow from $3 trillion to $4.3 trillion between March 2020 and Feb 2021. The majority of the bailout money has been spent on propping up big businesses, not to support those struggling financially to survive. For Texas-based Battalion Oil, which is in the red and has gone bankrupt twice in the last four years, the government can find $2.2 million of taxpayer money. But for the average American, there is nothing but standing in lines waiting on a broken unemployment system or rolling the dice working, praying they don’t become sick, get a reduction in pay, or lose their jobs. Maybe they also were thrown a measly average of $167 a month in the past year via “stimulus checks.” So what is the state of affairs for working women? How has this pandemic altered their lives?
Women have borne the brunt of this pandemic. Of US job losses in April 2020, 55% were dealt to women. The past year has removed 2.3 million women from the workforce, and the unemployment rate for women has increased by 3%. As a result, many are struggling to pay rent and monthly bills.
Of those still working, many hold low-paying frontline jobs, which puts them at risk of catching COVID. About 52% of frontline workers infected by COVID have been women. In the healthcare sector, 73% of those infected are women. When they do become sick, many are unable to access the healthcare they need; 11% of women are completely uninsured. And if they’re required to quarantine or stay at home, 58% lack paid sick leave.
With schools and childcare centers closed, mothers may also need to try to juggle additional work caring for their kids alongside still trying to maintain their jobs.
Women increasingly have fewer options to financially support themselves and their families. Even when they can work, many are forced to put their lives on the line for poverty wages.
The Impact on Childcare
COVID-related closures of schools and childcare centers have forced women to choose between work and family. This has led to many leaving jobs or cutting their hours.
This past September, four times as many women dropped out of the labor force than men (about 865,000 women to 216,000 men). They cited lack of childcare as the main reason for leaving. Even among those who do still work, if they have young children, they’ve reduced their hours 4 to 5 times more than men have. Single mothers have been especially hard hit: they number 60 million in the U.S. and have few options, especially when asking elderly parents to care for their children is a major health risk due to COVID.
This has ramifications far beyond what we currently can see. When women cannot get the childcare support they need, they may have to sacrifice careers and financial autonomy. This can mean being reliant on their partners for income and being stuck in abusive relationships. It may mean being trapped in a cycle of poverty.
And this plays out worse for black and Latino women and mothers. Between February 2020 and October 2020, almost 200% more black mothers and 50% more Latino mothers were not working or not looking for work than white mothers.
In recent decades, women have increasingly taken on the double burden of both working and caring for the home and for their children. In 1970, the rate of heterosexual couples with children where both parents worked full time was 31%; in 2015, that number was 46%. While women have been empowered by entering the workforce and being financially independent, they unfortunately still have the majority of household and childcare responsibilities. Women average 3-6 more hours of childcare a week than their male partners. 41% of them say being a parent keeps them from advancing their careers, while only 20% of their male counterparts say the same.
However, the solution is not to point the finger at men, as we’re often told by liberal feminists. Men are not the enemy: the enemy is the capitalist system that creates and maintains working women’s oppression. Instead, what is needed is systematic change, like access to free childcare, so that women can pursue their work without having to choose between taking care of their children or having a job.
What can be done?
Despite all this, working women are demonstrating that power can be shifted. Across the U.S. this past year, they’ve been taking action for better conditions for us all. While news outlets might claim it will take decades to “recover the losses from COVID,” what will really determine the outlook of the future is the working class’s ability to fight for healthcare, childcare, education, secure housing, and living wages.
Women make up 77% of the healthcare industry workforce. The lowest paid in this sector, who make less than $30k a year, are also 83% women. They are on the frontlines caring for patients and seeing the detrimental effects of a for-profit healthcare system. This past September, nurses at the University of Illinois Hospital went on strike, as did nurses at Backus Hospital in Connecticut the following month. Inadequate staffing has left them scrambling to manage impossible caseloads of patients. They demanded more nurses be hired to ensure the health and safety of those receiving care. Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, MA began a strike today after Tenet Healthcare Corporation refused to negotiate on the same issue of understaffing, in addition to other concerns.
On the education front, women also make up 77% of public school teachers, and they too have stepped up to fight. Most notably, the Chicago Teachers Union’s membership voted in January in favor of a strike, opposing Mayor Lightfoot’s demand to return in-person to classrooms at the start of February. Through the union’s opposition, they were able to win some of their demands. When the membership reached a tentative agreement to open schools, they ensured that no one would be required to go back in-person until offered a vaccine and the schools will go completely remote if 3 or more people get sick in a two-week window. These safety measures would’ve never been instated had the CTU not taken action. The city was ready to put communities at risk, ignoring the fact that the majority of parents in Chicago wanted to stay remote. It was the union that fought to ensure that people were put first.
Women have recently taken part in protests and job actions in all industries, including strikes led by bus drivers in Detroit, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama. Women workers were a large part of the May 1 2020 essential workers’ walkouts as well as the organizing efforts at Instacart and in Amazon warehouses, including leading the union campaign at the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama. Each of these struggles show us that with collective action, we can build our power and make gains to benefit working people.
Why socialist feminism?
Some had high hopes that things would change with the Biden administration. A major concern? Economic relief. 65% of Americans, including 54% of Republicans and 60% of independents, were in support of their tax money going toward $2000 monthly checks. Yet that promise made by Biden and the Democrats has now been exposed for what it was: a ploy to get votes in the election. Democrats have instead sent out a one-time $1,400 payment to the public, arguing that the $600 given previously counted toward the promise of $2,000. These are breadcrumbs compared to what the rich have received. While $290 billion of taxpayer money was spent on stimulus checks, about as much – $260 billion in fact—was spent exclusively on the wealthy 1%.
With almost 12 million renters behind by an average of $5,850 on rent and utilities, $1400 isn’t enough to stem the tide. Incredibly, the Democrats are undermining even that morsel of financial support, now determining who receives the stimulus payment based on 2019 incomes—before the pandemic started and millions lost their jobs!
Another disaster has been the botched rollout of vaccines and the blocking of universal healthcare, which has—despite 55% of voter support—also laid bare how the health and security of working people are not a priority for either the Democrats or Republicans.
It’s clear COVID didn’t have to unfold this way. Other countries with greater social safety nets have not seen COVID ravage their communities the way it has here in the US. The entire pandemic has been a playbook in how capitalism serves the rich and powerful over the needs of the working class. So, if none of this was inevitable, what should this have looked like for women?
When socialists speak of a feminist world, we’re not envisioning more female CEOs, board members, or Mayor Lightfoots. We don’t think the answer to our struggles is McDonald’s flipping its golden arches into a W for International Women’s Day while paying its female workers poverty wages. We don’t think the answer is buying t-shirts emblazoned with “Girl Power” and “Smash The Patriarchy” from women-owned businesses. We do not think the answer is voting for a female Vice President who has actively pushed for policies that condone police brutality and mass incarceration.
None of these do anything for working women. They don’t give us the pay we need or protect us from exorbitant healthcare costs. They don’t provide us with free education or remove our growing debts. They don’t ensure housing, jobs, or childcare. They don’t give us the ability to spend time with and care for our families. They don’t make any material differences in our lives. We are sold “feminism” that seeks to maintain the status quo while giving women tokenistic rights. And why? At the root of our suffering is a capitalist system that exploits our labor for profit. No amount of all-women Hollywood casts or Ruth Bader Ginsburg books and mugs will solve that. Capitalism lies at the root of all of our oppression: it seeks profit at all costs, including declining living standards and increased work for less pay.
Crucially, socialists understand that capitalist oppression cuts across lines of identity, whether that’s gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or age. This is why socialist women do not see working men as the enemy of working women. Our interests are one and the same. It is only through uniting across our supposed differences that we can build a world that centers on our needs, not those of our bosses. Why not fight for a world where women have financial security, have access to free education, healthcare, and childcare, and can plan and care for their families?
This International Working Women’s Day, do more than just recognize all that working women do. Join the Independent Socialist Group and the CWI in the socialist struggle for a better world!
- Make International Women’s Day a paid holiday for all workers.
- Raise the federal minimum wage to $20/hour, tied to the cost of living with no exemptions and no loss of benefits, as a step toward a living wage for all. Extend all full-time protections and rights to part-time workers.
- For a three-year rent freeze on residential properties and other rent control combined with a massive expansion of high-quality public housing. Democratic committees including homeowners and renters should control housing policy. End homelessness! Turn vacant homes into quality, free housing for homeless people.
- Defend the right to choose whether and when to have children. Provide free reproductive services, including all forms of birth control and safe, accessible abortions. Teach comprehensive and inclusive sex education in schools.
- Guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid family leave for all.
- For universal, high-quality, affordable, and publicly run child and eldercare.
- Free, high-quality healthcare for all. Massively expand Medicare and Medicaid. Take the insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital conglomerates into public ownership, and implement publicly funded universal healthcare, including comprehensive sexual, reproductive, and mental healthcare.
(Photo: Kheel Center/Wikimedia Commons)