From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public. This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.
The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color. Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor. This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.
This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women. And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.
Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken. Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left. But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality? Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.
If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history? It’s hard to know. But what is important is the question before us now: If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?
For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers. Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite. As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win. While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role. (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.) So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members. The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.
But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households). An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force. The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector. There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)
As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with. This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color. Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.
The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity. In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare. Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace. Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.
It’s a smart move for Democrats. There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful. What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party? More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?
But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen. But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart. Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart. If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.