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What Will Be The “Obama Effect” for Women?

January 31, 2009, 6:29 pm

Over time the American conservative movement has actually agreed about few things. But ultimately, one might argue, it came together largely over a combined hatred of the New Deal and its children, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. This hatred –which was ultimately expressed in polemic form as the need to defend the traditional nuclear family from the state — coalesced over the course of three generations and came to embrace a broad social and geographical constituency over time.

We who are on the left, while we do not believe that the state is unequivocally our friend, also believe in the capacity of the government to legislate our protection and support as a people: national health insurance, civil rights protection, pensions and employment equity are important categories where we think government intervention has been, and will be, successful. But progressives would also do well to pause and think before they ask Barack Obama for the 21st century equivalent of the New Deal. It was the Roosevelt Administration, as Alice Kessler-Harris has noted in her book, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Pursuit of Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America (2003) that, as it sought to empower working men in a capitalist economy, wrote social discrimination against women into economic legislation. Indeed, they saw this as recognizing the different role men and women already had in families and communities. Feminists who had worked for years in cross-class movements, many of whom lived with other women and believed marriage and family to be incompatible with a career, transported these ideas to Washington in 1933 (see Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism and New Deal Politics, a book which appears to be flying off the shelves at Amazon right now.)

One member of this network (all friends of Eleanor Roosevelt who had unique access to the administration as a result) was Frances Perkins. The official website of the Social Security Administration, where I found the above framed image of Secretary of Labor Perkins, the first woman to fill a cabinet level post, quotes her thus: “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.” Eager to reinforce male bread winning as the foundation for “normal” families, fair labor standards, social security, the federal tax code and unemployment benefits all undermined an equitable workplace for women. And this was not just a question of gender discrimination, since although white working-class women did not have access to equal pay they did sometimes have access to unions. But women of color did not. By deliberately excluding domestic service from labor legislation, the Roosevelt administration specifically, and knowingly, undermined the economic citizenship of women of color, most of whom worked in what would now be called pink collar occupations.

And in her study of Social Security and AFDC, the two New Deal programs that, between them, “created the contemporary meaning of welfare,” Linda Gordon argued over a decade ago that the state articulated poor women as widows and/or mothers, but not workers. As Ruth Crocker of Auburn University noted in a review of Gordon’s book in 1995, the view that men were supported through wages and women through charity prevailed, “even though most poor women were also wage workers” (Gordon, 145) Gordon also cautioned us to remember that female policy makers, who had come out of a long middle-class feminist political tradition that saw working-class women’s labor as ideally contributing to the economy in shoring up the nuclear family and raising children. As Crocker writes:

A central purpose of this history of policy-making is to explore why “welfare” or ADC programs took the shape they did — how they emerged as one alternative among many. Black welfare thought provided one such alternative source of solutions, ignored rather than rejected by policy makers, and by historians of New Deal policy-making. Black welfare leaders were not consulted nor were their interests protected in the 1935 Social Security Act; their “alternative vision” was ignored by policy makers who also omitted domestic workers and agricultural workers from the Act’s coverage. More disadvantaged than white women and disenfranchised even after 1920, black women nevertheless articulated a powerful “welfare vision” that was distinct from that of whites. Gordon provides a valuable summary of black women’s welfare activism between 1890 and 1935. For African- Americans, the issue was not programs for the needy, but access for blacks of ALL classes to public services. These women organized, built, and sustained private institutions of health and welfare, defied stereotypes, asserted leadership, and struggled not as women, but as race leaders. Gordon makes the important point that for these women, welfare meant civil rights — indeed, the assumption by policy historians of a dichotomy between welfare and civil rights stems from “a white notion of welfare” (Gordon, 119).

So in other words, it isn’t an accident that we have not yet achieved equal pay for equal work, that women are more likely to be poor than men, and that the fastest ways for a woman to exit the welfare system before the state gives her the boot is to marry a man who has a job.

So let’s not make the same mistake twice, shall we? In the wake of a petition circulating in the feminist blogosphere reminding President Obama that “shovel ready” projects in construction, transportation and public works may not employ women on the scale that they employ men, this great article by feminist labor historian and committed public intellectual Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California -Santa Barbara appeared in Salon on January 16. Infrastructure is important, says Boris, who is writing a history of home care workers (many of whom are organized by SEIU) with Yale’s Jennifer Klein. “But we also need to enhance the social infrastructure, bolstering not only a green economy but also the carework economy, by generating and improving pink jobs in home care, health and education.” As Boris argues, this will not only employ women, who represent 46% of the work force in the United States, but it will deliver services to the people whose need for services is often enhanced in times like these: the elderly, the sick and children.

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