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Different Strategies are Necessary Now

JOAN ACKER, teaches sociology at the University of Oregon and has been involved in feminist activities since the late 1960s. She is the author of Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity (Temple University Press, 1989).

Barbara Epstein’s answer to “What Happened to the Women’s Movement?” (Monthly Review, May 2001) explains much of the decline of the intense, exciting, radical and socialist feminist organizing of the 1960s and 1970s, with its visions of societal transformation and women’s emancipation. However, I think that she underemphasizes, or even ignores, some important parts of a comprehensive answer. These have to do with the daunting reality facing revolutionary visions, the strength of opposition to women’s equality with men, and changes in economic and political relations that now seem to require new visions and ways of organizing.

Before I discuss these issues, I want to add to her comments on first wave feminism. Abandonment of a broad agenda, and of links to radical organizations were not the only reasons for the decline of first wave feminism. Decline was also a consequence of deep–seated but hidden antipathy to feminist claims within radical organizations, as well as a consequence of the successes of first wave feminism. My own experiences in the 1940s lead me to those conclusions. I grew up in the late 30s and early 40s with the firm belief that the women’s movement had been a success, that women were equal to men, and that I could do and be anything I wanted, an individualistic perspective, I admit. The radical organizations I joined had campaigns against racism, but generally denied that any problems with democracy or equality existed for women within their own organizations. What problems there were in the larger society would be solved automatically as the working class triumphed. I began to see the fallacy, and the male privilege, in these claims only as I had children and my low wage–earning capacity forced the decision that I be the homebound caregiver. I think that young women today have similar difficulties in seeing the continuing inequalities and subordinations. The second wave movement accomplished a great deal, as Epstein says. Young women do face a different world of possibilities than second wave feminists faced. It is easy to believe that all the problems are solved. But, they too may have rude awakenings.

The daunting reality facing radical and socialist feminist visions was, and is, not only that we have no gender and race egalitarian alternative to capitalism, but that the interweaving of gender and race with the economic, political, and social relations of capitalism is much more complicated and pervasive than we had imagined. To fundamentally change the situation of women, almost everything else must change. But, as Epstein recognizes, the constituency for revolution was never large, and the vision of revolution was unrealistic. In any case, a revolution led by New Left male radicals would probably have been disastrous for women and for the ideals of the New Left itself. Instead, radical, socialist, and liberal feminists turned to specific and immediate projects for change. Much of the grassroots organizing, and the radical spirit of the movement, was focused on struggles for Affirmative Action, comparable worth, women’s health care, and legal abortion, among many other issues. This division of labor within the feminist movement has achieved many, if somewhat separate, victories. And these victories should not be attributed only to liberal feminists. This is the strength of the women’s movement and one reason it has survived. The general understanding of women’s subordination within a critique of capitalist societies still exists, but, as many now recognize, this critique is too general to fuel specific organizing. I think that Epstein makes too broad a generalization when she says “feminists have lost their grip on a vision of a better world.” I don’t fundamentally disagree with her, but I would temper her nostalgia a bit.

Opposition to feminist demands has something to do with the decline of the women’s movement as grassroots, radical organizing. This opposition has appeared in many forms, from silent resistance to the well–known backlash in legal attacks on Affirmative Action, and media caricatures of unattractive feminists. The struggle for pay equity, or comparable worth, provides examples of the multifaceted opposition to changes that could fundamentally improve the economic situation of many women. First, opposition from politicians, employers, and bureaucrats, in both the public and private sectors, forced equity advocates to settle for restrictive definitions of which jobs should be equalized. These definitions limited efforts to the public sector, and to jobs in one employing organization, rather than attacking inequities in the labor market generally. Job evaluation specialists enlisted to assist with determining inequities wanted to protect their evaluation systems from changes sought by feminists because such changes might radically increase pay to women and upset private sector employers, the usual clients of job evaluation specialists. Only the grossest inequities could be identified using these systems. Employers opposed pay equity because they feared high costs. Working–class men were afraid that their own wages would be cut to increase women’s wages, and some employers argued for this. Sometimes working–class men’s sense of masculine superiority was threatened by the idea that women’s work might be of equal worth to theirs. Opposition increased as free market ideology began to dominate public discussions. Comparable worth worked where it was really tried, but this happened in only a few states and in a larger number of municipalities.

Economic and employment changes driven by capitalist efforts to achieve “flexibility,” maximize profits, and weaken the labor movement also undermined pay equity efforts. These efforts occurred in the early 1980s, at the time that employers began downsizing, refusing wage increases, and demanding wage givebacks, all part of the war on labor. Working–class men were seriously threatened, as they have continued to be. Male support for pay equity was difficult to mobilize under these conditions. Similarly, access to the higher–paying, skilled, male–dominated jobs was, and continues to be, difficult under these conditions. This is one reason that Affirmative Action was more effective in the upper–level professional and managerial jobs than in working–class jobs. Excluded groups can be let in with less fear when job opportunities are expanding than when they are contracting.

Changes such as these suggest that different strategies are necessary now, and some are appearing. Many of these are labor movement strategies, not necessarily linked to feminism, such as organizing home care workers in Los Angeles, or hotel workers in Hawaii. Feminist strategies that might mobilize a movement today must have a race focus, a cross–class focus, and possibly a global focus. One issue that might meet these criteria, and at the same, build a radical critique of current social arrangements and values is the issue of who is going to care for our children and our sick. As more and more women are in paid labor, as work hours get longer, as work and economic survival become more stressful, caring is at the bottom of the list in rewards. Women remain responsible for care giving, with little or no pay, and no thanks. These problems affect women across all areas of our society, although resources to deal with them vary widely. Women on welfare and women professionals face similar challenges, in this regard. The societal cost is tremendous, but hidden. This is a radical issue, because its roots are in the fundamental organization of U.S. capitalism, in the structures of our cities, in our lack of public transportation, in the devaluing of women and their work.

Like Barbara Epstein, I yearn for a rebirth of radicalism and the heady feeling of participating in a broad movement for economic justice and humane values. This time it will have to be a radicalism that integrates critiques of gender and racial subordination in ways that have not been achieved by men working in radical and socialist traditions. A go–it–alone feminist movement will not be broad enough. But, can the men adapt?