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Women and Class: What Has Happened in Forty Years?

Stephanie Luce, sluce [at], teaches at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage (Cornell University Press, 2004). Mark Brenner (mark [at], is co-director of Labor Notes Magazine.

Forty years ago this summer, a group of women and men came together to form the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW’s mission was to fight for gender equality through education and litigation. While not the only group fighting for women’s rights, it quickly became one of the best known and largest. Today, NOW has over a half million members and over 500 chapters throughout the country. NOW was founded at a time when women were entering the paid labor force in increasing numbers. NOW had its critics: many said it ignored race and class, others said it was too focused on liberal feminist legal strategies like passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Numerous other organizations representing working-class women and women of color developed, including the Coalition of Labor Union Women, 9to5, the National Organization of Working Women, and the Combahee River Collective. Together with a myriad of other groups these organizations helped build the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

It would be difficult to pinpoint how much of the success of this movement was a result of direct organizing or legal efforts, but what is clear is that the 1960s through 1980s saw major changes in the status of working women. Legal barriers to gender-based employment and pay discrimination were eliminated. By 1970, occupational segregation by gender began to fall substantially for the first time since at least the turn of the century.1 The gender wage gap narrowed, with women earning 59 cents an hour to every dollar earned by a man in 1964, but 77 cents per hour in 2004.2 The percentage of women in the labor force with a college degree went up from 11.2 percent in 1970 to 32.6 percent in 2004, rising at basically twice the rate for men.3 And yet, certain things didn’t change much at all: women continued to carry the major responsibility for household labor, child rearing and other kinds of care work, and women were still more likely to live in poverty than men.

Meanwhile other trends that had been improving began to stagnate or reverse in the 1990s, such as the degree of occupational integration between men and women. Occupational segregation between white women and black women increased in the 1990s, and wage inequality between women with high school degrees or less and women with advanced education began to rise. An employment gap between young white and black women began to appear for the first time.

What explains these trends? We argue that while some of them can be explained by economic changes such as a rise in the service sector and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, much is explained by social movements of the period. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, along with the civil rights movement, laid the groundwork for significant and real gains for some segments of the working class. On the other hand, these movements did not operate in a vacuum. They had internal disagreements over how to shape their demands, and they also had to respond to counterattack and eventual backlash.

This produced a situation where some women have achieved considerable gains, while others have not. While there were differences between women in the 1950s and 1960s, there were more similarities between them than there are today. After forty years of the women’s movement, the gains of some segments have led to a greater class divide among women workers. This challenges us to consider if it would be possible to build a cross-class women’s movement today.

What has Changed for Women Workers Over the Past Forty Years?

In order to understand the conditions for working women today and the potential for a new women’s movement, we need to understand what has really changed over the past forty years, and what are the consequences of those changes.

As is well-known by now, one of the largest changes has been the significant increase in the overall labor force participation of women, but especially of married women and women with young children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while only about one-third of all women participated in the paid labor force in 1950, approximately 60 percent did by 2004. Married women increased their participation from 24 to 61 percent in that same period.4 Of women with children under age six, 39 percent worked in 1975, while 62 percent did in 2004.5 Major changes took place between 1950 and 1990, with women’s labor force participation leveling off since then. We have even seen a slight decrease in participation rates among white married women with infants in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but that appears to be primarily because of the recession and difficulty in finding work.6

Historians are quick to point out that there are notable differences in the trends by race, as black women have always had higher labor force participation rates than white women, and they tended to work more years in their lifetime whereas white women took time out for child rearing. However, the general trends of increased participation hold for white and black women. Unfortunately, we do not have adequate historical data on female participation rates for Asian and Latina women.

In addition to increasing labor force participation rates, there have been major changes in the gender make-up of certain occupations. By 2004, women accounted for half of all managerial, professional, and related occupations, and this was the occupational category that saw the greatest growth for women in both absolute and relative terms.7

Who are the women who have benefited from these changes? In academic and public policy circles a lot of attention has been given to the benefits accruing to women with a college degree. It is true that this segment of the workforce has seen enormous gains. Whereas the average woman in this category earned $15.45 an hour in 1973 (in 2003 dollars), she earned $20.19 an hour in 2003, a 31 percent increase.8 By comparison, men with a college degree only experienced a 17 percent increase in wages over the same period. Women with advanced degrees have seen a 24 percent increase in their average hourly wage during this period. Many of these women have gained economic independence, allowing them to delay marriage or avoid it altogether, enter occupations formerly closed to them, and gain status and authority in their careers. Indeed, work by Erik Olin Wright and Rachel Dwyer finds that whereas gender was the most significant factor explaining how much someone earned in the new jobs created in the 1960s, race had become more important by the 1990s.9

Clearly, the upward mobility of white female workers with significant education is one of the remarkable changes of the past forty years, and the gains for this group of women are not to be discounted. Still, the way that their success is commonly portrayed misses an important part of the story. First, there are the significant barriers that still remain for many women due to the “glass ceiling,” or other forms of discrimination that still exist in the labor market. And professional women who struggle to balance both job and family suffer a penalty in a work world that has changed very little in response to this reality. Second, there are the crucial factors of class and race that are left out by the story of successful professional women. The majority of working women are still in low-wage, insecure jobs with little prestige and stability and no benefits.

What Hasn’t Changed?

As of 2005, the median hourly wage for all women workers was $12.50. For a single mother with two children working full-time this represents about 160 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of three. Close to 60 percent of all black women and 67 percent of all Latina women earn hourly wages below this amount. Although women now comprise the majority of college students, this still represents only a minority of all women. In 2004 only 23 percent of all women aged 25 to 64 had a college degree. For black women in this age group, only 14 percent had a college degree or more. And for Hispanic women the figure is only 9 percent.

This may explain why we see such discrepancies in occupational data when we examine it by race. While 39 percent of all white women and 44 percent of all Asian women worked in management, professional, and related occupations in 2004, only 31 percent of black women and 22 percent of Hispanic women did so. Women are making up more of the professional and managerial classes, but there are still important differences across race.

Although the gender wage gap has been closing, this is not because women’s average wages are rising. In fact, in recent years women’s earnings have not kept pace with inflation. The gap with male earnings continues to close only because men’s wages are falling faster than women’s. Furthermore, even though some groups of women have been able to achieve much higher wages than the average, they still tend to lose significant income throughout their child-rearing years. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that women between ages 26 and 59 earned only $273,592 over fifteen years, whereas the average man of that age earned $722,693 (in 1999 dollars) in the same time period. This suggests that even while the hourly gender pay ratio may be 77 percent at any one time, the lifetime gender gap is much more substantial, 38 percent in this case. While recent numbers show that the hourly wage gap for younger workers is closing, with the average gender pay ratio up to eighty-four cents, it is not clear if this represents a generational change or simply a pattern in life-cycle earnings.

Women are still primarily responsible for raising children and taking care of the house. Although there has been an increase in the number of single-father-headed households and the amount of child care done by fathers in general, there continues to be a large gap between the average hours that mothers and fathers devote to raising children. Contrary to the popular view that many young fathers are leaving the labor force to care for their children, the labor force participation rate for fathers with children under three years old is 95 percent: higher than any other group. Even when both parents work outside the home and fathers share in child-care tasks, mothers are more likely to take jobs with flexible hours that allow them to drop off and pick up children from school or take the day off when the children are sick. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working women with small children spend more than twice the hours per day doing primary child-care activity than their spouses. Husbands do a slightly greater share of household tasks but still average only about half of the work done by their wives.10 Over time, as more women entered the paid labor force, men have increased their share of housework somewhat, but the gap between men and women has closed primarily because women have reduced their total hours. While more companies now offer family-leave, data show that women are economically penalized for taking advantage of that leave, particularly women in professional jobs. This may be one reason why professional couples have increased their reliance on domestic help services primarily provided by other women.

Lower wages and greater child-care responsibility relate to the third trend that has remained steady, which is that women are more likely than men to be living in poverty. It is important to point out that most scholars believe that the federal poverty line is too low and does not accurately reflect the cost of living today. One-third of all women live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. While the overall poverty rate of female-headed families has fallen over the past decades, the rate remains double of those of all families, in every racial category. Moreover, since 2001 the percentage of female-headed families living in poverty has increased. Today over 20 percent of white female-headed families and almost a third of female-headed families of all races are living in poverty. Approximately 40 percent of all black and Hispanic female-headed families do not earn enough to meet their basic needs.

What keeps women in poverty? One significant reason is the low wages women earn in the labor market. Average wages in female-dominated occupations are very low, and as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out so clearly in Nickel and Dimed, the math just doesn’t add up. But women who try to move into higher-wage occupations, particularly ones that don’t require a college degree, face real barriers. For example, despite the many programs that attempt to bring women into nontraditional occupations, there are still very few women in higher-wage construction or manufacturing occupations. Women who do move into such occupations often experience harassment and isolation on the job, and many eventually decide to leave these occupations altogether.

But occupational segregation isn’t just a reality in manufacturing or the building trades. According to Stephen Rose and Heidi Hartmann, even within occupational groups there are still male and female tiers, with women concentrated in the lower-paid tiers. The occupations that are most common for women workers today are remarkably similar to what they were in the 1940s: nurses, nurses’ aids, typists, and secretaries.11 Irene Padavic and Barbara Reskin also point out that while women were making strides in changing occupational segregation in the 1970s and 1980s, there was stagnation in the 1990s. (There was also a trend toward occupational integration by race between the 1960s and the 1980s, but that reversed itself in the 1990s.)

Not only do some occupations continue to remain highly segregated by gender, but wages in those occupations still show large discrepancies among comparable jobs. For example, janitors, who are primarily men, earned an average wage of $10.00 an hour in 2004, while maids and housekeepers, an occupation that requires similar amounts of training and skill, earned $8.67 an hour. Machinery maintenance workers and nursing aides receive similar amounts of training, but the former earned $16.64 an hour in 2004, while the latter earned $10.53.12

Explaining the Trends

What explains why some things have changed so dramatically while others have stayed the same? A closer look at who has benefited and who hasn’t can help us understand the answers. For example, many women who have moved into professional and managerial positions have benefited enormously in recent years. But, as Johanna Brenner points out, much of their success has been due to individualized solutions, particularly the fight for equal access to labor markets.13 Women have pushed for admission into colleges and professional schools, and they have used legal strategies and lawsuits to fight for better access to labor markets. Their successes have contributed to the closing wage gap between men and women, as well as some of the areas of substantial occupational desegregation. The women who have benefited from these individual solutions have been disproportionately white and those with prior access to resources.

The numbers also show that race and class matter. This is not a new point, but still a crucial one, since recent trends among women suggest a widening racial gap, evidenced by increasing occupational segregation between white and black women in the 1990s and the differential rates of employment between young white and black women in recent years.14 For most women, entering the paid labor force also does not change their class position, as class mobility remains relatively low in the United States. Indeed recent research suggests that class mobility has been decreasing in recent years.

Having children also matters. Not all women with children do poorly in the labor market, but 75 percent of poor families have children under eighteen years of age.15 And having children remains one of the best predictors of how well women will be able to negotiate the labor market. This relationship is mitigated by the presence of a husband or second parent, but women continue to hold the primary responsibility for child rearing.

But these facts are not enough to explain the trends discussed above. It is not just that working-class women and women of color have less power and fewer resources, on average, than elite women or white women. And it is not just that having children is expensive and makes it difficult to find well-paid work.

Organizing also matters. Women, including working-class women, have attempted to exert their agency both individually and collectively in this period. However, the way in which power and resources are distributed, as well as the way social reproduction is organized, have shaped how that agency has been exerted.

Similarly, the framework within which people make demands can affect the outcomes of their struggles. Nelson Lichtenstein argues that the American labor movement failed to develop a comprehensive collective approach to organizing the working class coming out of the Second World War.16 For example, rather than fighting for a universal health care system, they won employer-based health care. Rather than fighting to improve the working conditions and employment opportunities for all workers, they fought primarily on behalf of their members. As a result, large groups of workers were not only outside the union movement, unions failed to address issues central to them like health care and retirement security. Women and people of color were particularly marginalized by the postwar development of the U.S. labor movement and forced to look for other solutions to workplace problems. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was one expression of this search for alternatives, pressing for the passage of landmark legislation that prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race or gender (and other categories) and required employers to pay equal wages to men and women performing the same work. However, because these rights were the product of a legislative victory, they were primarily enforced through individual lawsuits. This contributed to the approach adopted by today’s women’s organizations.

Since many of these approaches have enjoyed success, organizations continue to emphasize individualized strategies for working-class women. To confront occupational segregation, they advocate job training that would enable women to enter skilled trades. To decrease the wage gap, they push for more programs to get women into college and legislation that would mandate equal pay.

While having access to individual solutions is important, it is also true that working-class women and women of color are much less likely to pursue them. There are, of course, cases like Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart, as well as other initiatives on behalf of working-class women. But these cases can take many years to resolve, and most working-class women have neither the time nor resources necessary to pursue them. With legal and other individual strategies out of reach, and vehicles for collective action (like unions) on the decline, working-class women are largely left out, with no large organization of their own.

Of course not all organizing has focused on individual solutions. Some working-class women have benefited from collective approaches which improve wages and job quality—namely unionization. There have been unions in the United States that have organized women for a long time, but efforts have increased dramatically in the past several decades. For example, women in teaching and nursing have experienced wage gains and better benefits through unionization. Working-class women’s organizations such as 9to5, which was founded in 1973 and now has members in all fifty states, have organized to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and state health and safety laws, as well as local living-wage ordinances.

But where collective action exists it runs into a second challenge of organizing: locating sources of power. Steve Jenkins, analyzing the dynamics of the workers center movement, makes a useful distinction between two sources of power available to workers. The first is social power, the ability to disrupt production or business, while the second is advocacy power, the ability to get lawyers, lobbyists, voters, or others to win things on your behalf.17

What kind of power do women workers have? One set of women who have done relatively well in the job market in the last several decades are those women with access to scarce skills: in particular, women who received a college degree or more and go into particular managerial and professional occupations. These women have been able to rely on their individual or sometimes collective bargaining power to gain access to better jobs and wages.

A second set of women have combined collective action, primarily through unionization, with their individual skills and education to improve their wages and working conditions. Table 1 illustrates this point, listing the largest twenty occupations for women. These occupations account for 43 percent of all women workers. Note that both registered nurses and grade school teachers recorded significantly higher weekly earnings ($930 and $813, respectively) than all women workers ($585), as well as much higher rates of unionization. However, access to education and scarce skills, or even union membership, is no guarantee of success in the labor market. For example, teacher assistants and preschool and kindergarten teachers both have higher than average union density but lower than average weekly earnings. One explanation may be the difficulties associated with working in a caring profession.

Table 1

As Nancy Folbre argues in her book The Invisible Heart, this is a byproduct of the gender division of labor, where all forms of caring labor are undervalued in the marketplace. Even though caring labor has been increasingly privatized as more women enter the paid labor force, it is still heavily subsidized by the free work that women continue to do (which Folbre estimates would amount to somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of all goods and services bought in the United States). Folbre also argues that even when women in caring professions unionize they end up with lower pay than they would in comparable jobs outside the care sector. This follows from the fact that unionized workers may be more reluctant to exercise that leverage—whether through strikes or other job actions—because of the care-giving element of their jobs.

Particularly important, however, is a third group of women workers: those without individual power and those without unions. These are the women with less higher education and little ability to get jobs beyond the traditional female occupations. These jobs, such as cashier, retail salesperson, and waitress, come with little social power. The employees are seen as easily replaceable, and their occupations have very low rates of union density. As table 1 shows, many of the largest occupations for women have lower than average union density rates. Thus, most women workers benefit from neither the individual-based solutions nor collective efforts like unionization.

What’s more, individual-based solutions are not likely to be effective for this group of women, since they do not address the heart of the problem, the lack of “good jobs.” It is possible that the Wal-Mart cashier job of today could carry pay and benefits comparable to the Ford assembly job of the 1950s, but it would take collective organizing, not job training, to change those jobs into “good jobs.” Indeed, that is how the one-time “bad jobs” in the auto industry were converted to higher-wage, benefited ones.

While we believe women in this third category are more likely to benefit from collective strategies versus individual ones, it is important to point out that even collective approachs are still limited. First, in the short-term, they can only address job quality, and not class position. Even with greater union density in all female dominated occupations, if we are still living in a class economy, working women would still be exploited by their employer and alienated from their labor.

Second, collective approaches that are only aimed at improving wages and job quality are still limited in the impact they can have on the lives of working women, because they do not address the social reproduction of labor. Women also need collective solutions to non-market activity as well as market activity. Improving access to the market and to better quality jobs can benefit individual women, but this often simply redistributes the caring labor among women. As Johanna Brenner and Barbara Laslett argue, it is not only power and resources that affect organizing opportunities but the entire organization of social reproduction.18 The ways in which social reproduction—especially the gender division of labor—is structured can open or close spaces for women’s self-organization. For example, a privatized system of care means that housework and child-care responsibilities fall onto individuals and families. The gender division of labor has resulted in most of this work falling on women. However, there has been variation in the impact of this, particularly by class and race, depending on the state of social movements. At times like the Progressive Era and the 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong feminist movement that challenged the gender division of labor and created a space for mostly middle-class and white women to self-organize and mobilize around their demands. In the current period, the bulk of social reproduction is privatized. Parents are responsible for solving their own child-care (and other care-work) needs. This further individualizes women’s lives and inhibits space for self-organization and collective solutions of any kind.

Of course, we would be remiss to ignore the other material conditions that matter in shaping women’s experiences in the labor market. It is not only the structure of social reproduction that matters but also production. Some of the most dramatic changes in women’s labor force participation happened when employers and/or government actively recruited women to work outside the home for wages, such as the Lowell textile mills that recruited farm girls in the early 1800s, or the defense industry that hired women during the Second World War. Women can significantly change their labor market experiences through their own self-organization, but they are, of course, not doing so under “conditions of their own choosing.”

What does all of this mean for women’s self-organization? Continuing to focus on discrimination in the workplace limits the struggle for working-class women, because it primarily rests on claims of equal access to markets, rather than rejecting the notion that markets can lead to living-wage jobs for all and a more humane approach to production and social reproduction. While there are a number of organizations that work on issues related to women and work, many in the end push for policies that accept this framework: more job training for women so that they can access higher-wage jobs; child-care subsidies so that more women can enter the labor market; and comparable worth policies that force employers to recognize and fairly compensate women’s human capital.19 In the end, these solutions can only improve the chances that women can gain access to working-class jobs, or at best, leave the class altogether. What is missing is an acknowledgment that class, at the core, is a system where workers and employers have inherently opposing interests. We can and should fight for better conditions for workers under capitalism, but in the end, capitalism cannot provide sustainable, living-wage jobs for all. This means there will be competition for the living-wage jobs that do exist under capitalism, and the ways in which those jobs are parceled out will be influenced by systems of patriarchy and racial oppression. Individual solutions based on market access won’t be enough: women also need class-based solutions. In fact, individual solutions have only exacerbated the problem for many women.

As feminists, we want to see individual women succeed: to gain access to higher education, to have the opportunity for economic independence, and to find meaningful work. But it isn’t enough for a few women, or even a lot of women, to succeed. Because under capitalism, their success in leaving the class only means others are left behind. Under capitalism, you can’t have a manager without the managed, and you can’t have a winner without a loser. And who is losing? It remains primarily women and people of color who lose the most under capitalism, overrepresented among the working class and the poor. And, in addition, many of those women who are “winners” by virtue of their new degrees and jobs aren’t really winning. They may have more money and more power, but capitalism still constrains their options for caring for others and being cared for. In this way, the women who “win” under capitalism, as well as those who lose, need a cross-class women’s movement to fight for a different model of production and social reproduction that allows us to construct our lives around human needs.


  1. Irene Padavic, “Patterns of Labor Force Participation and Sex Segregation” (conference paper, 3rd Annual Invitational Journalism-Work/Family Conference, Boston University and Brandeis University, Community, Families & Work Program, May 20–21, 2004).
  2. This is for full-time workers. Stephen J. Rose & Heidi I. Hartmann, Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap (Washington D.C.: Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2004),
  3. Data in this article comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Populaton Survey, Women in the Labor Force Databook 2005, unless otherwise specified. See
  6. Heather Boushey, “Are Mothers Really Leaving the Workplace?” (issue brief, Council on Contemporary Families and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, March 28, 2006).
  8. Economic Policy Institute,
  9. Erik Olin Wright & Rachel Dwyer, “The American Jobs Machine: Is the New Economy Creating Good Jobs?” Boston Review 25 (December/January 2000–01): 21–26.
  10. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Time Use Survey.
  11. Irene Padavic & Barbara Reskin, Women and Men at Work, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 2002).
  12. National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.
  13. Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
  14. Lori L. Reid & Irene Padavic. “Employment Exits and the Race Gap in Young Women’s Employment,” Social Science Quarterly 86 (December 2005): 1242–60.
  16. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  17. Steve Jenkins, “Organizing, Advocacy and Member Power: A Critical Reflection,” WorkingUSA (Fall 2002): 56–73.
  18. Johanna Brenner & Barbara Laslett, “Gender, Social Reproduction, and Women’s Self-Organization: Considering the U.S. Welfare State,” Gender and Society 5, no. 3 (1991): 311–33.
  19. For a useful debate between different theoretical/political positions about the merits and weaknesses of comparable worth policies see Paula England, Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1992).