Call for a “New Deal” Feminism Focused on Economics and the Workplace

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In the weekend’s Washington Post, Professor Dorothy Sue Cobble (History and Labor Studies, Rutgers) writes, “It’s Time for a New Deal Feminism.”

The American workplace is transforming, but women’s lives aren’t necessarily improving. * * * The answer is not for women to leave the workforce — as if that were even a remote possibility. But neither is it to resurrect the feminism of the 1960s generation and refight the battles of the past half-century. * * * Feminism today should concentrate on the economy and the workplace — and on the huge transformations that are needed there to get greater equality and security. These are issues that can unite women across class and culture and allow feminism to speak to the fears and concerns of everyone. A few women’s organizations and groups have been moving in this direction for a long time. But what often gets lost is how much we can draw not only from the great feminist upsurge of the late 1960s and 1970s but also from the movement that preceded it. The next women’s movement should look a lot more like the one in the 1930s than the one in the late 1960s.

In 1945, New Deal feminists introduced the first equal-pay bill into Congress; they reintroduced it in each of the next 18 years until the Equal Pay Act finally passed in 1963. Three years later, New Deal feminists joined forces with the civil rights, labor and poor people’s movements and succeeded in amending the FLSA, raising the minimums and gaining coverage for the majority of American workers for the first time. The phrase “working poor” should be an oxymoron, they thought, and few believed it would be tolerated for long in a society so wealthy and so dedicated to the work ethic. They would have been astounded by today’s low and falling wages.

Their jobs program paid attention to work time — on and off the clock. New Deal feminists pushed employers to create more flexible policies so that employees could take time off for education or to care for family members. Beginning in 1943, as part of the broader effort to amend the Social Security Act, they lobbied for what they called “full Social Security,” including paid maternity leave and investment in child care and early education. They urged tax exemptions and tax credits for dependents and the recognition of women’s unpaid caregiving as part of the calculation of Social Security benefits.

In 1954, their energetic lobbying helped pass a tax reform allowing child-care expenses to be considered a legitimate deduction.

The full op-ed is here.

H/T Cyra Choudhury.

Professor Cobble’s look to the lessons of the 1930′s for an invigorated feminism is complicated by the fact (which she doesn’t mention) that some successful protective labor laws from this era relied on the law’s acceptance of women as fundamentally more fragile (and thus deserving more protection) than men.   Furthermore, apart from women’s biological weaknesses, they had household and child-rearing duties that men did not.   Therefore, social reformers advocated, women should not be required to work the same hours and in the same conditions that men did.

I agree with Professor Cobble’s macro point that economics and the workforce would be salutary arenas for feminist efforts.   But feminists should avoid invoking old stereotypes about women’s special need to be protected from the mean ole’ marketplace.   A more beneficial focus would be developing an instrumental vision of law, one that harnesses the power of economic-based incentives to transform the gendered nature of both market-based and “care” work.

-Bridget Crawford

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