Feminism must focus on economy, with lessons from New Deal

We are in the midst of a sexual revolution at work. Thanks in part to the recession, women now hold nearly half of all jobs in the economy, mothers are the main or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families, and men represent a majority of the jobless. But this is one sexual revolution that hasn't produced much joy of late. For many, decent wages and economic security remain elusive, and the stress of long hours and job competition has frayed social relationships.

The American workplace is transforming, but women's lives aren't necessarily improving. The answer is not to resurrect 1960s feminism and refight the battles of the past half-century. The vitriol stirred up by the recent health-care reform amendment from Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that would restrict insurance coverage for abortion has highlighted the divide among women over how to focus feminist efforts. Consensus on abortion rights is impossible at this moment.

Instead, feminism should concentrate on the economy and the workplace, and on the huge transformations needed for greater equality and security. These issues can unite women across class and culture and allow feminism to speak to everyone's concerns. A few women's groups have long been moving in this direction, 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 more like the one in the 1930s than the one in the late 1960s.

Yes, there was a feminist movement before Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963. Before "women's liberation," our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had some brilliant ideas about improving both the lives of working women and the economy.

These "New Deal feminists" survived the Great Depression, kept factories humming during the war years and pioneered the now-commonplace status of working wife and mother. They knew first-hand about job loss, careers on hold and the competing demands of family and workplace, problems we still face. Their solutions were partial, but the policies they put forward concerning fair wages and family-friendly laws and workplaces — all crucial elements in addressing our current economic insecurity and inequality — are a foundation upon which we can build.

They wanted not just more jobs but better jobs; not just the right to work but rights at work; not just equal pay but the revaluing of women's work, paid and unpaid — in the family, in the community, on the factory floor or in the boardroom; and Social Security and health care for not just some but all.

It wasn't enough for women to access what had traditionally been men's work. All too often that meant entering dangerous or poorly paid jobs and adjusting to a work world premised on the ideal of an unencumbered wage-earner without home or community responsibilities. Rather, they argued, it was necessary to transform the world of work, its values and its practices.

Frances Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary, and other female social reformers in the early 20th century helped shape the initial New Deal legislation of the 1930s. Younger feminists in the 1940s and 1950s worked for changes in employer and government policies to ease the nation's economic and social insecurity and address unfair work practices.

These included Kentucky farm girl Caroline Dawson Davis, the powerhouse behind the women's department of the United Auto Workers from 1948 to 1973; Addie Wyatt, a prominent Chicago civil rights and packinghouse-union leader; and hospitality-worker advocate Myra Wolfgang, who organized Playboy bunnies and publicly reprimanded Hugh Hefner for perpetuating the idea that "women should be obscene and not heard."

Esther Peterson, the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, convinced John F. Kennedy to set up the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. Its report, "American Women," was a national bestseller that embodied much of the reformers' vision, and many of its recommendations, such as equal pay for equal work, became law.

Now it's time to retrieve these forgotten, far-sighted feminists. Take their jobs program: They wanted not the dole nor make-work, but more good jobs, which meant higher pay. What better way to prime the economic pump than to put money in the pockets of workers? Female workers in particular needed a raise. They too supported families, they too provided essential services, even if the results were more intangible than in traditional men's work: a child who could read, a sick patient comforted.

These feminists applauded the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act, which allowed workers to bargain as a group for higher wages. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the first federal law setting a minimum wage, was another vital breakthrough, since then, as now, women were disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs. But the laws of the 1930s were only a beginning. Many workers — retail, hotel, agricultural, domestic — were left out, and it was still legal to pay men and women differently for doing the same work.

In 1945, New Deal feminists introduced the first equal-pay bill into Congress, reintroducing it annually 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 to amend the FLSA, raising the minimums and gaining coverage for the majority of American workers for the first time.

New Deal feminists pushed employers for more flexible policies so employees could take time off for education or family care. Beginning in 1943, they lobbied for "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. They also embraced an expansion of health insurance, including hospital coverage for pregnant women and young children. By the 1960s, the elderly gained health coverage, as did the poor and the disabled.

Now we need to build on their insights and partial victories. We need a movement to raise income, to close the gender leisure gap as well as the gender pay gap — still stuck at 23 percent — to redesign careers for modern families, and to expand health coverage. Parts of this movement and the agenda around which it could unite already exist. Take the flurry of state bills for paid family and medical leave, a number of which have been enacted; the recent passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; and the creative coalition-building underway around such proposals as a "caregiver credit" as part of Social Security.

But for the movement to grow, it must take another page from New Deal feminism: joining with others concerned with economic justice and workplace transformation, and updating and strengthening labor laws. With the rise of managerial, supervisory and contingent work, the FLSA and the National Labor Relations Act cover barely half of the private-sector labor force. Programs such as the child tax credit and support for early education should be extended to the middle class. Any women's movement that wants to remain relevant must advocate for the majority of women: waitress moms as well as soccer moms, corporate executives as well as the immigrant women who clean their homes and care for their children.

It falls to us to achieve that to which New Deal feminists aspired. If we haven't, it is not because we have fewer means; we are richer in material goods than they ever thought possible. New Deal feminists wanted more than equality. They wanted a just and caring society. Is this too much to ask? Our grandmothers didn't think so.

Cobble, a professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers, is the author of "The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America" and "The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor."

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