Women and Labor in a Moment of Crisis

by Nan Enstad
UW-Madison Department of History

The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “In time of crisis, we summon up our strength. Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power.” For me, the practice of history is the collective invocation of this process. What have we inherited from those who have gone before that can help empower us to meet this moment?

The intersectional history of women workers presents us with a wealth of wisdom about transformation. We know that people with money and political position wield power in society, but the first lessons that my US gender and women’s history class confronts is that sometimes it is the people who have the least institutionalized power in society that make the most surprising and dramatic change. Furthermore, people sometimes make this change in dark times, when openings seem to be few. In my class, we learn this lesson first by studying how African American women launched the anti-lynching movement without wealth, political representation, access to the mainstream press, or even the right to vote. The refrain sounds again in the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the welfare rights movement.

Sometimes we forget that the Civil Rights movement was also a labor movement: it put the economic rights of black workers and farmers front and center, demanded an end to job segregation and discrimination, and exposed the connections between economic oppression and political disenfranchisement. Civil Rights activism caused the most dramatic legal gain for women workers accomplished in the twentieth century, that is, the passage of title seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ensured women’s right to work. Yet, this accomplishment was a complete accident, not an intentional win! What were the organizing principles that gave the Civil Rights movement such resonating power that it could effect change even beyond its own agenda? How did a multiracial women’s movement seize the opportunity and transform the workplace over the next two decades? This is a story about how changes many had found truly unthinkable became reality.

Of course, history is not just about gains; failure is also part of our inheritance and the workplace remains unequal. Failure to secure public support of childcare sets the US apart from other industrialized nations and powerfully undermines women’s collective standing in the workforce. In 1971, activists succeeded in getting a bill through congress that would have created a universal childcare system had it not been vetoed by President Nixon. Why did that effort fail when so many others succeeded and what are the consequences of that failure? Women are forced to solve the problem of childcare individually resulting in double days, deferred careers, restricted job choices and personal stress. How do we turn frustration to political opening?

The dramatic history of women’s intersectional struggle as workers is good to think with. Especially in difficult times, the examples of our forebears becomes our precious inheritance as we gird ourselves for new challenges. We will be taking up these themes together at the February 13th breakfast.

Nan Enstad is the lead speaker at ICWJ’s Faith Labor Breakfast. For more information and to register for the breakfast, go to www.workerjustice.org and click on the Donate button. There you can make a donation of $25 per ticket. To become a member of ICWJ, please add $5 per person. For questions about the Breakfast, please email events@workerjustice.org.

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