Trigger warning: discussion of rape, description of violence.
Today the international community celebrates Labor Day! To mark the occasion, I thought I’d address some concerns we heard a while ago in response to Logan’s provocatively-titled treatise of the glories of free stuff. What is the connection, many of our commenters wanted to know, between economics and feminism? Why were we writing about economic issues on a feminist blog?
In this post, I’m not arguing for or against any specific economic system. I’m arguing against the priority of profits over people, the idea that making money is the goal and we should pursue that goal at any cost. Sometimes the costs are too high, and many times, they have to do with sexism. Here are five ways that gender equality and economic justice are interconnected:
1. Women are especially vulnerable in unsafe sweatshop conditions.
Have you heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? One hundred and forty six girls (and I do mean girls- some as young as fifteen), women, and some men who worked in poor conditions in a garment factory in Manhattan burned alive or plunged to their deaths before the eyes of helpless bystanders and firemen when the upper stories of a building caught fire. The workers, mostly poor immigrant women, had tried to organize for safer conditions including in protest of the doors that locked them in the flames, but labor laws were unfriendly in 1911. This firsthand account has not yet failed to move me to tears, even though I’ve read it many times. The closing lines are not the most moving, but they are the most damning:
I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.
The first female cabinet member in US history, future FDR Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, was one of the witnesses; it was a pivotal moment for her because it strengthened her belief in the necessity of labor-friendly policies.
Now, many of the factories that employ poor women in sweatshop conditions are no longer in the US, although the clothes and products they make are still on our store shelves. We may not ever have to walk past their tragedies on the street as those turn of the century New Yorkers did, but we should not forget their plight, and our responsibility not to support their exploitation. And by the way, locked doors at garment factories are still a problem and still account fo worker deaths to this day. Let’s not forget that sweatshops still make our clothes. Chris Kernaghan of the Institute of Global Labour and Human Rights explained of one factory in Northern Benghal, “Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.” Yes, economic injustice makes women vulnerable to sexual harassment.
Yet some workers have it even worse than (already dismal) sweatshop labor; have you calculated how many slaves work for you?
The bottom line here is to consider your economic choices as moral choices: buy fair trade when you can afford to, go to clothing swaps and buy used when you can’t (basically my entire wardrobe comes from thrift stores), and inform yourself so you can avoid products that rely heavily on slave labor. If you’re a college student, push your university to join the Worker Rights Consortium and commit to not having their branded apparel made in sweatshops. Contact your representatives (including state legislatures) to let them know you support organized labor and workplace protections. Don’t cross a picket line.
2. Profit-centered economic practices support human rights abuses against women.
When’s the last time you bought a new electronic device- phone, laptop, tablet, mp3 player, DVD player, flat screen TV, gaming console? Coltan, the shorthand name for columbite–tantalite, an ore used in electronic capacitors, is in all most electronics and many other products (find a non-exhaustive list here). About 13% of coltan was mined in D.R. Congo in 2009, a number that could grow as coltan supplies elsewhere dwindle.
Armed militias flight each other for control of the coltan mines in eastern Congo, and the millions of dollars per year they gain from the mines are used to further the military conflict–a conflict in which 5.4 million people have already died, and which has seen widespread conscription of child soldiers. The war in D.R. Congo is infamous for the widespread use of rape as a tool of war. Most, but not all, of the victims of this tactic are women; every five minutes, four women are raped. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, and if they come forward they face consequences like revenge rape or having their mouths cut off.
Our electronic consumption finances this. Some corporations have made commitments to invest in conflict-free mining; others haven’t. Of course you may not be able to find used electronics (though I’ve had decent luck myself) or avoid, say, having a pacemaker, but you can try to buy from companies that are high on the conflict-free rankings list.
3. Employment and wage discrimination are a double whammy of female economic disempowerment.
Since women are such a low percentage of corporate leadership, wage disparity between CEOs and the average worker disproportionately affects us. CEOs make an average of 354 times as much as the average worker salary in the US– with CEO’s earning an annual average of almost $13 million compared to the national average salary of $34 thousand. By comparison, in 1980 CEOs earned an average of 42 times the pay of the average worker. With just 4.2% of Fortune-1000 companies headed by female CEOs, this statistic affects us; the fight to deflate the overblown salaries of CEOs on behalf of distributing it to the average worker is the fight to empower women economically.
But it’s not just the glass ceiling that does us in. Women’s work is undervalued, across incomes and economic positions. It’s not a new problem either: at the turn of the 19th Century, when women first began to enter clerical and secretarial work, the position dropped both in esteem and in salary– women secretaries were paid only half what their males predecessors had earned. Women still earn a mere 77 cents for every dollar men earn in the US and even less on a global average- and that’s in paid positions. Labor unions fight the wage gap by getting rid of salary secrecy; as a result, women in union jobs earn a whopping (read: still depressing, but better) 8 cents more per their male colleagues dollars that do their non-unionized sisters.
Women are saddled with the majority of unpaid labor in households- even when both parents work! In the US, women account for over 60% of total time spent on childcare, and their work is, on average, more focused on caring for the physical needs of the children, whereas the men are much more likely to devote childcare hours to playing with the kids. Here’s the mindblowing thing, though: In the US, mothers with outside employment and fathers without it spend the same amount of time on childcare- and working mothers spend more time than non-working fathers in most of the world. Work around the house- cleaning, maintenance, food preparations, childcare, and care of elderly relatives, is work that has great human value, but no remunerated economic value.
What can you do? If you’re in a position of power, be aware of your own prejudices. Get involved with organizations that support and value the work of people in traditionally female occupations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance. If you’re a man, do your half of the goddamn housework, and peer pressure your friends and coworkers to do the same.
4. Companies use sexism to pressure people into hyper-consumerism.
Sexist ads shame women for not being proper women if we don’t buy their products. Fashion, home cleaning supplies, home decorating, makeup, laundry detergent- all things we see messaging about constantly, trying to convince us we fail as women if we don’t live a lifestyle that necessitates their product. Miss X laid this out pretty clearly in her takedown of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, Bridie touched on this in her article on beauty standards, and Sarah Haskins is basically the most hilarious observer of sexism in advertising in the history of comedy and sexist advertising.
Sarah Haskins, marry me.
Sexist ads don’t just play into sexist stereotypes of women to sell to us, they also objectify women to sell things to men. In both these cases, I don’t think advertisers are making these choices specifically to hurt women. They simply know sexism is an easy way to move products and make money, and they don’t care if they’re hurting women in the process.
Oh, and of course then we have the fact that women spend a ridiculous amount of time and money following the beauty standards reinforced by these sexist memes. Bridie has already covered that beautifully, so I won’t go too in depth, but friends, think of the things we could do with that time and money! Sexism makes us less economically secure, because we’re wasting time on these beauty standards, standards that, in the case of many women, are mandatory to comply with in order to get or keep a job. And, as Bridie astutely points out, the effects of these are increased for women of color.
How do we make this better? First, remember that your worth is not tied to how much you buy or how you look. Skirt consumerism by taking advantage of things and activities available for free. Engage in some fun and cathartic ad-busting.
5. Consumerism and corporate pollution cause environmental effects that hit women hardest.
Measuring economic success by how much more crap we made/bought this year than we did last year, forever, affects the environment. We pollute, and we cause climate change. Climate change disproportionately affects women, as Lunas explained so eloquently on Earth Day. Basically, women live in the most poverty (1% of global property is owned by women) and thus less able to financially adapt to pollution or climate change messing up their livelihoods. Gender roles, sexism, and the accompanying vulnerability also play a part.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Women, Faith, and Development Summit in Washington DC. Among the many excellent speakers was someone who’d worked digging wells in rural villages in developing countries. This speaker explained to us how, when the group first arrived, the town government was exclusively comprised of men, and women had to spend over an hour every day walking to and from the well far out of town. They went back to the village a year after digging an in-town well, and with their free time several women had become involved in their local government. It struck me as the perfect example of how gender roles, environmental factors, and empowerment intersect.
A few years later, I went to El Salvador, where activists in Cabañas were fighting (and being murdered) to prevent Canadian mining company Pacific Rim and a few others from exploiting the country’s minerals. The public outcry was so strong that the government told the companies to leave. The problem? Pacific Rim used its US shareholders to sue the Salvadoran government under CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a series of bilateral and unequal economic treaties between the US and each of the Central American countries. If Pacific Rim is able to use CAFTA to mine along the small country’s major watershed, the environmental and public health impact will be huge- as they regularly are throughout the world. The process of eliminating gold from rock uses a lot of cyanide, which can affect crops, livestock, and, obviously, people. It also uses a huge amount of water–enough water to cause wells to dry up and achieve the opposite of the development group I heard from at the Women, Faith, and Development Summit. Women would have to spend more time fetching water, and have less time for other political, economic, and social activities.
Oxfam has some ideas for ways you can help women affected by climate change. You can fight mining by getting involved with Earthworks. You can stop buying gold. You can contact your representatives and fight against any new unequal “free trade” agreements.
Are there any points of intersection that I’ve missed? Are there any additional ways that people should be taking action? Tell us in the comments!