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50 Years Later, Not Nearly Enough Progress for Working-Class Women

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Ellen Bravo

Male Help Wanted
Manager trainee, groom for upper management, $7,200 up.

Female Help Wanted
General Office “Gal Friday” for stable, personable lady in one girl office. Starting $80 week[i]

You won’t see ads like these anymore. Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique, women can be firefighters and forklift drivers, and when they are, the law requires that they earn the same base pay as males doing the same job. Most employers can no longer fire someone for being pregnant. Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), both men and women can have up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a new baby or a serious personal or family illness. Sexual harassment has a name and legal remedies.

But despite a handful of very important wins, too many women in the workplace – and their families – remain closer to poverty than to justice or equality.

For one thing, the workforce is still deeply segregated by gender. Women account for few forklift drivers – and 97 percent of child care workers. Most women and men don’t do the same jobs, and the jobs women do pay less. Even where women and men hold the same position, women’s pay is almost always lower. Women are many of the 44 million workers without a single paid sick day. FMLA excludes more than two-fifths of all workers because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees. Many who are eligible have to go on public assistance during leave, or put off treatment because they can’t afford unpaid time. A quarter of all “poverty spells” — falling into poverty for two months or more at a time — begin with the birth of a child.

Far from having it all, most working women live in danger of losing it all. The instability and barriers to unionization that have characterized their jobs are now spreading to men’s jobs – not what we had in mind by equality.

But there is good news. Organizations like National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, OUR Walmart,  9to5 and Retail Action Project are growing in strength, providing vehicles for working-class women to become leaders and fight for change. More feminists and unions are paying attention to these struggles. And broad-based coalitions all over the country are fighting to win paid sick days and affordable family leave.

Ellen Bravo is Executive Director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 20 state coalitions working for policies like paid sick days and paid family leave.

[i] Employment ads from the Raleigh News and Observer, December 1, 1968.

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