It's time for New Deal feminism

By Dorothy Sue Cobble
Sunday, December 13, 2009

We are in the midst of a sexual revolution at work. Thanks in part to the recession, women now hold close to half of all jobs in the economy, mothers are the main or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families, and men can claim the dubious honor of being a majority of the jobless. But this is one sexual revolution that hasn't produced much joy of late -- at work or at home. 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. If we'd known what it was like to have it all, as Lily Tomlin might say, we would have asked for something else.

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. In recent weeks, the vitriol stirred up by the health-care reform amendment from Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that would restrict insurance coverage for abortion has highlighted the divide among women, many of whom consider themselves both Democrats and feminists, over how to focus feminist efforts. It is painfully clear that consensus in this country on the issue of abortion rights is impossible at this moment.

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.

Yes, there was a feminist movement before Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963. Back in those dark days before "women's liberation," our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had some brilliant ideas about how to improve the lives of working women as well as how to fix the economy. They were what I call New Deal feminists, who led the women's movement during the "long New Deal" from the 1930s to the 1960s.

They 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, all 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.

What did they achieve? Well, not exactly what they wanted, but then neither does any generation. What they wanted was 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, wherever it occurred -- in the family, in the community, on the factory floor, in the boardroom, at the day-care center or the nursing home; and Social Security and health care not just for some but for all.

It wasn't enough for women to gain access to 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, what was needed, they argued, was to transform the world of work, its values and its practices.

Frances Perkins, who served as President Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary from 1933 to 1945, and other female social reformers who came of age in the early 20th century helped shape the initial New Deal legislation of the 1930s. A younger generation of feminists soon took up the baton, working tirelessly in the 1940s and 1950s to secure changes in employer and government policies that would ease the economic and social insecurity plaguing the nation and address unfair practices at work.

These included Kentucky farm girl-turned-auto plant organizer 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."

By the early 1960s, with one of their own, Esther Peterson -- a Utah-born Mormon who in the 1930s found her life's cause in supporting the workplace struggles of low-income women -- the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, their ideas moved to the national stage. Peterson convinced John F. Kennedy to set up the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and its report, "American Women," a national bestseller, embodied much of the reformers' vision. A number of its recommendations -- equal pay for equal work, for example -- would become law; many others made headway but then lost steam as the country turned its attention elsewhere. Now it's time to retrieve these forgotten, far-sighted feminists.

Take their jobs program. They wanted neither the dole nor make-work. Rather, they wanted more good jobs. Good jobs meant, first and foremost, higher pay. What better way to prime the economic pump than to put money in the pockets of workers, who after all are consumers? 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.

Along with many others, 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 for New Deal feminists; then, as now, women were disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs. But the laws of the 1930s, though of immense significance, were only a beginning. Many workers -- retail, hotel, agricultural, domestic -- were left out, and it was still perfectly legal to pay men and women differently even when they did the same work.

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. They also embraced an expansion of health insurance, including hospital coverage for pregnant women and young children. And as we know, some progress occurred. By the 1960s, the elderly gained health coverage, as did the poor and the disabled.

What we need now is a movement that builds 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 will need to take another page from New Deal feminism: join with others concerned with economic justice and workplace transformation and pay attention to updating and strengthening labor laws. With the rise of managerial, supervisory and contingent work, the FLSA and the National Labor Relations Act barely cover half of the private-sector labor force. At the same time, programs such as the child tax credit and support for early education should be extended to the middle class. As New Deal feminists knew, any women's movement that wants to remain relevant needs to 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 done so, it is not because we have fewer means or opportunities. 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.

Dorothy Sue Cobble is a professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers. She 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." She will be online to chat with readers on Monday at 11:00 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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