Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign.
For the past 20 years, I have worked with domestic workers and caregivers to bring dignity and respect to the work of raising children, maintaining households and caring for the elderly. This is the family care work that has historically been shouldered by women — paid and unpaid.
For the millions of women who work as professional caregivers and domestic workers today, feminism isn’t an intellectual exercise. It is a practical matter, with real life implications — like whether they have equal protection under law; whether their wages are enough to pay the bills and raise their children; or whether their jobs offer the basic dignity of being considered work in our society.
The domestic workers movement has created a home for some of the most isolated and vulnerable working women in our economy, offering a platform to change the laws and culture that undervalue their contributions and limit their human potential. Women of color and immigrant women built this movement. Their leadership puts feminism into practice every day, changing policies and behaviors that will improve working conditions for this predominantly female, low-wage workforce for generations to come.
That change is the essence of feminism. It is a work in progress — an evolving practice of harnessing the power of people to disrupt outdated hierarchies. It’s also about making the invisible visible. It challenges assumptions and deeply embedded inequalities to radically imagine a future where women are recognized and compensated for all their contributions. Feminism, whether so labeled or not, has made domestic work visible, changing the way women’s labor, both inside and outside the home, is understood.
Much of the debate about and within feminism has been over who belongs, whose experience matters and whose issues become central to the movement. Women of color and working-class women have long insisted that their experiences and their issues are core to any version of feminism worthy of the name. They have taken their place as leaders of organizations and movements whose core mission is to continue to challenge the structures, systems and beliefs that keep women subordinated into the 21st century.
Each generation of feminist organizers has grappled with the question, “Whose feminism is this?” For younger women, the starting point now is different than the feminism of the 1970s. Today’s movement’s agenda is multidimensional, and the path to achieving it is not zero-sum. Is there room to improve? Absolutely. But the presumption that feminism is the province of white middle-class women is a throwback to an earlier time — and was not even true then. Most of the leaders of women’s organizations today understand and embrace the important role that women of color, low-income and LGBT women must play in realizing an equity agenda.
A number of women’s organizations worked together this contentious election year on an effort called “We Won’t Wait.” As the news media covered Donald Trump’s every move, we were out talking to two million women around the country about their experiences and hopes for the future. If the women we talked to had one thing in common, it was that they were not single-issue voters. That makes perfect sense; as feminist scholar and activist Audre Lorde said, we don’t lead single-issue lives. When we connect our experiences across difference, and link organizations that speak to different constituencies, we create a more powerful movement.
The world around us has changed. We have a new political context with a backdrop that includes many layers: changes in the American family, the economy and demographics. We are living in a time of unprecedented inequality; approximately 75 percent of our workforce earns less than $52,000 per year. Nearly 60 percent of adult women are in the workforce, on top of caring for family members at home.
If today’s feminism has a different starting point, it also has a different challenge. We must account for the pervasive experience of suffering and hardship in the most diverse and unequal America in history, and the persistence of gender inequality as an integral part of that story.
The good news is that everywhere I turn, feminists are stepping up. Young women continue to step forward, igniting new campaigns for change while long-standing organizations create new partnerships to build power to change the world. More than 100,000 women have signed up to march on Washington in January in anticipation of the inauguration, and we’re just beginning. Feminism lives. Women’s rights are human rights. It’s changing too, to meet the moment. As we enter a new era in American politics, this endeavor is more urgent now than ever.