SISTERHOOD WOULD HAVE BEEN POWERFUL: notes on class and contemporary feminism
I have proudly aligned myself with feminism for over eleven of my brief twenty-two years. Even in the rocky years of junior high, when such ideas didn’t win me any friends or popularity, I hooked an abortion rights pin to my shirt for my class picture. For years, throughout high school and most of college, it’s been at the bedrock of my values, suspicions, analysis, snap judgments, and total worldview.
Three years ago, I transferred to Barnard College, a Seven Sisters school affiliated with Columbia University, having narrowly escaped from Amherst, a claustrophobic old boy’s club in Massachusetts. But when I graduated from Barnard this May, I left another school with a sour taste in my mouth, not only about the College, but also about liberal feminism in general, the philosophy that informs the outlook of my school, its leaders, and most of its students.
In the months before I donned my slate blue cap and gown, a bitter labor strike unfolded feet from the buildings where I took my seminars, and as I watched, I became older, wiser, and decidedly more skeptical of liberal feminism. It was a strike with an unusual and incredibly revealing twist: on the one side was my school, a place that sells itself as a feminist institution. On the other was a union of predominantly women. They are the lowest paid group on campus, secretaries, desk attendants, and clerical workers.
For over four months, this was the scene outside of Barnard’s serene, leafy oasis in Manhattan: an exhausted picket line of mainly female workers of different races, fenced in by police barricades. As backpack-wearing Barnard and Columbia students scurried past them every day, they picketed in a circle in front of a banner reading “Barnard Cuts Women and Children First,: and sometimes ceaselessly chanted “2-4-6-8; Barnard discriminates.” After the novely of such a noisy campus wore off, few students paid attention and the stikers became strangely invisible. But to me, the raucous and then as months wore on, increasingly subdued picket line was an image that should have made the enduring fault lines of liberal feminism—race and class—starkly visible to everyone who walked onto Barnard’s tiny campus in Morningside Heights.
In the first few days after the initial walk-out in February, a group of sympathetic students formed the Student Strike Committee, which organized student support for the union and pressured the administration to settle a contract. By May, the administration had told seven seniors on the Committee, including me, that our diplomas would be delayed because of our participation in a four-hour sit-in. At this point, the press took an inordinate amount of interest in our diplomas, after ignoring the strike for months, revealing once the inanities and biases of the mainstream press.
The delay was really just a thinly disguised way to intimidate students and quell protest at graduation. But as it turned out, the Student Strike Committee had voted on silent protest for commencement anyway, where for the better part of two hours, I sat in the crowd, slumped in my alphabetically assigned seat, unmoved by the pomp and circumstance. As I listened to speaker after speaker tell the Class of 96 that women can do anything, I became restless and impatient for the president to begin her address. At that moment, if no security guards were the wiser, three underclasswomen who had been hiding for hours would drop a banner reading “Anti-Worker=Anti-Woman” from the roof of the library, directly above the podium where the president would give her speech. At that cue, forty students and I, out of a class of 530, would rise to face her holding placards of mute protest.
Please consider this article the commencement address I so sorely wished someone had made. In the last few moments before my class processed into the ceremony, one of the deans, a batty middle-aged man, kept badgering me to find out if I had a bullhorn hidden somewhere in my gown and if I was planning to seize the mic. This is something like the address I would have made if I had confirmed poor Dean Schneider’s worst fears.
Many of the people who were picketing outside graduation are black and Latino, many sole breadwinners for their families. The salaries of this predominantly female union are modest, averaging $24,000 a year, less than what their counterparts earn at the other schools in the university. The consider employer-paid health benefits the main reason to work for Barnard.
In an effort to control what they see as “spiraling health care costs,” the college has insisted that workers contribute to health care premiums and switch to the health plan used by faculty and administrators. In their one substantial concession since February, Barnard has asked that only new workers pay for health care. Local 2110 of United Auto Workers opposes this proposal, maintaining that a two-tiered system would divide new and old workers, weaken their ability to negotiate as a group, and open the door to health care contributions for everyone in the near future, which was Barnard’s original objective anyway. Both union members and the administration acknowledge that this standoff is really about power and safeguarding for the future. But in my opinion, one group—a school with a multi-million dollar endowment—has far more financial flexibility than the other. Barnard has spent far more on scabs, lawyers, mediation, PR, and other sundry costs than they hoped to save in the beginning, and as of July, the strike is still unresolved.
This is the longest strike in the history of Columbia University. The directive comes from the freshly inaugurated President Judith R. Shapiro, an anthropologist who did her work on transexualism. When she arrived last year, so many in the “Barnard community” gushed about her, delighted that the college had a self-identified feminist as president.
Even more disheartening that the purely academic feminism of our president was the spinelessness of the head of the Women’s Center, who sided with the administration in order to protect her job. Meanwhile, Barnard continued business as usual, sponsoring conferences on Women and Politics, Women and Poverty, Women and This, That, or the Other, while outside the gates to our $28,000 a year feminist playground, actual women picketed into 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th weeks without and income in New York City.
Moments before the most significant women’s event of the year, I was standing with my feet planted solidly on the sidewalk, outside the gates to Barnard at 8 o’clock on a warm April night. It was the Take Back the Night march through Morningside Heights, the one night of the year when women formally reclaim the streets. As hundreds of women pour out of campus onto Broadway, I separate myself and cluster with the women union members who have been leafleting the crowd. Streams of women rush past me, triumphant, some arm in arm, and I listen to the chants, “Women Unite, Take Back the Night.” They ring sickeningly hollow and false to my ears. This year, I will not join the march, as I have done in the two years past. I have found that most of the women before me tend to see “women’s issues” as a pre-ordained set of concerns in a vacuum, divorced from politics in general, and consequently fail to make the obvious connections to issues unmentioned in Women’s Studies 101. Most of them have ignored the strike, which seemed to me like the most pressing “women’s issue” on campus.
Perhaps most maddening of all was the myopia of the “feminist” student in allegedly political groups. So few of them challenged Barnard on what seemed to me like an obvious contradiction: the gap between what Barnard practices and what they teach. With their noses buried in Judith Butler and other pomo theorists of the moment, those girls didn’t even see it themselves.
I had hoped that more students at a women’s college would appreciate that feminism is about more than networking and dressing for success. But instead Barnard produces graduates who think that becoming a woman CEO is a feminist act. They are resume-obsessive, grade-driven and soon to be power feminists in power suits.
They are, after all, coming of age at an elite school in a reactionary time. It should be no surprise that most Barnard students are in step with the majority of white, middle to upper-class America. They share the peculiar belief that they live in a classless, casteless society.
With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t expect that many would be actively supportive of the union: we live at a time when particularly on campuses, identity politics trumps class-consciousness, when union membership has been declining in recent years and labor has become vilified. At the same time, surprising numbers of people have absorbed Republican rhetoric and accept the idea that everyone should “take responsibility,” regardless of how little money you make. And of course, Barnard is also a school that costs more than the average salary of the striking workers, and half of the students don’t receive any financial aid.
In the seventh week of the strike, I was sitting with my friend Tamar in the library, trying to prepare for a grueling marathon of final exams. Distracted from endless pages of notes, I wandered over to the magazine rack where I picked up Barnard’s alumni rag. When I saw the cover story, I had to rush back to our table to show Tamar. It was absolutely perfect: “OUR MONEY, OUR SELVES: Why Women are Bullish on Investment Clubs.” Tamar is also greatly amused, and turns to me, whispering, “Of course. We’re Barnard Feminists.” She continues sardonically, “We’re going to take over the world.”
The Barnard library is full of promise in other places, like the third floor stacks housing books by more visionary feminists. Throughout all of the draining, acrimonious debate on campus, when students would tell me that the strike was not a feminist issue, I held on to this deceptively simple definition: “feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women,” said Barbara Smith, at the 1979 National Women’s Studies convention. “Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”
Twenty years after Barbara Smith made those remarks about self-aggrandizement and feminism, some historians have observed that in a bitter irony, the classes of women who never had a choice about working and stood to gain the most from the women’s movements have arguably seen the least meaningful changes in their lives.
The second wave of feminism has brought many wonderful things, among them, a momentous influx of women into the professions. But by 1990, eighty percent of working women were still clustered in undervalued sex-segregated jobs, like clerical work. In these kinds of jobs, women earn 70 cents on the male dollar because of structural sexism: the logic that women’s work is less skilled than men’s, and the enduring idea that men, and not women, should earn enough to support an entire family. Women’s lower wages are also a result of female exclusion from labor unions in the thirties, forties, and fifties.
When sociologists talk about the “feminization of poverty,” they are talking about these women. In the last twenty years, more and more mothers are unpartnered and stuck in the pink collar ghetto, which pays them barely enough to feed clothe, and house their children. If current trends continue, some scholars estimate that by the year 2000, the poverty population will be composed entirely of women and their children.
The background, against which we see a minority of women incorporated into the power structure, should tell us that dismantling barriers to female advancement is not enough. I saw this acutely, every day this past semester at Barnard. Such liberal strategies that ignore structural inequality generally benefit only women who can take advantage of resulting opportunities, girls (like me) who can go to fancy schools and have “careers.” Consequently, liberalism winds up leaving the rest of the sex in the dust, doing pink collar work for unfairly low wages, possibly without health insurance, child care, or any hopes of breaking out.
Liberal feminism is also atomizing: it privileges individual female achievement (like a Barnard grad becoming a CEO) over collective struggle. Individualism works fine for women who have profited from reforms and have something to show for it, but does little for the women who are floors below the glass ceiling and need the power of their numbers. Liberalism offers nothing to those on the losing side of the class war whose only real means to seek redress is collective action as a group.
In addition, the essentially conservative nature of classical liberalism prevents feminism from engaging with the possibility of serious structural change. Without that kind of change, sisters will remain unequal.
The interests of labor and the interests of capital are inherently in conflict, and any gains that working women and men win, indeed, any gains that any group wins, are inevitably wrested in the context of that dialectic. Feminists need to grapple with their alliances in the very real, but largely unreported class war continuing in this country and throughout the world. A liberal women’s movement that ignores the question of restraining or dismantling capitalism is doomed to become purely bourgeois. Which side are feminists on?
from cupsize by Sasha Cagen
Published with the author's permission 12/10/2008