After decades of painfully slow yet measurable progress for women – a shrinking wage gap; increasing awareness of gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence; and more women being elected to public office – working-class women and girls in the United States were sold a lie that women’s equality had been accomplished. This is a far cry from the actual experiences of increasing inequality and oppression, most acutely shown through a new normalization of misogyny. The fact that this is happening under a Democratic administration, and just a few years after the 2017 Women’s March made history as the largest single-day street protest in American history, is both confusing and deeply demoralizing, especially for young women.
A recent CDC survey found that nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, and one in three seriously considered attempting suicide. In 2020, over half of all women in the U.S. – 51.2% – received mental health services.
Conditions Facing Women Today
The alarming rates of depression among women and girls are the product of our concrete life experiences. The rate of teenage girls who report having been forced to have sex at some point in their lives is increasing (currently 14%), and the same is true for LGBTQ youth (20%). The epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses impacts one in five women, yet only one student in 12,400 is expelled for sexual assault. The numbers simply don’t add up. Domestic violence against women rose dramatically during COVID lockdowns and has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Links between restrictive abortion laws and increased rates of suicide for women were proven by large-scale studies well before the overturn of Roe. Today, abortion restrictions exist in 29 of 50 states.
Along with increasing legal repression of women’s rights, popular consciousness and culture are featuring markedly higher degrees of sexism. Andrew Tate and other right-wing influencers are popularizing shockingly misogynistic ideas to disaffected young men while high-profile public “showdowns” like the Depp v. Heard trial act as a release valve for cultural misogyny and polarization. These are just a few of the best-known examples of how anger at the alienation and disintegration of the social fabric is being diverted from the true culprits – the rich and powerful – towards the age-old scapegoat, women.
Working-class young men are undeniably suffering from an objective scarcity of living wage jobs and wages that are failing to keep pace with inflation. There is a mental health and addiction crisis ravaging the lives of many young men, with suicide deaths for young men outnumbering those of young women by degrees of magnitude. Men account for almost 70% of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. But far from being the result of feminism – as vultures like Tate would have you believe – the blame lies with the exact capitalist system these right-wing figures defend. If feminism was behind the declining conditions facing working-class men, why is it that women suffer the most from economic precarity?
During the depths of the pandemic, 13.6 million women – 18% of the entire U.S. female population – lost their jobs. And while the overall rebounding of women’s employment figures is being broadly celebrated, those figures mask deepening inequalities between women, where wealthier women are seeing modest gains in their standard of living while working-class women fall further and further behind.
Women with college degrees now have higher rates of employment than before the pandemic while women without college degrees have not yet returned to pre-pandemic employment levels. Recent decreases in unemployment levels for Black women are also being touted, yet Black women continue to face unemployment at significantly higher rates than white women (4.7% to 2.8%). A disproportionate number of women who have reentered the workforce post-pandemic are, as before, working in the service and hospitality sectors. These sectors are particularly sensitive to recessions, meaning the recession that nearly every mainstream economist is now predicting for 2023 will undoubtedly wipe out many of these recently reestablished jobs.
Employment rates only tell a fraction of the story – while the pay gap between men and women has shrunk over the decades, it remains the case that women earn on average 18% less than men. Add to this the fact that the burden of caring for children and family members, both economically and physically, falls overwhelmingly on women’s shoulders and the real economic divide becomes even deeper. In 2022, women were five to eight times more likely to experience a caregiving impact on their employment than men.
Lack Of Mass Fightback
Compared to the height of the Women’s Marches after Trump’s election, or the spontaneous and viral #MeToo movement, the absence of a mass fighting resistance to the overturn of Roe stands out starkly.
The fact that these earlier movements failed to meaningfully improve the lives of working-class and young women is almost certainly a major factor in spreading pessimism and disillusionment about the efficacy of protesting among broad layers of young women.
The primary blame for the demobilization of these struggles after 2016 lies with the Democrats and liberal non-profit leaders. As Democrats corralled the mass Women’s March protests into a “vote Blue” midterm campaign, Trump was undeterred neither in his misogynistic rhetoric nor his systematic defunding of health, housing, and low-income services, relied on disproportionately by women.
When perhaps the most high-profile #MeToo case broke out in the halls of power in D.C. with the appointment hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Democrats did absolutely nothing. In fact, it was the “yes” vote of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin that ultimately tipped the scales in favor of Kavanaugh.
The #MeToo movement certainly had an important effect on people’s understanding of gender-based violence, and the movement succeeded in bringing down notorious abusers like Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar. But sexual assault and harassment remain a near-constant threat, especially for poor women, women of color, and transgender women.
The fact that there was not a mass fighting defense of Roe falls at the feet of so-called “leaders” of the women’s movement. Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Biden Administration, and the Democratic majority in Congress (featuring more women than ever before in American history) were looked to by millions for a lead in fighting back after the initial leak of the Dobbs decision. After decades of campaigning and fundraising on defending abortion rights, the best these misleaders had to offer was hand-wringing about Republicans and preparing for a “post-Roe” world – fundraising for the travel assistance and mutual aid networks that would be necessary, but never sufficient – once abortion restrictions were passed.
Again, as with the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement, the mass anger at this historic attack on women’s rights was channeled into a “vote Blue” midterm campaign, which succeeded in winning more Congressional seats for Democrats but did nothing to expand abortion access or reverse the overall crisis facing women. After having been in office for more than two years, Biden has yet to reverse the Trump administration’s total gutting of Title IX protections which stripped students of protections against gender-based discrimination in schools.
Conditions have continued to deteriorate for working-class people of all genders under the Biden administration, leaving the space wide open for the right wing to put forward their own backwards explanation. They point toward the “feminist movement” and the “war on men” as the reason for falling living standards and the fraying of the social fabric. Absent any honest explanation from establishment politicians for why working class men continue to face chronically low wages, diminishing job opportunities, and poor health outcomes, we’re seeing many men driven into the arms of the right. This creates a very dangerous set of circumstances for women and girls who are now confronted with reinvigorated misogyny from their coworkers, peers, significant others, and sons.
Turning the Tide – Rebuilding A Fighting Women’s Movement
The women’s movement may be dormant in the U.S. right now, but that doesn’t mean there’s no potential to revive it and turn the tides against sexist culture, laws, and economic conditions. There have been important flashpoints of struggle amidst the broader downturn that indicate a continued desire to fight among working-class and young women. Despite the best efforts of the Democrats and mainstream women’s organizations to channel anger at the Dobbs ruling into mutual aid and “vote Blue” campaigns, explosive protests still happened in dozens of cities across the U.S. Rather than hand-wringing and sad acceptance of an inevitable post-Roe future, these protests were characterized by deep anger and determination not to accept the rolling back of women’s basic rights.
Some limited victories have been won on this basis. Socialists in Seattle and Dane County, WI mobilized to pass abortion sanctuary laws, ensuring that women who travel there seeking abortions won’t be returned to their home states to face legal charges. Voters in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont reinforced abortion protections by turning out in huge numbers to vote on ballot measures in the 2022 midterms.
The instinctive solidarity that exists between young people active in the fight against sexism, LGBTQ oppression, and racism shows the potential that exists to unite anti-oppression struggles and use our strength in numbers to more effectively fight back against right-wing attacks. This solidarity is antithetical to the rigidly siloed identity politics of many misleaders, which only serves to keep oppressed groups isolated and vulnerable, playing right into the divide-and-conquer strategy of the far-right and ruling class. Tragically, but understandably, many young women introduced to feminism in its “girl-boss” or trans-exclusionary forms have rejected the term “feminism” altogether.
Socialist feminism is the opposite of “girl-boss,” exclusionary feminism. It bases itself on the principles of solidarity and class unity that so many young people instinctively gravitate towards, because lived experience teaches us that working class women have more in common with working class people of all genders and racial identities than we do with rich women. More women CEOs exploiting working class women and men does nothing to further the feminist movement. In fact, it can in some instances undermine the ability of working-class women to advance our interests by papering over the grim realities of the economic situation facing the vast majority of women.
All working-class people share a common interest in fighting back against the all-sided attack on our ability to earn a stable living. Our enemy is not each other, but the tiny minority of wealthy bosses, served by their loyal politicians in both parties, who appropriate the vast majority of the wealth that we create through our labor and leave us to fall further and further behind.
Women’s rights are workers’ rights, and this has been shown through the crucial role women have played in the revitalized labor movement – from the Starbucks unionization effort to the New York nurses’ strike. The labor movement needs to aggressively mobilize against all forms of sexism. But we can’t sit back and wait for this to happen; we need to proactively fight against sexism and complacency in the labor movement by organizing our workplaces and bringing fighting demands into existing unions. Using the economic leverage of organized labor (the ability to shut off the flow of profits via strikes and slow-downs) to fight for a $25/hr minimum wage, free abortion on demand, free universal childcare, and paid family leave would absolutely transform the women’s movement while bringing millions of women and young people enthusiastically into the labor movement.
Our potential strength is in our numbers and our willingness to use them in a coordinated, strategic way to win our demands. Together, working-class women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and all those whose labor is being exploited to make a rich boss richer represent 99% of society. By getting organized in our workplaces and schools, we can harness our collective power to shut down businesses and institutions that refuse to meet our demands.