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Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, the social historian Alice Kessler-Harris clearly defines the intertwined relationship between full political citizenship in America and full economic citizenship in America. Women's citizenship, that is, full participation in the sphere related to articulating one's political rights, was once often seen as coming to its full fruition after women won the right to vote. However, Kessler-Harris makes clear that even today, because women's work is not perceived as being as necessary and as legitimate as work performed by men, women laborers continue to be discriminated against in political legislation. This discrimination is not only evident in terms of the way that women are treated at work. It is still incorporated and woven into the fabric of pre-existing political social legislation, ideology and rhetoric meant to address the inequities of the workforce. Social Security is only one example of such a recently constructed political, social, and economic system. Kessler-Harris throughout her book provides many such examples.
Kessler-Harris begins her text focusing on the 19th century as a way of starkly contrasting how 'gendered' the right to work became during that era. In the 19th century, 'the worker' was presumed to be male, and thus male worker's needs were seen as more pressing. Male labor was viewed to be crucial to the economic sustenance of the family. Female labor in such an intellectual construction was either rendered invisible, or was assumed to be less necessary than male labor. For the rest of the century, and into the 20th century, the legal system would simply presume that women needed to be in possession of fewer rights to work. Women were assumed not to need to work, if all was operating as it should and men were working in a fair and equitable marketplace. Even laws designed to protect women derived from this 'separate spheres' of the genders ideology. It was occasionally acknowledged that women were in fact working and were in need of protections, through the enforcement of "equal wages, suitable working conditions, and reasonable hours." However, these rights were not seen as making women the full economic partners of men, or of making the notion of 'the worker' gender-neutral. Because women were not viewed as being an equally valid part of the labor force as men, women were not extended the full constitutional protections in all spheres of the workplace as their male counterparts.
From the beginning of America, economic success and the right to work has been crucially linked with full participation in the American political process. For instance, when workers first began to agitate for their rights in the century's beginning, these laborers defined themselves in contrast to slaves, and also in contrast to recent immigrant laborers. When working men agitated for better pay through unionized labor, this labor was presented in sharp contrast to the unpaid labor of women, of slaves, and of recent immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages. Thus men's full and fair economic citizenship was seen as being won, necessarily, by the exclusion of women's legitimate right to participate in the workforce, as well as being more valuable and legitimate to non-unionized nonwhite or immigrant labor. The reason such a contrast was possible, of course, was that women were paid less for their labor than these women's male counterparts. Women's labor was cheaper and thus often more in demand for unskilled work. Women were not accepted into unions, nor were they trained for trades. States were allowed to regulate and even bar women from entering professional organizations or training for trades during the first part of the century. A woman was even excluded by the Supreme Court in 1873 from being admitted to the American Bar Association, after she fulfilled her qualifications as a lawyer, simply because she was a woman.
The need for organized, well-paid male work was thus presented as validating a necessary social norm, the ability of a man to be the head of his own household, and to control the purse-strings of the home. Male dominion of the family was crucial to the social order of the land, thus making well-paid male labor an economic necessity. This did not mean, of course, that women did not work when necessary. However, even when women did work extremely hard, such labor was viewed as subsidiary to male labor and male economic sustenance of the household. Women's work thus did not justify equal payment, even if it was just as hard and tedious as male labor, because it was not the labor of the head of the household. Even when constraints were put on exploiting female labor, it was often in justification of protecting women much as one would protect children, by limiting the hours women might work, for instance, in contrast to their male counterparts. Although in retrospect such legislation banning ten-hour workdays might seem laudable, the ideology that was behind such legislation was ultimately damaging to women's full economic equity in the workforce. Women were seen as weaker, and thus less valuable laborers. Because they were less valuable laborers, they did not have to be paid as much as men. A woman's right to be an "independent unit" as a worker was clouded by her supposedly secondary role in both the factory. Her primary responsibility was to be next to her husband at home, obeying the command of the primary paid laborer and taking care of her children.
What is so interesting about what Kessler-Harris points out in her analysis of the early 20th century history of women's labor is how such ideology became a part of women's own self-conception, even when they were in fact working quite hard to support their families. They did not phrase their political demands in terms of their "right" to work. Rather, when women did agitate, they did so only to demand changes in their working conditions, often referring to their status as women rather than as workers. Thus even when women did work, they did not become full economic and political citizens as workers, regardless of the level of labor they performed.
This invisibility of women's labor becomes even more acute when discussing African-American and immigrant laboring women. If organized male labor defined itself against white, unorganized female, non-white labor, thus such labor became the least recognized labor of all. Middle-class women who might perceive themselves as being unable because of their gender to work, would employ immigrant women to work as domestics to maintain their homes with no ideological qualms. This, Kessler-Harris suggests, is an ideology that still continues to this day, even within the context of the current women's right struggle. Women during the 1970's feminist movement, often white and middle-class, focused on equal pay and entry and promotion within the professional workforce for women, disregarding the fact that many African-American women, for example, were already participants in that workforce. These women were simply grossly underpaid and unrecognized by society for the work that they performed, because it was assumed that African-American women might be the heads of households in the way that white women were not. However, also within this unjust ideology was the assumption that African-American households did not need to receive as much money as white households to maintain a standard of living, and were inferior because they were female-headed. Rather than to simply focus on conditions in the workforce, Kessler-Harris argues, the political and rhetorical focus of the women's rights movement must be on ensuring that women who work are equally responsible for their household's economic survival. This ideology is more inclusive not only of African-American, immigrant, and non-white workers in non-unionized fields, but also of single women in the workforce, another ignored group. The conception of who is the primary economic citizen must change as well as the daily working conditions for women workers.
Current law still reflects certain anti-female laboring biases. Perhaps the most obvious bias against single women and female-headed households is the marriage 'tax break' for married couples and the ease of only filing for a single "head of household." However, less obviously, biases are also reflected in Social Security legislation when it was first instituted and into today, because such legislation does not allow for women who work at home, taking care of their children, to collect their own Social Security or contribute to that fund. Although supposedly such legislation validating the need for women to work at home, women doing so do not collect the same benefits as their husbands. Women only benefit from their husband's Social Security policies, from the husbands whom they were married to until death or divorce. This causes obvious problems for women if their husbands die before accruing enough for their widows to live upon, but also quite simply institutionalizes the notion that women's work should be unpaid and that women need a husband to survive economically, even after that husband retires. It also suggests that somehow being married…[continue]
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