The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Women’s Struggles and the Working Class

Feb 29, 2016

Hillary Clinton presents herself as a symbol of women’s progress in the 21st century U.S. – finally, a woman candidate for the presidency. Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, and Gloria Steinem, former editor of Ms. magazine, have said women who don’t support Hillary Clinton are going against their own interests.

Certainly, it is disgusting that some criticisms of Clinton have been pure sexism.

But the difficulties faced by working class women and well-to-do women are not the same. Some women have become top corporate executives. Clinton herself was on the board of Walmart. But the majority of women working at Walmart earn poverty-level wages. The interests of the executives and the interests of the workers are in direct conflict with each other, whether they are men or women. This class difference has been present throughout the long history of women’s struggle for a decent life.

In the fight for the right to an abortion, wealthier women have always been able to find a sympathetic doctor. But it took a fight in the 1970s, following on the struggle of the black population, for all women to gain the right to a legal abortion in the U.S. And almost from the moment Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, politicians tried to take away the right to an abortion from poor women. Today, the majority of counties in the United States do not have a single abortion provider. So we’re going back to the days before Roe v. Wade: women with money can get an abortion easily, while access for poor women is increasingly blocked.

Women had to fight for the right to vote for more than a century before the 19th Amendment was ratified after WWI. This fight was mostly led by the better off, better educated women in the 1800s, though these women often tried to link themselves to working class women. It went along with a struggle for decades against laws that treated women as chattel, that is, as the property, first of their fathers, and then of their husbands. The legal right to vote in an election made women a little more able to stand up as adults, rather than remaining property without a voice, like children. But once the right to vote was won, many privileged women abandoned the fight, feeling that they had achieved their goal.

But working class women had to continue the struggle. One of the longest-running and least successful battles has been the fight for decent pay and decent working conditions for women. After a 1911 factory fire in which 146 women died, union activist Rose Schneiderman addressed a New York City funeral march of 100,000: “I would be a traitor to the poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.... This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city.... The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.... It is up to working people to save themselves....”

Conditions in the early days of U.S. factories were horrendous. Six days and 65 hour work weeks were common. While men workers’ wages were abysmal in factories and mines, women’s wages were worse – because the bosses could get away with paying them less, using the excuse that they were not heads of households. In the early 20th century, half the people in New York City were immigrants, crowded into slums. In the factories where they worked, the majority were under the age of 20.

These problems were not addressed by upper class women. Rather, women organizers in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led strikes against such appalling conditions, as did organizers in other industries. Often these organizers were socialists or later communists. Through these fights, women workers won some improvements from the most appalling conditions they faced.

Yet today, women workers face similar problems. Working class women still make less money and have many more family responsibilities than men – and working class men also make less and less every year, adding on to the problems facing working class families. As in the past, these problems will not be solved by looking to upper class women like Hillary Clinton to help us. They will only be solved by working class women organizing and fighting for themselves, in their own interests.