Class Ceiling--Ehrenreich

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Mar 23 07:25:56 PST 2000

Kelley sent us this article:

>Doing it for Ourselves
>Can feminism survive class polarization?
>By Barbara Ehrenreich
> We should recall that the original radical--and, yes, utopian--feminist
>vision was of a society without hierarchies of any kind. This of course
>means equality among the races and the genders, but class is different:
>There can be no such thing as "equality among the classes." The abolition
>of hierarchy demands not only racial and gender equality, but the abolition
>of class. For a start, let's put that outrageous aim back into the
>long-range feminist agenda and mention
>it as loudly and often as we can.
>In the shorter term, there's plenty to do, and the burden necessarily
>falls on the more privileged among us: to support working-class women's
>workplace struggles, to advocate for expanded social services (like
>childcare and health care) for all women, to push for greater educational
>access for low-income women and so on and so forth. I'm not telling you
>anything new here, sisters--you know what to do.
>But there's something else, too, in the spirit of another ancient slogan
>that is usually either forgotten or misinterpreted today: "The personal is
>the political." Those of us who are fortunate enough to have assets and
>income beyond our immediate needs need to take a hard look at how we're
>spending our money. New furniture--and, please, I don't want to hear about
>how tastefully funky or antique-y it is--or a donation to a homeless
>shelter? A chic outfit or a check written to an organization fighting
>sweatshop conditions in the garment industry? A maid or a contribution to a
>clinic serving low-income women?
>I know it sounds scary, but it will be a lot less so if we can make
>sharing stylish again and excess consumption look as ugly as it actually
>is. Better yet, give some of your time and your energy too. But if all you
>can do is write a check, that's fine: Since Congress will never
>redistribute the wealth (downward, anyway), we may just have to do it
>Barbara Ehrenreich is a contributing editor of In These Times.
>In These Times © 2000
>Volume 23, Number 26

I think Ehrenreich brings up an important issue; she does the same in a longer article "Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women's Work_ in _Harper's_ (April 2000). However, after a correct statement that there is no such thing as class equality, Ehrenreich goes for a sense of social democratic noblesse oblige ("the burden necessarily falls on the more privileged among us") as well as a guilt-tripping about "excess consumption" ("new furniture or a donation to a homeless shelter" -- a shade of Peter Singer here). Economically, it doesn't make sense to argue for the unionization of service workers such as cleaning workers while at the same time asking people to feel guilty about, hence not to hire if possible, cleaning and other services of social reproduction, it seems to me. No demand, no work, no union. Ehrenreich might set aside a moral attack on consumerism and squarely target the question of how to improve wages & working conditions.

Feminism as a mass movement is dead now, and it may or may not come back to life again. If it does, it will come back through the collective assertion of working-class women who have never had a maid to feel guilty about. (Ehrenreich has to travel among the very affluent if many of her feminist friends are in a position to hire domestic cleaning service, not to mention _a maid_.)

Now, housework. Inexplicably, Ehrenreich still seems trapped in the idea that housework is woman's work, and that explains the tenor of her argument. Even when both affluent man and woman benefit from the outsourcing of housework, guilt of doing so somehow falls upon woman. Examples she uses make that clear: e.g., "Recall that in 1993 Zoe Baird paid her undocumented household workers about $5 an hour out of her earnings of $507,000 a year." Yes, Zoe Baird needs to be criticized, but what of her husband? Or was she single??? Comparable male politicos would not have come under the same moral attack from the media, so there is a gendering of moralization of housework, but Ehrenreich never discusses the gendering of moralism about housework in her articles in _Harper's_ & _In These Times_; in fact, her criticism of affluent feminists depends upon gendered work ethics. So, in this sense, I agree with Chuck Grimes that Ehrenreich is the Martha Stewart of progressive politics, for Ehrenreich thinks that housework is a _moral_ issue _for women_, a spiritually uplifting testimony to women's industriousness .


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