Since 2006, 14 Valentines has striven to both celebrate how far women have come, and to increase awareness for how far we still have to go for full equality, autonomy, and inclusion.
Many thanks to verstehen1 for providing today’s essay!
One of my personal heroes is a woman most people have never heard of: Mary Harris Jones. I don’t blame people for never having heard of her; that’s not exactly unusual when it comes to history. Much of the work of women has been dismissed or forgotten or even assigned as the accomplishments of the men around them and in their lives. That’s only one reason she’s forgotten.
The other is that Mother Jones was a successful union organizer.
In the world of 2013, especially in the economically developed perspective of America, we’ve forgotten who and what unions are and do. Many of the things we take for granted about work in 2013 – lunch breaks, overtime pay, 40 hour work weeks, 8-hour work days – were fought and won with blood and bodies of union picketers, strikes, and agitators. Mother Jones, in her fifties when she started working with the United Mine Workers, became a central and inspirational figure of the late 1800s and early 1900s worker’s rights movement. Her most famous quote from her autobiography, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” is one union organizers still use today.
Modern-day conceptions of what unions are and do are essentially founded on the work Mother Jones and other union activists of her time did. “Private sector,” or unions founded within privately owned businesses, was how unions started, particularly for trade unions. In the U.S., unions became a necessity following the injustices and abuses of the industrial revolution. Over time, though, private sector unions became “less relevant” as corporate culture changed. First, the value of the worker dropped as technology began to replace human labor. When the unions fought this change and failed, confidence in unions dropped. Second, the cultural climate changed. Unions were for “blue collar” workers and we were becoming a nation of “white collar” workers who were better paid, didn’t work in dangerous jobs, were used to all the benefits unions had, and started to believe they didn’t need unions.
At the same time, the growth of the information industry led to an expansion of the public sector – people whom work for government agencies – and the beginning of public sector unions. Until the 1960s and 1970s, most public sector unions were actually illegal (Wisconsin was the first state to make public sector unions legal in 1959). And those unions – particularly teachers unions – exploded with membership. They had an advantage many of the private sector unions did not: the presence of minorities.
Mother Jones is a personal hero because of all the passion and work she had for the early labor movement. Her energy, her speeches, and her work inspired thousands during her lifetime and literally changed workplaces for the better. But the reason she did all this work was because she believed that if men had better jobs, women would be able to stay at home with their children. She was not a suffragette and famously said that, “You don’t need a vote to raise hell!” and believed that – despite her actions – women did not belong in politics and should stay at home with their children.
That’s where I disagree with Mother Jones, as much as I respect and admire all the work she did for the early labor movement. I disagree with her because I believe women should be able to stay at home or go to work. They should have the choice of either path or even both without any sort of penalty. Unions are a very effective vehicle to make sure that can happen.
There is a historical link that as union membership decreased and attacks on collective bargaining and basic union representation increased, the number of hours citizens work rises even as their pay stagnates. Unions fight to keep a living wage – and higher – for their members. Department of Labor statistics, workers represented by a union in 2011 have a median salary, on average, of $200 more a week than non-union workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012). This contrast is even starker when you look at the numbers based on sex and race where for women of color the averages jump to around $250 more per week than non-union workers.
Unions also gave us sexual harassment laws and fought for “luxuries” that make it easier for women to work – like paid maternity/paternity leave or on-site childcare – and work to create more inclusive workplaces. Unions, by their very nature, are about fighting oppression and inequality – and the workplace has traditionally been a place of severe class inequality. Only more recently have we begun to really explore the "inequality regimes" are set through the business practices of institutions and organizations and perpetuate divisions between different race/class/gender groups within those organizations (Acker 2011). This happens regardless of the organization and is repeated in education (Carter 2011; McGuffey and Rich 2011; Thorne  2008), health care (Wingfield 2009), the service industry (Williams 2011), and even within strip clubs (Trautner 2011) – all typically female dominated industries. These business practices constrain the ways in which people are able to "do gender" (West and Zimmerman 1987) by creating situations where only certain gender expressions are acceptable. Moving even further outward beyond organizations, gender holds a visible presence within societal institutions such as "work," "family," or "religion." Acker (1992) calls these "gendered institutions" because gender is present within all of the practices, ideologies, and the way power is distributed within those institutions. She also argues that many of these institutions were traditionally defined by the lack of women (family being the sole institution where women have a central, if subordinate, role). She differentiates the workings of these institutions into practices, which are the overt decisions that construct and control gender (e.g., segregation), construction of ideologies which legitimate those practices (e.g., hegemonic masculinity), processes of interaction (e.g., "doing gender"), and internal processes that have been constructed by the other three (e.g., defining yourself male or female). In terms of specifically gendered research, the idea of social control is particularly apparent within the institutions of work and family, as well as research into the struggle to balance the two.
Marriage, for example, is accompanied by several cultural assumptions. The heterosexual relationship is an exchange of resources, with men contributing economic resources and women contributing household resources. Tichenor (2011) points out the unequal balance of power between men and women within marriage, even as women contribute more economically to the family. Women are still socially expected to contribute the same amount of household labor as if they were not working and their jobs often do not encourage or allow for a better balance of work and family. These norms are, however, very culturally specific. In the case of the cultural assumption of breadwinner/homemaker, Hill (2011) points out that black couples are unable to fit these norms. Black women are celebrated for being strong and confident; however, white/dominant relationship norms call for women to be submissive. Further, black men are also often economically disadvantaged and are beginning to earn less than their black female partners; this is a direct contrast to the "breadwinning" male head of household. The tension between the dominant (white) norms and the reality of the black experience create fragile relationships and bitter acrimony between black women and men. For both Tichenor’s (2011) and Hill’s (2011) participants, we see how the cultural assumptions regarding gender in the institutions of work and family dominate the choices people make. Families are now choosing to negotiate those gendered assumptions and gendered institutions in new ways, such as the rising presence of the father at home (Coltrane, Parke, and Adams 2011; Shows and Gerstel 2011) or through other non-“traditional” family arrangements (Dunne 2011).
The ideologies that inform gender presentations and gendered interactions are not just about gender either. One of the bedrock beliefs within America is the ideal of the meritocracy; that is, as Americans, we believe that everyone can earn exactly what they deserve if we work hard enough for it. Roth (2011) debunks this myth when she investigates gender inequalities in Wall Street. The myth of meritocracy actually hides and perpetuates the inequality found in those workplaces by giving a cultural justification for unequal treatment. Acker’s (2011) study of different types of work groups found that business practices perpetuate and shape inequalities. For example, she looks at the differences between team-based and hierarchical organizations and found that women do see more advancement in team-based environments – so long as the women act like the other men. The ideological construct of a “successful” businessperson is one that privileges male-coded behavioral patterns. The ideology regarding these behaviors shaped business practices which, in turn, shape behavioral patterns. Ideologies are, like gender, socially constructed and thus subject to change. In looking at technology plants within the Philippines, McKay (2011) found that companies and supervisors would purposefully shift ideologies about the factory work to pull in the type of workers they needed. Instead of a factory needing a “woman’s patience” for skilled or higher-paying jobs, the ideology was being shifted by managers to one that asked for a “man’s strength” (McKay 2011).
These ideologies influence behavioral patterns and interactions between people. These ideologies are all based on particularly cultural narratives and stereotypes surrounding the intersectional statuses we all have. For example, women in male-dominated careers often experience the “glass ceiling,” which is a spot where they cannot actually achieve more success institutionally because they are women. Conversely, men in female-dominated professions may experience a “glass escalator” that elevates them quickly to high-profile, high-pay management positions. Men are pushed onto that escalator by the women they work with. However, in Wingfield’s (2009) research on black male nurses, she found that black men did not receive the benefits of being male in a “female” profession the way their white colleagues did.
All of the scientific studies and research I just quoted, all of the knowledge we’ve gained, is recent. These are not inequalities of twenty years, or fifty years, or a hundred years ago. We have made inequality – and the privilege it grants certain members of society (e.g., McIntosh 2003) – invisible. Just because we no longer have children working twelve hours a day in sweatshops does not mean we have eradicated workplace inequality, whether that inequality is in differences of pay between men or women, the “glass ceiling” women and men of color, or even creating work spaces that make a home-life balance easier for both men and women.
Unions are, I think, despite their (admittedly somewhat historically well-deserved) reputation as bastions for white men are actually founded on feminist principles. Unions are about a group of people working together to create positive change that reduces inequality and oppression in their lives. That works always begins with consciousness raising and helping others to see their own oppression; this is intimately connected with the feminist ideals of “the personal is the political.” There’s a reason that the highest rates of union membership in the U.S. are among women and black men – and it is not just because of the types of occupations either group are traditionally tracked into working.
Mother Jones believed in unions as a vehicle for change over a hundred years ago. Regardless of her motivations for her activism, she was right. Unions – and especially women coming together to combat inequality – are one of the most powerful ways we have of making a difference in today’s world. Business may have the money but we have something much more important: the people.
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