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Government and the pink-collar ghetto

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 22 years ago, in 2002, on the World Wide Web.

Pretty much every time Wendy McElroy writes a column, you can expect three things.

  1. Insightful and provocative analysis of the ways in which male-dominated, top-down patriarchal government hurts women
  2. Lack of understanding of ways in which non-governmental power and hierarchy hurts women
  3. Uncalled-for swipes at other feminists and failure to differentiate feminism from the male Left

Her column on Unlocking the Potential of America’s Pink Collar Workers is a classic example. Based in part around a response to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, McElroy analyzes how the government works to create and shore up the walls around the pink collar ghetto by preventing women from getting ahead through legally imposed barriers to work and individual initiative. She has a lot of good points.

On the negative side, she also just ignores the degree to which historical power and hierarchy outside of government also constrains low-income women. Her flippant dismissal of sexual harassment law is an obvious example—yes, investing economic resources into creating a workplace more free of sexual harassment does cost money and work that could be otherwise spent. But that doesn’t mean that if you stopped spending that money, women would suddenly flood into the workplace. The new jobs that were created would predominantly be filled by men—since sexual harassment is most prevalent in workplaces where most of the workers are men—and women would be driven out and kept out of these workplaces because of the fact that, well, sexual harassment is rampant in the workplace.

Similarly, although McElroy appreciates that Ehrenreich is in touch with the realities facing working-class women, she accuses her of allowing moral squeamishness to get in the way of seeing real solutions. For example, McElroy writes:

And, yet, after working as a cleaning woman for her book, Ehrenreich, in an article in Harper’s magazine, asked readers not to hire maids. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housecleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect. … A servant economy breeds callousness, she wrote.

So to protect the moral sensibilities of the middle class, Ehrenreich wants people to unemploy poor women who are working to feed their children. Instead of honest work she would offer these women a more humane welfare system.

But wait, that’s not what Ehrenreich said. She doesn’t want women who are working in domestic labor to be unemployed and put on welfare. She’s saying that there’s a real, pernicious, political cause and effect in the employment of low-income women as domestic servants, and the callousness and dehumanization of women in poverty that it breeds in the rich (in Nickel and Dimed, she details how bosses made sure to rotate employees at each house and minimize contact between clients and workers, so that individuals never emerge as sympathetic persons in the eyes of clients, and how workers would be on the point of passing out because of company rules that no food or water pass a maid’s mouth while she was in a client’s house).

McElroy should understand that Ehrenreich is calling here for a reinvestment of economic energies: so that the upper-class people do their own cleaning, and invest their money into other enterprises, and open up opportunities to work for lower-income women other than cleaning up after the rich while having most of your labor going to pay the salary of a shitty, exploitative boss.

McElroy also accuses middle-class feminists of pushing for laws which constrain women from entering the workplace as employees or entrepreneurs. She claims that Most feminist policies harm the very women they should be protecting — pink-collar workers — and the solutions they offer to poor women are part of what is creating their poverty. But this just ain’t true. It’s true of the male Left, which has long favored so-called protective labor legislation which simply cuts women out of numerous sectors of the workforce which the male-dominated AFL-line labor movment thought was too dangerous (and too lucrative) for women. But second-wave feminists fought these restrictions, often at great cost to their former alliances with the labor movement. They’ve fought to decriminalize prostitution, so that women are not thrown in prison for doing what they need to do in order to survive. McElroy asserts that feminists never seem to call for less government regulation, especially in the workplace. But in fact, although feminists have fought for many rules on workplace standards, just as often they have fought against sexist legislation which cuts women out of economic opportunities in order to protect them.

Where McElroy’s column is at its best, however, and Ehrenreich’s book is at its weakest, is on the issue of barriers which constrain women’s initiative to the boss-dominated world of the Pink Collar ghetto labor marketplace. Ludicrous government-imposed barriers against so much as starting a hair-braiding business out of your own home (or selling garden vegetables out of your truck) establish a system in which you either rent your labor out to a (usually male) boss, or else you starve. Is it any surprise that when the victims of this economic ghettoization don’t have other options, bosses can afford to pay them so little?

So what must we do? It is way, way past time to get the government out of centralized command-and-control which restricts capital to those who are already economically and politically well-connected.

  • Abolish business licensing fees. $100 makes no difference to Starbucks, but a lot more to someone just starting a new food co-op or taxi service.

  • Ditch the arcane, massive, and hyper-bureaucratic zoning laws which favor sprawled-out cities with big centralized stores, and which criminalize working out of your own home

  • Loosen the government-supported stranglehold of big banks on capital. Loosen the regulatory reins on credit unions and microfinance institutions, so that affordable, worker-friendly banking is available to more people in more communities

  • Finally, drop the current welfare-to-work welfare deform program. We no longer have a welfare system, but rather a government-sponsored temp agency for shitty dead-end labor which won’t pay the rent. Government-controlled welfare should ultimately be abolished in favor of a voluntary system of mutual aid in the community. However, in the meantime, we can give people on welfare some breathing room.

    The system should not penalize people for choosing to spend time going to college or University (currently, this is not counted as work and so it counts against you).

    Also, it needs to stop monomaniacally focusing on shipping unemployed women off into available low-income jobs, After they are dumped into a minimum wage job and taken off the rolls, the state gets a fat credit from the federal government, but the woman still can’t pay the rent. Instead, it should provide help with finding jobs and also provide help and resources for starting your own small individual or co-operative businesses and wisely choosing how to invest your money, avoid debt, and generally provide resources for women to make themselves self-sufficient, rather than job-dependent.

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Anticopyright. This was written in 2002 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.