No doubt about it, women are under attack. The popular term “war on women” accurately describes what is going on in the U.S. today. Though many use this term to refer to Republican proposals, the attacks are in most cases bipartisan, with Democrats either supporting anti-woman policies or agreeing to “compromises” that undermine women’s legal rights, health, and economic and social status.
Lower-income women, who are disproportionately women of color, are the hardest hit. The current economic crisis and the war on women weigh heavier and in differing ways on women who face additional forms of oppression (race, immigration status, etc.) — the vast majority of whom are also working class.
While the range of employment options for women is one of the few lasting victories of the women’s movement, equal pay is still a dream. U.S. women make only 77% of what men make. When race is added, this figure is even worse: Black women make 67.5% compared to all men, and Latinas make only 57%, which was the average wage gap for all women in 1963 when pay discrimination was first addressed by law. Besides, much of the narrowing of the wage gap has been due to reductions in male wages, rather than improved wages for women, due to declines in unionization and the loss of well-paid blue-collar jobs.
Though the wage gap persists largely because women are concentrated in low-paying jobs, it crosses races, educational levels, and most occupations. Even within the same employer, in jobs where women dominate, their pay is typically 20% less than in jobs dominated by men requiring comparable education and skill sets (an issue referred to as “comparable worth”), showing continuing discrimination in women’s wages.
While women have had a legal right to equal pay to men in any specific job classification since 1963, a Paycheck Fairness Act that would have addressed comparable worth was recently rejected by the Senate. The right to equal pay, even where legally protected, is routinely ignored and hard to enforce, since employment in the U.S. is largely “at will” and employees can be fired without any reason given.
Only women with union contracts can truly expect to be paid the same as equivalent men, and, even in union jobs, comparable worth rarely is addressed and discrimination may affect women’s ability to be hired, pass probation periods, or get promoted into higher-paying positions. Union women, though, usually have some job protection and a grievance process.
Though women also are impacted by the current economic crisis for reasons not exclusive to gender, the crisis does have different and often worse impacts on them than on men. For example, women and people of color have much less accumulated wealth compared to white men, and most wealth they do accumulate is via home-ownership only. Thus, the foreclosure crisis hit them harder, wiping out the entire net worth of many families. A higher percentage of women and people of color than of white men find work in the public sector, so they are impacted more directly by government cutbacks and privatization. Public-sector unions, especially the majority female teachers’ unions, are under extreme attack right now.
Reproductive Rights — the Most Direct Attack
Given that only women can give birth, it is not surprising that the most direct and blatant attacks on women are in the area of reproductive rights. Without the ability to control if, when, and how they give birth, women have little control over the rest of their lives. Yet, the right to choose legal abortion has been under attack ever since it was established by Roe v. Wade in 1973.
At the federal level, the most prominent restriction is the Hyde Amendment, which denies any federal funding for abortion, except for cases of rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life. Hyde ensures that women dependent on federal funds, including active-duty service women, are routinely denied access to abortion, since they often can’t afford, locate, or visit private providers. Also, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which prohibits a certain method used for medically necessary late-term abortions, inaccurately referred to as “partial birth,” even when there is no chance of fetal viability and the method is in the best medical interests of the woman.
Restrictions at the state level are quite numerous. Most states require parental consent for minors and many require spousal consent for married women, waiting periods up to 72 hours, and exposure to anti-abortion films, literature, and counseling.
Current efforts, already successful in many states, focus on:
- Outlawing private insurance coverage for abortion.
- Denying state funding for abortion and to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortions.
- Requiring that abortions be performed only in hospitals (where they are more expensive).
- Requiring that women hear the fetus’ heartbeat, even though that often requires using an invasive transvaginal ultrasound.
- Putting medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers.
- Allowing medical providers to refuse to perform abortions, regardless of circumstances.
Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota have passed “trigger” laws, which will outlaw abortion if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. In 2012 alone, some 39 restrictions on abortion have been enacted by states, and 2011 saw a record-breaking 80.
In addition to legal attacks on the right to choose, nine abortion providers have been murdered and many clinics have been fire-bombed and vandalized. Aggressively hostile pickets trying to prevent access are common, though the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), an important victory for women, outlaws outright blockades and provides additional legal recourse against persons with threatening behavior.
In most parts of the U.S., providing abortion is quite dangerous, requiring expensive security measures, which add to the cost. 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider. 25% of women seeking abortion have to travel over 50 miles and 8% over 100 miles.
Attacks on Contraception
Contraception has been fully legal throughout the U.S. since 1965, and 99% of all sexually active U.S. adults have used it at least part of the time, including 98% of Catholic women in this category. It is hardly controversial, regardless of objections by some religions. Yet, contraception is also under attack. Efforts to restrict it are usually posed as protecting religious freedom, as a means (proven ineffective) for delaying sex among teens.
Many public schools are now limited to teaching that abstinence is the only effective way to avoid pregnancy, despite the fact that abstinence-only education programs have resulted in higher teen pregnancy rates wherever they have been implemented. Refusing to teach young women how to protect themselves is a direct attack on their futures.
Many states allow pharmacists to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions if they have a religious objection to doing so. Efforts are underway to require women to tell their employers if and why they are seeking contraception, if covered by employer-provided insurance. Opposition to contraception indicates that the most important issue for the extreme right isn’t abortion, which contraceptive use obviously helps prevent, but restoring the traditional patriarchal family model.
Violence Against Women
Personal safety is another area where women continue to face attack. Despite some significant legal progress, such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in 1994, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment remain significant problems in the U.S. Government surveys indicate that 22% of U.S. women report having been physically assaulted by an intimate partner or date.
Women who kill or injure abusers in direct self-defense are often convicted and incarcerated, sometimes even with life imprisonment. Over half of all restraining orders are violated. Mothers are reluctant to report domestic violence because of a growing trend to prosecute battered women for neglect and/or take away their children on the grounds they have endangered them by being in abusive relationships. Though it has been renewed twice, VAWA faces constant defunding efforts. The most recent attempt to reauthorize the Act is now stalled, as Congress has yet to agree on a unified version.
What Can the We Do About the War on Women?
Thanks to a lot of effort on the part of union women, labor generally supports women’s rights, but the political approach currently predominant within organized labor doesn’t work well to protect them. Plus, labor support is often compromised by a fear of alienating members who may oppose abortion rights, sexual freedoms, and non-traditional families. We must push our unions to do a better job educating members why support to the conservative “moral” agenda works against their economic interests. Like racism, sexism divides union workers and the working class as a whole, making it harder for all of us to fight back.
On the political front, it is critical that union members and leaders — and women’s rights activists — realize that the attacks on all of us are bipartisan. The current wave of austerity led by the Obama administration is a brutal attack on the whole working class, with women, particularly from oppressed communities, being hit the hardest.
In general, the Democratic Party does have a better voting record on specific women’s rights issues — such as the right to choose — than the Republicans, but is not a reliable ally for any sector of the working class. Democrats undermine women’s rights by their refusal to support them fully or vigorously. Without strong opposition, extreme right-wing positions opposed by the vast majority of voters are presented as mainstream by the media, promoted disproportionately to their actual public support, and eventually implemented. At a time when what we need are firm positions backed up by a real fight, what is presented as bipartisan compromise is, at best, cowardice and capitulation, and, at worst, backhanded, intentional approval.
Politicians of both parties receive their money from the same source: the 1%. Ultimately, they will implement whatever is expected of them by their donors, unless we organize a massive enough movement to make them fear losing our votes. Even if some Democrats sincerely support choice, only millions of people willing to take to the streets and withhold their labor if need be, will be enough to beat back the right-wing attacks.
In the broader community, we need to join with women’s rights groups, especially to defend reproductive choice. Within our unions, we can and must:
- Fight for improvements for women in our contracts.
- Conduct educational campaigns about women’s issues.
- Defend women against discrimination and sexual harassment.
- Encourage the participation and leadership of women.
- Support or oppose legislation affecting women.
Even with all its present weaknesses, organized labor is still the sole force in the U.S. based on representing only workers; that is, representing working-class people as a class. Thus, it is the only currently existing force objectively capable of politics truly in the interests of the entire working class, half of which is women.
Because no other movement or institution represents working-class people exclusively, other forces are more objectively vulnerable to ideas that reinforce racism, sexism, and other divisions. For example, a focus on getting women into corporate leadership does not promote equality for everyone; rather, it allows a few women, in the name of equality, to benefit directly from such practices as exploiting immigrants or polluting communities of color.
Sadly, dependence on the Democrats has led the U.S. labor movement to one defeat after another. Therefore, the most important contribution labor could make to women rights would be to break our own political chains. The Emergency Labor Network’s call to create a movement for a Labor Party has never been needed more. The hard-won rights of women are on the line today, as is the very survival of the labor movement. Given the disastrous global trajectory of capitalism, with its wars, genocides, and environmental degradation, it is no exaggeration to argue that the very survival of humanity depends on independent working-class political organizing throughout the world. Building a Labor Party in the U.S. is a key component of that effort.