“Feminist discourse became the visible strain of cultural feminism.”
In Fall 2002, my first year after college, I took a temporary job in Milwaukee as a paralegal in a low-income legal services office that paid me $12,000 for nine months of work—an okay amount if I experienced absolutely no surprises: no pregnancies, no medical emergencies, no increases in rent or food or cell phone service costs. I ate mostly beans and rice, shunned restaurants and bars in favor of my friends’ living rooms, walked a lot, and searched for ways to live even more cheaply. I freaked out about the cost of contraception, which my health insurance didn’t cover, until a friend told me about Planned Parenthood. I visited the very next week and gleefully learned that my income qualified me for cheap birth control.
At work, I met women who taught me much more about survival. My department was funded by the Violence Against Women Act; we could only take the cases of low income, physically abused women. I spent my days on the phone poring through the abusive histories of women who made roughly as much as I did but had to raise children with it. They wanted divorces and custody agreements and restraining orders to protect themselves from the men who beat them. One particularly awful story involved a woman whose husband stopped their car to pull her hair out by the roots at an interstate toll stop while the toll booth worker watched in horror.
I spent much of that year crying about the horrific abuse these women suffered either quietly in bathroom stalls at work or later at home, but our paltry funding meant I gave the overwhelming majority of them tips instead of assigning them to a lawyer: how to file for a divorce themselves; how to get a restraining order and my best advice on how to get the cops to enforce it; the names of other low-income legal services and organizations that might take their cases, as well as psychiatrists who could help them work through the emotional trauma they suffered.
I was well aware that low pay, access to contraception, and domestic violence were issues that hit women harder than men, and that they were urgent issues, the sort I and my equally poor friends talked about a lot and told each other the best solutions for. Female survival among the poor in Milwaukee seemed to require a group of girlfriends that could tell you the best way to work within a system that was dead set to suck money you didn’t have from your wallet or time you couldn’t get off from work at every turn. I’ll forever owe a female friend who also had nut allergies for telling me to take an extra dose of Benadryl for future nut attacks in order to avoid paying for emergency room care after I ran up a $1,500 hospital bill that took me three years to pay off.
In Fall 2003, I moved to New York City for the start of my first year of law school. My classmates were beyond survival: They had glossy tans, doctor-and-lawyer parents, and dreams of changing the world. I’d been poor in Milwaukee and working class before that; revealing my dad’s auto worker assembly line job led a Nigerian classmate—who jokingly called himself “third world brother”—to nickname me “ghetto sister.” The women were well aware but not worried about the sort of domestic violence and birth control access issues women faced in Milwaukee, and entirely, given their upper class backgrounds and our projected post-graduation corporate futures, unconcerned with low pay. Their main goal was to change the way we women spoke about each other.
I was shocked to learn that my Midwestern tendency to say “you guys” when addressing any group of people was considered incorrect. A black woman we’ll call Simone told me to use “y’all” instead, a suggestion that horrified me, as my own black, Southern-descended family had coached me away from that word for fear I’d sound uneducated. I understood Simone’s point, and spent awhile searching for alternate phrasing. But using unnecessarily gendered language didn’t seem to make women more equal. The language argument struck me as a terribly theoretical concern when compared to the physical and monetary threats I’d seen women face in Wisconsin. I started wondering how much, if at all, this upper-class idea of feminism benefitted working class and poor women.
According to a 2013 poll, only 20 percent of Americans consider themselves feminists, yet 82 percent said they believed “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” While it’s hard to be 100 percent sure why respondents would give such disparate answers to two questions that appear, on their face, to be identical, it seems clear that Americans don’t associate the term “feminism” with the actual bringing about of equality for women. I’d argue that’s because Americans think of feminism as feminist discourse instead of political feminist goals, and feminist discourse is focused on upper-class existentialist and consumerist concerns that don’t help many of us.
Feminism’s class divide has existed since its beginning. The white upper-class women who led the movement for the women’s vote in the 1910s excluded African-American women, who were largely poor, from joining suffrage groups, and used working class white women’s lives as argument for why women deserved the vote while keeping those women out of movement leadership positions.
While second-wave feminism should be commended for its success in passing Title IX, providing women access to a broader variety of jobs, liberalizing divorce laws, and establishing women’s studies programs in universities, second-wave feminist discourse focused predominantly on middle-to-upper class white housewives who wanted to do more fulfilling work than cooking and cleaning, a message that wasn’t directed at working class white and nonwhite women. But even the political side of second-wave feminism had a key split that neatly illustrated the contours of the doctrine’s class divide: Middle-class feminists wanted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that was supposed to guarantee equal rights for women. Working-class women feared the ERA didn’t provide specific enough provisions regulating working hours and conditions to benefit them.
After the states failed to ratify the ERA, and feminists discovered significant opposition towards initiatives like universal childcare and paid parental leave, feminist discourse became the visible strain of cultural feminism. Feminist discourse found open arms at universities, flush with new women’s studies programs, and in essays and books focusing on women’s personal views of feminism as it related to their selves. Well aware that first and second wave feminism mostly focused on middle and upper class white women to the exclusion of others, third-wave feminists strove to be more inclusive, bringing working class and poor women of all colors and sexualities into the feminist tent, sadly just as political feminism, the strain of the doctrine that would do the most to improve women’s lives, lost visibility.
There’s still plenty of work being done behind the scenes to further political feminism’s goals. Lawyers continue to litigate and activists organize for all women’s rights. But feminist discourse has largely given up on poorer women’s concerns in favor of supporting middle and upper class women’s desire for a more existential version of gender-based satisfaction by offering up celebrity statements on feminism, conferences women can attend, beauty practices to implement to bring women closer to “empowerment,” and feminist consumer goods. This is feminism as lifestyle choice and personal brand.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with helping women to feel better about ourselves. But it’s true that consumerist feminism’s individualistic, pleasure and purchase-based philosophy can’t solve the collective problem of women’s equality. And women remain unequal. On average, we make seventy-nine cents for every dollar a man makes, and women of color make less. We make up almost half of the workforce, but 60 percent of minimum wage workers and 73 percent of workers are paid in tips. We’re more likely to be poor than men. Since low-paid women dominate growing sectors of the economy, including retail, food service, and home health care, both the pay gap and feminism’s class divide will, if nothing changes, continue.
Our rights and safety continue to be threatened, too. Nearly three hundred new state restrictions on abortion were passed between 2010 and 2015. In March, Indiana enacted a law that bars women from getting abortions based on genetic abnormalities and requires all women who abort to pay the costs of either a fetus burial or cremation. Our ability to get free and subsidized birth control is under attack. A woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds, and 20 percent of women have been raped. Affluent women also remain behind. Only 104 women serve in Congress, which makes it 19.4 percent female. Of the 500 companies in the S&P 500, only four have female CEOs.
There’s no reason to care about a feminist discourse more dedicated to telling me what famous person identifies as feminist, or what feminist product I should buy, than making sure I don’t have to go scrambling for birth control if a politician wants to take it away. It’s also easy to wrongly conclude, in an era where feminist discourse is obsessed with middle and upper class women’s issues like work-life balance, leaning in, and whether women can have it all, that political feminist issues like equal pay and abortion rights are not urgent, and that feminism is no longer necessary because older feminist movements have made women equal enough. I’m haunted by the idea that this sort of thinking writes off the abused women of Milwaukee as undeserving of help.
Middle and upper class women, like poorer women, could gain a great deal from a more nationally discussed political feminist agenda. Flexible working arrangements and a cap on working hours would support affluent women’s careers. And all women would benefit from policies that reduced domestic violence and rape and ensured equal pay. It would be a shame to give up on discourse as a method of bringing political feminist concerns to the forefront of American minds.
I often feel a great sadness borne of watching the 2016 discourse/political feminist split play out in online news articles and between friends. Everyone reads and shares and discusses articles about selfies and self-care and and who identifies as feminist or not, and then Donald Trump says something like “women who get abortions should be punished” and my Twitter feed fills up with women telling each other to get long-term IUDs to protect ourselves from a world in which Trump is elected and decides to take away our access to contraception. Or Brock Turner’s dad calls his convicted son’s act of raping an unconscious woman “20 minutes of action” and I watch the women I know online collectively cringe at this reminder that our physical safety is not taken as seriously as it should be.
Meanwhile, offline, I’m doing everything I can to squeeze out time to work without paying for childcare because, as is true for many families, there are no quality, affordable childcare options near me. In a world where much of what past waves of feminism stood for is being attacked, it seems impossible that policies that push for female equality in sections of life that we’ve so far legislatively ignored, like childcare, will be created. The coverage that issues like the Brock Turner rape and Trump’s vile statements towards women receive, and the corresponding outcry when news of another abortion restriction passes, indicate that middle and upper class women are ready for a discourse that addresses the rights that women have never gained or are in danger of losing. A feminist discourse that fails to address women’s political issues is a fine thing to mull over in a casual, abstract way—until we’re reminded just how much we women can lose in a world in which we are still not equal.
Kashana Cauley is a native Wisconsinite who lives in Brooklyn. The Atlantic, Esquire, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency & Tin House have published her essays, fiction and humor. She won the 2012 Esquire/Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. She recently completed a novel.