A Woman’s Work

Black and white photo of women standing and working in an office

Steve March

Here come a wind

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 1/2, "Here Come a Wind." Find more from that issue here.

If you're a woman in America, your chances of enjoying the benefits of a union contract are only one third as good as that of a male worker. If you live in the South, you're almost twice as likely as your sister in the North to be either an unskilled factory worker, farm laborer or domestic servant. And if you also happen to be black, you can expect to earn — for the same number of hours worked — about four-fifths the income of women in general and only one-half the income of men. 

No group has been so consistently overworked and underpaid as women. That is the central fact any discussion of the woman worker must begin with: if you are born a woman, anywhere, anytime, you can expect to be exploited more than if you happen to be male. In the South, largely because more of us are black and our economy is poorer, you can expect an even rougher time when you put yourself in the competitive labor market: given your skills, education and social "value',' you will get less for giving more on the job. 

There are at least two directions for women in general, and Southerners in particular, to go in this situation. We can push and shove, and make demands and raise hell, until we establish that we can be as skilled and tough-minded as men, until we win equal pay for equal work and gain the conditions (free child care, unfettered education, etc.) that will make it possible to compete equally with men in the workplace. For want of a better term, I'll call these demands for equality. 

On the other hand, though perhaps not in contradiction to these demands, we may also move in the direction of humanizing work for men and women by adapting certain traditional female roles and work habits which can liberate us from the competitive labor market as much as possible. We may, for example, demand that just as we once performed a variety of life-supporting functions, so today we must redirect our understanding of work from specialized 9-to-5 production to a diversified mix of survival arts. Fixing automobiles is balanced with canning which is balanced with caring for the kids which is balanced with making money at the factory four hours a day. None of the jobs are that oppressive, because none are that restricting or intensive or demeaning. Men and women can share and interchange their responsibilities. And the measure of whether things are properly balanced is not the amount of pay awarded, but whether the unit, however big or small, from family to nation, is surviving in relative peace and joy — not unlike the measure used for the old-style, self-sufficient family. The idea, of course, is that this type of sharing and balancing can be done, given our present technology, without these chores becoming burdensome; that, in fact, we can survive more humanely and in better relation to our environment through a diffusion of the intensive work-relax pattern into simpler, less tedious, decentralized routines. I'll call this direction demands for balance. It might include demands ranging from job pairing (sharing one job between two people), to government subsidies for remaining on the farm. 

Before exploring the relation between the demands for equality and demands for balance, and exposing my own biases too clearly, we must give a little more attention to where women workers have been in our society and where they are in fact moving now. 

Women have been the backbone of economic growth in the country for decades now. Since 1920, the number of women workers has risen so fast that they have jumped from holding 1 out of every 5 jobs in America (unpaid housework aside!) to 2 out of every 5. Put simply, they have been the largest pool of cheap labor available for business expansion. Where the economy is growing, there you shall find women workers. While employment in the male-dominated manufacturing industries like auto and steel is stagnating, the service sector of the economy, where women are the majority, has grown at a remarkable rate. Businessmen have learned that there is money to be made in shuffling papers from desk to desk, and women will do the work cheaper than men. Between 1964 and 1973, the number of women on payrolls in nonagricultural industries increased from 19.1 to 27.9 million, and three fourths of these 8.8 million new women workers found jobs in three industrial divisions: services, government, and wholesale/retail trade. Within these broad categories, the superservices, and state and local non-educational government have experienced a near doubling of the number of women workers. Even in the few areas where industrialists are hiring large numbers of new workers, they are turning increasingly to women to fill their demand for cheap labor. Having proven themselves in the traditional female-intensive industries (apparel, textiles, food processing) and saturated other fields (telephone operators, public school teachers), women are now in demand from such new labor-intensive employers as the makers of electrical equipment and instruments, from calculators to television sets. 

The story is the same in the South, but the details are quite different. Unlike the North, significant expansion is still occurring in basic factory employment, and in most Southern states, women lead this growth by increasing their numbers in manufacturing jobs at two or three times the rate of men between 1960 and 1970. Service, government and trade employment is also increasing in the South, but in most states factory employment is keeping up. Consequently, women who work in the South tend to be blue-collar operatives more often than their sisters in the North, where clerical positions continue to prevail. At least one of the top three industrial employers in each Southern state is majority female except in the more diversified economies of Florida and Louisiana. A black woman is three times more likely to be a private household servant in the South than elsewhere in the country, and three times less likely to hold a clerical job. 

The differences of race and region go back many decades. Southern women have begun work at an earlier age, continued during marriage, more often supported their families by themselves, and, in general, held jobs as a necessity rather than for "supplementary” income. All this was — and is — especially true for Southern black women. In 1920, two-thirds of working women in the South were confined to jobs in agriculture and the domestic and personal services, with only 14 percent employed in manufacturing, up from 10 percent in 1890. Meanwhile, the national picture was changing as women moved out of manufacturing into clerical jobs. This trend continued in the North, but in the South the industrialization process was only beginning, and textile manufacturers found in the female employee exactly what they wanted. By 1940, a larger portion of working women in the Southeast were in factory jobs than non-Southern women, and in many cases, than men in the same states. The absence of unions, educational opportunities and legislative protection continues to make the Southern woman a favorite target for the most exploitative employers — and thus the mainstay of industrialization in the region. 

Northern white women who eliminated many of the stereotypes of "the female worker" during war production, reentered the workforce at an astonishing rate in the post-World War II period. Nationally the proportion of married women who worked almost doubled between 1950 and 1974, from 23 percent to 43 percent. Today, more than half of all women between the ages of 18 and 64 are working. The differences between region and race and marital status have now become submerged in the overriding fact that women everywhere are seeking jobs outside the home, and whether they are secretaries or factory workers or waitresses, they still face barriers to get what they deserve. 

Consequently, for both Southerners and non-Southerners, the battle of this generation has been one of achieving equality with men, to gain equal pay for equal work and the conditions that make it possible to do equal work. Like the civil-rights battles of the 1960s, this is a long and tedious struggle to make up for past discrimination; it must be fought over and over in every quarter so women can enter the American mainstream. Like union organizing, the battles will be harder in the South. But there is evidence that the women's movement is making a difference nationally both in a changing consciousness and in new legal protections and educational opportunities for women. 

Statistics on the work patterns of women are fast becoming out-of-date as women move into traditionally male occupations. The number of women in medical school doubled from 1959 to 1968 and doubled again from 1968 to 1972, while in each period the enrollment of women in law school tripled. Women are already directing traffic, preaching sermons and bossing others at the office. They may still not have the top jobs, they may still have trouble borrowing money to start a business, but with more time and more battles, that will change, too. Victory, some victory, is at hand. The demands for equality are winable. 

For many black people who were involved in the civil-rights movement, victory has gone sour. Instead of seeing the black masses gain new controls over their lives, they have watched a small trickle of blacks rise into "the system" to become indistinguishable from the whites they once fought as the enemy. The same problem, I believe, exists for the women's movement as long as we are preoccupied with demands for equality. Insofar as we win, we allow women to enter the competitive labor market and begin climbing over each other just as men have done for centuries. Little positive change has occurred for the great mass of American women. 

One simple indication of this fact is that the average wage for women relative to men has actually declined in the last 20 years, from 63 percent of what men earn to 58 percent. Thus, while a larger number of women are making it up the income ladder, an even larger number are rushing in to fill the bottom rungs. A few women have advanced into positions where they enjoy and find real meaning in their work, but for most women, getting a job has become a mechanism to get the money to pay for the necessities and conveniences (including day care for the children and a summer vacation) promised by the American dream. The economy as it is now structured will continue to pull women in at this marginal level of reward until another group of cheap labor is found, perhaps abroad. Women in the mainstream will go off to work in their particular business suit on Monday morning to stay until Friday, while outside the mainstream, the poor will spend their time in the streets and the welfare offices. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obviously, this is no way for human beings, men or women, to live. 

To change this future, women must demand more than the right to compete equally with men in an increasingly bankrupt political economy; they must demand the reordering of society so men and women can live in harmony, in mental and physical comfort. These are my demands for balance. They coincide with the imperative to limit self-destructive economic growth and to restructure our lives into rhythms which promise long-term survival. We need to opt out of a system that wastes human beings the way it does old cars. We must depend less on energy- and capital-intensive systems and more on our creativity. Most of us would be happy working less, spending more time fishing or gardening or learning to fix the leaky plumbing ourselves. The trick is to keep this vision from becoming so utopian that it fails to deal with people who lack enough goods and services to survive today. 

There is enough material wealth to provide a decent life for everybody in this country. The problem is that it's presently organized to benefit only a few people: most of us are pushing at full speed to keep up with inflation while the fruits of our labor are reinvested in larger machines which will make our work even more boring and make more profit for our boss. 

The possibility of rearranging our patterns of work and leisure may be, oddly enough, less remote for us because we are women and live in the South. Before we ever entered the industrialized treadmill, our traditional work habits showed us how to survive from year to year, day to day, not how to acquire the gadgets that would bring momentary delights. Women in the South planted gardens, did seasonal work for the farmer down the road or shift work in the factory around the schedule of caring for their children. The exact details of traditional life may not fit into today's world, but the guiding principle of balancing work that produces money with work that directly satisfies our basic needs is still valid. 

Southern small towns with their rural conservatism and provinciality may not be fertile ground for efforts to pass the ERA, but they may offer more advantages for combining parttime nonfarm employment with life on the land and reasonable leisure. It may be easier here for two people to work three days a week and take turns with children and garden instead of one working all week long and the other taking the kids forever, or both working all week long and spending the surplus money for day care. It may be possible here to use land trusts both to halt the exodus of small farmers from the land and to experiment with new forms of energy use and conservation, new architecture, new versions of education, new communities. 

In any case, it is time to examine what our programs of liberation look like over the long range, what the implications of our demands are in a world that requires a change for its own physical survival. Shall we abandon our traditions and special talents for a place in a rich, ruthless economy? Or can we turn the discriminations of the past into advantages for the future? And how will these questions be raised to the people who count — the women and men in those small towns, who go to work in the mills and mines and hospitals and warehouses? These are the issues that women in the South and elsewhere must begin to consider, even while we fight for a better pension plan, pregnancy leave, and union contract today.