How Feminists Show Class Solidarity
The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.
—Silvia Federici, “Caliban and the Witch”
Marxist-feminist Martha Gimenez claims that despite women of all classes sharing many experiences of oppression as females, the fact of capitalism and class structure also means that women are simultaneously locked into an antagonistic relationship with one another.
Gimenez notes how the use of paid domestic workers “highlights how oppression is not something that only men can inflict upon women,” resulting in a “servant stratum, drawn from the less skilled layers of the working class, including a large proportion of women from racial and ethnic minorities, often undocumented immigrants.” Elaborating on the problems within feminism, where structural oppression includes that of class inequality, she concludes that feminism cannot afford to be absent from the process of workers’ rights and that “the emancipation of women and acknowledgment of the significance of class divisions among women … [raise] the issue whether feminist theory can ignore class and remain politically relevant for the vast majority.”
If anything could be said to demonstrate how class functions today in respect to women’s oppression, we need only turn toward post-Weinstein Hollywood, where women have been speaking out about sexual predation in their profession and forming important alliances with their working-class sisters. This alliance is crucial since class typically determines who gets to speak out about their oppression and who does not.
While sexual harassment is pervasive across all industries, it is particularly pernicious in low-wage service jobs, as “more than 25% of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC in the last decade came from industries with service-sector workers.”
Last fall, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas launched a massive campaign of over 700,00 farmworkers who stood in solidarity with their sisters in Hollywood, noting: “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.” The alliance formed by Hollywood’s elite and working-class women around the country has been executed in the spirit of understanding that women can band together and pool resources—money, fame, knowledge and experience—to break down the root causes and myths surrounding sexual predation.
First, some facts that have been gaining attention in recent months that can help put the greater scope of today’s classism and sexism in perspective.
The factors behind the sexual predation of female actors include but are not limited to: the paucity of roles for women, especially for actors over age 40; the disparity in salary; the lack of female producers and directors; and the dearth of female executives.
Also, films featuring women are still overwhelmingly focused upon women who get engaged, their wedding celebrations and the general rom-com tropes of old. Many films still fail the Bechdel Test, which requires that a movie should include at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. This test also demonstrates that writing teams that don’t include females failed to meet the test’s criteria 50 percent of the time, according to an analysis of 4,000 films from 1995 to 2015. Add to this a recent linguistic analysis of Hollywood cinema that has shown sexism within the dialogue written for leading females.
In short, various studies have found a pattern showing that when there is an imbalance between males and females in certain sectors, including cinema, sexual predation increases.
Now consider all the above about Hollywood and figure into this the fact that most Hollywood cinema deals with uniquely middle-class (and wealthier) themes where poverty, when portrayed (only 4 percent of the primary characters of Disney films are poor), is framed as bringing about happiness and where the wealthy honorably provide for the poor in the end. Totally realistic, right?
Recently, over 300 women in the entertainment industry banded together in recognition of the struggles of working-class women subjected to sexual harassment to form Time’s Up, an initiative providing legal defense funds to support them. I am hopeful that these women in entertainment will continue to support their working-class sisters, because even if wearing black designer dresses on the red carpet and talking the issue up throughout the Golden Globe Awards is good public relations, this alone will not change the reality of sexual predation against women.
Yet, the cynic in me takes pause in this show of solidarity. Between all the problems that have plagued feminist movements over the last 100-plus years, here we have something that, even if it encounters obstacles or if it fails, is a step in the right direction. The Time’s Up initiative is a collaboration, in the true spirit of the term, between women of various social and economic conditions, an array of political and professional affiliations, and from across ethnic and class lines.
What is positive about Time’s Up is that it is a collective of wealthy women working in solidarity with females who otherwise would have no chance whatsoever to fight sexual predation. And by “chance” I am speaking of the fact that a woman working in restaurants or in the fields does not have the economic means or the time to file a sexual harassment claim against her employer.
Worse, the cards are stacked against women institutionally. The grim reality is that many large industries take out employment practices liability insurance, a type of business insurance that specifically protects executives and key workers from sexual harassment claims. So, in the case of farmworkers and restaurant workers, women earning low wages are helpless to tackle wealthy individuals who are institutionally protected. And for female farmworkers in the U.S., there is a frightening level of sexual assault in addition to sexual harassment. Complicating the situation is the fact that these women often work with their families—many of whom are undocumented. If they speak out, not only the accuser but also her entire family could lose their jobs and/or face deportation.
Time’s Up might end up becoming business as usual, with the initial mandate lost in the posturing of benevolence but little political change on the ground. However, despite my usual skeptical view of pop-up politics, I already see positive steps undertaken by this initiative in creating a collaboration between female celebrities and working-class women. Even the red carpet media event at the Global Globes placed a focus on working women, as celebrities subverted the usual media space dedicated to fashion and hairstyles by shifting the focus to the pervasive abuses by men against women, from Hollywood to the orange groves of Florida.
This is how women can work in solidarity to address class—those with power lending it, those with money giving it and those in the working class adding their voices to raise consciousness in order to create a feminism in which political action between classes can flourish and make us powerful together.