Toward A Strategy for Women's Economic Equality

Chris Tilly and Randy Albelda

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 27, Summer 1999]

RANDY ALBELDA is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is a coordinator of the Academics' Working Group on Poverty. CHRIS TILLY is Associate Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and serves on the editorial collective of Dollars and Sense magazine.


WHILE WOMEN'S ECONOMIC ADVANCEMENT OVER THE PAST FOUR DECADES has been tremendous, the agenda of equal opportunity remains far from finished in the United States. It is easier for a woman to get elected to office, hold a full-time job, and support herself without having to depend on a man, but women still face enormous barriers to economic equality. For some educated and accomplished women that barrier is the glass ceiling, but for far too many women -- and their children -- the barrier is a bottomless pit, with few ladders up and out. In fact, U.S. women have suffered serious economic setbacks in the last few years -- notably the 1996 welfare "reform" law, which shredded the safety net for single mothers, and average women's wage rates that have fallen further behind men's once more, ending two decades of relative wage gains. Women, including mothers, are now expected to work for wages, but they face sharply unequal opportunities in the labor market, as well as unequal responsibilities in the home.

Fulfilling an agenda for women's economic equality will take more than debunking myths, explaining realities, and proposing new policies, however sensible they may be. Achieving equality is a question of power; of economic and social power, but most decisively of political power. At this point, the power of low-income women and their allies is at a low ebb. But advocates of equality have begun to form new alliances and hatch new strategies, so the coming years may see some surprising power shifts.

Power Surge: What It Will Take to Reverse Economic Inequality

THERE IS NO MAGIC ANSWER FOR HOW TO REPULSE THE BACKLASH against welfare and women's rights. If there were, the women's rights and welfare rights movements would have figured it out long ago. But from the long history of struggles for economic and social equality in this country -- and from the setbacks as well as the triumphs in these struggles -- we can outline the elements of a strategy for change.1 We focus here particularly on a strategy for winning real welfare reform that can actually help end poverty and enhance economic equality for all women. That's because we believe that the best way to achieve women's economic equality is by lifting up the bottom.

To build the power to advance women's economic equality, we need a strategy with four components.2 To start with, the strategy must target power in the workplace -- expanding the voice and bargaining power of women and of low-wage workers in the employment relationship. Another key element is conventional politics, encompassing electoral mobilization, lobbying, and litigation (challenging bad laws, or challenging the failure to implement good laws). The power of protest has always been and remains important for "outsiders" far from the centers of power. Finally, the ultimate battle involves shaping public opinion, by telling the truth in ways that spark people's imagination, sympathy, and solidarity.

These four strategic elements are by no means separate. Changing laws via conventional politics can widen the scope for power in the workplace or for protest. Protest is a tool for influencing workplace power, conventional politics, and public opinion. Public opinion, in turn, exerts enormous leverage on legislative action and on the effectiveness of protest. But it is helpful to look at the four as distinct, though overlapping and interacting, arenas of action. Through this prism, let's look briefly at the past, present, and possible future of battles for women's economic equality.

Workplace Power Struggles: Past, Present, Future

If we are to become a "nation of workers" which includes even mothers of young children, then the struggle for workplace equality is a vital component for improving the lives of women and their families. The history of workplace-based efforts to win equality for women is largely, for better or worse, the history of unions. As social historian Ruth Milkman points out, there have been four major cohorts of unionism in the United States, and each cohort's attitude toward women at its inception has continued to color its relationship with women.3 Dating back to the 19th century, the earliest stable unions were male-dominated craft unions, such as those in the building trades and printing, which have historically viewed women with suspicion as low-wage competitors, and to a large extent continue to do so. (Other union movements from that era, such as the Knights of Labor and later the International Workers of the World, welcomed women, but did not survive.) A second wave of unionism in the 1910s, especially in the clothing and textile industries, sought to organize women -- who made up a growing portion of the workforce in those industries -- but maintained a paternalistic attitude toward them as vulnerable workers in need of particular protection. The reality was more complicated than that attitude would allow: women were particularly subject to employer abuse in the early decades of the century, but also led and took part in militant actions such as the 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000," a hard-fought 13-week strike of women shirtwaist workers in New York City.

The tide turned for women in the labor movement in the 1930s with the rise of the CIO. Women were integral to the mass production manufacturing industries in the 1930s and 1940s, and the CIO organized them as equals and took a formal stand against gender discrimination -- although CIO unions also took part in the displacement of women workers by returning servicemen at the end of World War II. Finally, the service, clerical, and public sector unions that grew after the war have organized occupations that are predominantly female (nurses, teachers, clerical workers), and have been powerfully influenced by the resurgent women's movement of the 1960s. Unions from this wave, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Nurses Association (ANA), and the National Education Association (NEA), have promoted women leaders and SEIU and AFSCME have actively campaigned for comparable worth since the 1980s.

At present, workplace efforts for gender equality reflects this mixed legacy. At one extreme, women in the building trades continue to battle against outright exclusion (carried out through informal means, since formal bars are now illegal). On the other hand, "fourth-wave" unions representing service and clerical workers are actively seeking to organize women, win pay equity, and establish more work/family flexibility. Enriching the mix is the sprouting, since the 1970s, of new advocacy groups oriented to women workers, but not directly focused on unionization. The Cleveland-based Nine to Five/National Association of Working Women is perhaps the best known, but numerous other groups such as Boston's Office Technology Education Project and San Francisco's New Ways to Work combine education, lobbying, and in some cases, organizing to confront issues ranging from workplace safety and health, to pay equity, to work/family issues. Meanwhile, within the AFL-CIO itself, new leadership elected in 1995 rode into office on a reform platform. After a century of federation presidents from unions representing male, blue collar workers, particularly the building trades, the AFL-CIO elected John Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union -- a fast-growing, forward-looking fourth-wave union that mainly encompasses white- and pink-collar workers. In a potent bit of symbolism, Sweeney's slate included Linda Chavez-Thompson of AFSCME as Executive Vice President, another fourth-waver and the first woman to hold a top AFL-CIO office. While the actual change delivered to date by these leaders has been limited, they offer an important opening for new activism. At this point, the main obstacle to unions' contribution to equality for women is no longer hostility or indifference within the labor movement (though those problems certainly remain), but rather the unions' shrinking share of the workforce, which continues to dwindle toward the single digits.

And that sets the stage for the future. In our view -- and in the view of many innovators in the labor movement -- the strategies most likely to succeed in rebuilding the labor movement are those hat will increase their involvement in battles for gender equality. Women make up a growing share of the workforce, particularly the barely-unionized service sector, and are on average more supportive of unions than men, so any survival strategy for the AFL-CIO must place a priority on organizing predominantly female occupations and industries. More broadly, in order to succeed, the union movement must reclaim its mantle as the spokesperson for all workers and low-income people, not just the few covered by union contract. From Sweeney down to the local level, much of the labor movement has begun to take on this challenge, championing a higher minimum wage, local living wage ordinances, and other measures that will help the lowest-paid. Though they have not made welfare reform a central issue, the AFL-CIO leadership has taken some progressive stands opposing punitive reform -- in part due to the displacement threat that workfare poses to their public employee membership base -- and local leaders have in some cases gone beyond statements to play an active role in coalitions defending welfare rights.4

In addition, the labor movement of the future is likely to make more use of organizing tools that offer new opportunities to mobilize women. Because labor law itself offers so little protection for unions, they will have to rely increasingly on labor-community coalitions. Women have long played a prominent role in community-based organizations, and community action often focuses on "consumption" issues of particular concern to women as mothers and homemakers: housing, health care, social services and so on. In building bridges with communities, unions will be compelled to take on more of this agenda. Unions will also have to undertake more city-wide, industry-wide organizing -- like the Justice for Janitors campaign that has tried to organize janitors across whole cities -- rather than traditional shop-by-shop campaigns. Again, since family responsibilities and limited job opportunities make women more likely than men to move in and out of the workforce, and from one workplace to another, this new organizing approach should be a better fit with women's work lives.

Conventional Politics: Unconventional Approaches?

IN SOME WAYS, CONVENTIONAL POLITICS HAS BEEN the "toughest nut to crack" for low-income women and their advocates. Low representation of women and the political establishment's lack of interest in poor women, have served to cut out effective anti-poverty, employment, and child care policies for women and their children. After all, children can't vote, and low-income people usually turn out at the polls only when there are candidates who excite them and address their issues -- which occurs all too infrequently.

Historically women have been largely locked out of conventional political activity, but hammered at the door until they got in. Women's suffrage organizations blossomed after the Civil War as part of a broader women-led movement for social improvement, and finally won the vote nationwide in 1920. Even without the vote, the late 19th and early 20th century saw middle-class organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and the National Association of Colored Women combine lobbying with education, charitable work, and in some cases protest. Once the vote was won, the enormous but superficially united women's suffrage movement splintered: the National Woman Party proposed an Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and pursued it single-mindedly, whereas the League of Women Voters and other women's organizations opposed the amendment on the basis that it would outlaw special protections for women workers, who were particularly vulnerable.5 Nonetheless, women had found a foothold, and participated in political campaigns and coalitions from the New Deal of the 1930s to the Great Society of the 1960s.

With the second women's movement of the 1960s came a new growth of women's lobbying and electoral organizations -- such as the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus -- and a surge in the number of women elected officials, including governors and senators for the first time. Despite this, the Equal Rights Amendment fell short of ratification in 1982 and electoral progress has been limited. Women are still under-represented as elected officials at virtually all levels, especially in Congress.

And although the New Left began the mobilization of women, the New Right has also been very effective at organizing women's political involvement around conservative backlash issues -- opposing abortion, upholding "traditional" family structures, defending white privilege, and cutting taxes. Conservative women claim that not only has equality for women been accomplished, it has gone too far. For the last two decades much of middle class women's political energies have gone into defending reproductive rights, including supporting primarily pro-choice candidates, regardless of their positions on women's economic equality.

And that's where we stand today -- with unprecedented numbers of women involved in conventional politics, but with the legislative agenda for women's equality largely stalled. In 1995 when the Personal Responsibility Act, the harsh, Republican-crafted federal welfare reform, first came up for a vote, all four white women senators -- Democrat and Republican alike -- voted for it. (The lone African-American woman in the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun -- since defeated for re-election -- cast a nay vote.) And the most visible woman governor, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, is a tax-cutting, service-slashing conservative. In fact, given the rush by state legislatures and governors to make welfare stingier, welfare advocates have had to rely primarily on the courts to defend welfare rights. Sitting judges still to some extent reflect the more liberal politics of earlier decades -- and also take more seriously the constitutional and statutory guarantees that are often ignored by legislators and administrators anxious to cut costs and score political points. But litigation to defend the rights of poor women can only be a holding action.

Regaining ground for women's equality in conventional politics calls for a four-pronged strategy. First, shifting the balance of power will require registering and mobilizing many who don't vote now, particularly poor people and people of color. Second, any electoral advances will be limited until we reform campaign financing to lessen the influence of rich individuals and corporations. Not surprisingly, corporations and the wealthy have little interest in shifting funding priorities or in empowering low-income people. Progressive candidates rarely can afford to make their way through the electoral process. Third, women in general and low-income women in particular need to consolidate new alliances in the electoral arena. Potential allies include the labor movement (as noted above), communities of color, and churches and religious activists who have often taken a strongly compassionate stand on issues of poverty and human services, despite more anti-woman positions on issues such as reproductive choice. One possible outcome of the alliance-building process is the growth of third parties, and the progress of new third party initiatives such as the New Party, the Labor Party, and the 21st Century Party (initiated by the National Organization for Women) bears watching. Finally, new ways must be found to win the hearts and minds of working people, so many of whom are currently swayed by anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-welfare rhetoric.

Protest and Survive

PROTEST HAS LONG BEEN A POTENT POLITICAL LEVER FOR WOMEN, and particularly for poor women.6 The history of protest overlaps intimately with the history of unionism and of electoral politics: unionists organized and struck, but also demonstrated for causes such as the eight hour day; suffragists lobbied, but also rallied and marched. But women and their allies also have a long history of protests focused on issues of family, consumption, and unpaid domestic labor -- issues that are typically more peripheral to unions and electoral politics. In the first years of the century, women repeatedly organized food boycotts and tenant unions to resist high prices and rents. During the 1920s, women's auxiliaries consisting of the wives of male union members demanded government creation of local health departments and maternal and child health programs. The Communist Party-organized United Council of Working Class Wives mobilized women on issues of cost of living, education, and social welfare, and when the Depression hit, joined the newly formed Unemployed Councils in demanding better relief as well as more jobs. The black Housewives' Leagues launched "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" boycott campaigns in major cities, and also called for job creation during the Depression.

In the decades after World War II, the civil rights movement and the second-wave women's movement cross-fertilized with community organizing, giving rise to new protests. Civil rights activists, realizing that formal legal rights did not guarantee economic equality, broadened their focus once the Civil Rights Act was won in 1964. After all, when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, he was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers' strike. The Lyndon Johnson Administration's mid-1960s War on Poverty offered an opening for a new wave of organizing in low-income communities. One dramatic outgrowth of this ferment was the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), formed in 1967, building on earlier local efforts. NWRO activated poor women to demand AFDC benefits that they were already entitled to, and protested and lobbied to expand welfare recipients' rights. NWRO reached its high-water mark in 1971, with 900 chapters in 50 states, but folded in 1975 as political times changed.

Protests continue up to the present. In 1987 the newly-formed National Welfare Rights Union (NWRU) picked up NWRO's torch; in 1992, the Oakland, CA-based Women's Economic Agenda Project brought hundreds of women together for a Poor Women's Convention. Advocates for more effective welfare policies have devised creative approaches to protest. NWRU has organized welfare office sit-ins and takeovers of abandoned housing. On Valentine's Day 1995, in response to a call by JEDI Women (Justice, Economic Dignity, and Independence for Women) of Salt Lake City, activists in 76 cities carried out actions on the theme "Our Children's Hearts Are in Your Hands," targeting the punitive Personal Responsibility Act then before Congress. Participants in the actions mailed 61,000 postcards to legislators. The JEDI women themselves marched into the Salt Lake City Federal Building to present their legislators with a port-a-crib full of cards colored by children in day care centers.7 But in the shadow of the conservative backlash, protests appear less and less effective, and are more likely to mobilize hundreds in a given city than tens of thousands. Ironically, women and men have turned out in hundreds of thousands to defend other rights related to gender equity -- reproductive choice, gay and lesbian rights -- but have not responded in large numbers to the welfare "reform" that poses perhaps the sharpest current attack on women's rights.

Looking to the future, protest can play two important roes in the push for welfare rights and full equality for women. For one thing, protests constitute an ongoing moral presence that can help to shape public opinion and shame legislators. Though protests may not currently seem to move us much further forward on welfare rights, they are most definitely helping to prevent us from sliding further backwards! But protests serve a second role as well, and one where there is room for growth and experimentation: they make an unfair system harder to govern. The National Welfare Rights Organization strategy started by mobilizing poor women to demand rights that were already on the books, exploiting the margin of administrative discretion that already existed; they backed up these demands with the threat of disruption. We can't apply the same strategy uncritically at a time of cutbacks, but we can apply the same principles. For example, in many states, the executive branch is using administrative discretion to reduce eligibility and benefit levels beyond what's required by law, so they can boast of reduced welfare rolls and decreased spending. These discretionary actions mark a pressure point where protest can potentially win immediate, material gains for poor women, while exposing politicians' dishonesty. In many cases social services staff, whose own jobs are threatened by the anti-welfare assault, may be helpful in identifying and acting on these pressure points.

The Battle for Public Opinion

THE HISTORY OF THE TUSSLE OVER PUBLIC OPINION is completely intertwined with the long history of labor, electoral, and protest strategies we have already outlined. But history does hold some important lessons. For one thing, the mobilization of public opinion has often been a two-edged sword. For example, middle class female reformers used arguments about morality and the sacredness of the family to win support for Mother's Aid, the state-level predecessor to AFDC. But those same arguments, coupled with class prejudice, convinced the reformers and their allies that Mother's Aid should involve close monitoring of the behavior of recipients, and should only be made available to "morally fit" mothers.8 As this example points out, U.S. public opinion -- and with it U.S. public policy -- have always distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor.9

That distinction continues to haunt us. Sympathy for poor people, especially children, coexists with resentment of "freeloaders." An expectation that government should make our lives better clashes with cynicism about the willingness or ability of government to accomplish anything constructive. Consciousness of harder economic times does not displace the deeply held conviction that anyone can make it if she/he really tries. And running through it all, in the minds of most Americans, is the notion that many -- perhaps most -- of the poor are undeserving. In sociologist Mark Rank's study of welfare in Wisconsin, perhaps his most discouraging finding came when he surveyed welfare recipients about their views of why they and others were on welfare. Rank asked whether recipients believed they were solely responsible for being on welfare, whether it was due to circumstances beyond their control, or some combination of the two. Speaking of themselves, 82 percent of recipients blamed circumstances beyond their control, 12 percent cited a combination, and 6 percent took full responsibility. But as for other recipients, 90 percent of those welfare recipients stated that "people on welfare" are partially or fully to blame for their situation. In short, even most welfare recipients themselves classify other recipients as undeserving.10

The result of this strong streak of blame is that public opinion victories tend to be narrow and fragile. In the fight against the 1995 Personal Responsibility Act, the struggle for public opinion was critical in securing President Clinton's veto of the legislation. But it appears that what tipped the balance was not the National Welfare Rights Union's street actions, not the National Organization for Women's rally in Washington that defined welfare cuts as violence against women, and not the New York Times ad by the feminist Committee of One Hundred Women, who declared that "a war against poor women is a war against all women!" Instead, a leak of the Clinton Administration's internal estimate that the law would plunge one million children into poverty, and a media push focusing on children, spearheaded by the Children's Defense Fund and the National Association of Social Workers, finally achieved a Clinton veto. Of course, concern with the plight of children is an entirely appropriate response to punitive welfare reform proposals. But focusing on children alone minimizes the assault on the rights of women and of poor people, and leaves the door open for policies that control and punish women "for the sake of the children." As the Welfare Warriors of Milwaukee, WI wrote in an angry 1995 open letter, "It is time for our allies to do more than apologize for our existence. It is time to stand up for our right to public support for our children and our right to mother our own children."11 In any case, the appeal for child welfare was not sufficient to stop the same legislation the following year.

In future attempts to move public opinion, the tools used to date will remain important. There is an ongoing need for publications put out jointly by recipients and advocates, such as Boston's Survival News and Milwaukee's Welfare Mothers' Voice; op eds and cable TV talk show appearances; New York Times ads and speaking tours. But many of these media preach primarily to the already converted, while potential allies turn the page or flip the channel. If we acknowledge that the battle for public opinion is actually more like a war of position, we must find ways to use the equivalent of both artillery and house-to-house combat.

The "big guns" consist of advertising, particularly on TV and radio. When New York Governor George Pataki announced a budget featuring $4 billion in budget cuts in February 1995, a coalition of unions, students, seniors and others launched a grassroots campaign of lobbying and protest. But at the same time, unions and various institutional interests such as hospitals and home-care associations spent several million dollars on an advertising blitz. Pataki's ratings went from 38 percent negative to 63 percent; 65 percent of survey respondents said the budget fight made them "think less of the Republican Party of New York generally."12 Of course, advertising takes money, so poor people can only pursue this strategy if they find allies with deep pockets -- unions and churches being two key examples.

As for the "house-to-house combat," it translates into one-to-one and small group discussion and education. The issues surrounding welfare are complex; sound bites cannot adequately capture them. Winning support for a full women's equality agenda means challenging deeply held beliefs about family, work, and government, while tapping into and nurturing other, equally deeply held beliefs -- working through the contradictions we presented above. Many forums are possible for this kind of discussion: house meetings, churches and other places of worship, PTAs, unions -- wherever people live, work, and socialize. Mobilizing the people-power for this kind of effort is even more difficult than mobilizing the millions for advertising campaigns, but it is certain that without this nitty-gritty educational process any leverage over public opinion will remain weak.

Puting It All Together

WORKPLACE ORGANIZING, CONVENTIONAL POLITICS, PROTEST, AND CAMPAIGNS to influence public opinion form a unified package. None will work very well without all the other elements. Furthermore, all of them require building new alliances and strengthening old ones. As with every major advance for women's economic inequality in the past, broad coalitions uniting disparate interests will make the difference. It can be done.

And it has to be done. The costs and the inefficiencies in our current system are keeping many people in this country down. The burden of child rearing is left to individual families, a larger and larger percentage of which cannot find the time or money to do it well. Meanwhile, many families in dire poverty are trapped in unsafe neighborhoods, and a generation of children is growing up with little or no vision of a viable economic future. The costs of poverty, injustice, and inequality corrode the social fabric -- sometimes sparking short-term explosions like urban riots, but more important leading to long-term social polarization and decay. Taking into account how costly our current system has become and who is currently bearing those costs, the new costs of fixing the system are a good investment.

We all deserve a better society: one where women and men get equal treatment, where employers and the government recognize family needs, and where poverty is replaced by opportunity. Equality for women and a better life for families of all kinds hang in the balance. It's time to smash those glass ceilings and banish those bottomless pits!


  1. This discussion of strategy draws greatly on two excellent pieces on political strategy for welfare rights: Mimi Abramovitz. 1996. Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press), Part 4; Ann Withorn. 1996. "The politics of welfare reform: Knowing the stakes, finding the strategies," Resist Newsletter. Vol. 5, No. 3 (April). In discussions of past political battles, we also draw on the essays in: Louise A. Tilly and Patricia Gurin, editors. 1990. Women, Politics, and Change (New York: Russell Sage Foundation). We also thank Ann Withorn, Diane Dujon, and members of the Boston area Academics' Working Group on Poverty for very helpful discussions. return

  2. This four-part approach to strategy borrows from the Detroit-based National Welfare Rights Union, although we have set a somewhat broader agenda (since the target we focus on goes beyond welfare rights to encompass women's economic equality in general). In 1994, NWRU proposed a four-part strategy involving organizing, legislation, public relations, and legal strategy to combat the wave of punitive welfare "reforms" sweeping the country. Mimi Abramovitz, 1996, op. cit., p.133. return

  3. Ruth Milkman. 1990. "Gender and trade unionism in historical perspective," in Tilly and Gurin, op. cit., pp.87-107. return

  4. Ann Withorn, op. cit. return

  5. Nancy F. Cott. 1990. "Across the great divide: Women in politics before and after 1920," in Tilly and Gurin, op. cit., pp.153-176. return

  6. This history of protest is based primarily on Mimi Abramovitz, 1996, op. cit., who provides much more detail than is presented here. return

  7. Welfare Mothers' Voice. 1995. "Fighting back: Welfare 'reform'-- JEDI Women spark protests in 76 cities," Works in Progress (Applied Research Center, Oakland, CA). April, p.6. return

  8. Barbara J. Nelson. 1990. "The gender, race, and class origins of early welfare and the welfare state: A comparison of Workmen's Compensation and Mother's Aid," in Tilly and Gurin, op. cit., pp.413-435; and Linda Gordon. 1994. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (New York: The Free Press). return

  9. Michael B. Katz. 1989. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon). return

  10. Mark R. Rank. 1994. Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 133, 142. return

  11. Welfare Warriors. 1995. "An open letter from Welfare Warriors to friends of families who receive welfare child support," Works in Progress (Applied Research Center, Oakland). April, p.7. return

  12. Labor Research Association. 1995. "Case study in the new politics," LRA's Economic Notes. May, p.3. return

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