Pink-Collar Pain and Our New President

tags: election 2016, economics, labor, Trump

Katherine Turk is assistant professor of history and adjunct assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Turk received her undergraduate degree at Northwestern University and her PhD at the University of Chicago in 2011. Her essays have appeared in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas (2014), the Law and History Review (2013), the Journal of American History (2010), and elsewhere.

In the wake of this year’s presidential election, many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters are struggling to understand why her calls for sisterhood did not persuade the 62 percent of white non-college-educated women who voted for her opponent, Donald J. Trump.[1] One explanation came in Trump’s acceptance speech. In a 21st-century twist on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era appeal to the working class, the president-elect praised the “forgotten men and women” who hoisted him to victory. Many of these women are indeed the pink-collar workers the civil rights revolution forgot.

Since the passage of federal laws promoting workplace sex equality—especially Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—select female professionals have broken the glass ceiling while employers lowered the floor for everyone else. In particular, workplace rights laws have done little to help the pink-collar women stuck in contingent forms of labor that have historically been assigned to their sex. But in Title VII’s early years, the law’s ambiguity fostered demands that sex equality deliver substantive benefits. White-, blue-, and pink-collar women came together within their workplaces, built class action lawsuits, and pressured their employers and government officials. These workers argued that sex equality laws should boost women’s access to male-typed jobs while attaching those jobs’ higher pay, respect, and flexibility to the work most women already did.[2]

But these cross-class alliances broke down as they battled employer resistance, narrowing legal definitions of sex equality, and the ascendant New Right. Employers were more willing to accept a version of equality that permitted qualified women to advance than a broader mandate to restructure jobs and redistribute power to workers across the labor force. The conservatives who steered national politics in the 1980s affirmed this delimited definition of equality, assenting to women’s modest entry into male-dominated corners of the labor force. And as women professionals, including Hillary Clinton, eagerly crossed into those jobs, they struggled to transform a boys’ club that granted them only a tenuous foothold there.

These late-20th century conflicts over the meaning of sex equality compounded the discrete spheres of working class and more elite labor. Women are disadvantaged in both groups. Pink-collar women face poverty wages, inflexible and punishing shifts, little autonomy, and unsafe working conditions.[3] Female professionals must pursue the tokens of success as men have defined them, carefully managing their femininity and sacrificing gendered claims in order to be accepted in what remains a man’s world. Across the labor force, women’s access to power depends upon their willingness not to use that power to challenge the basic arrangements of work. ...

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