They’re the backbone of the American economy, but if you listen to pundits and politicians, working-class women don’t even exist.
We’ve heard that term repeatedly since the 2016 election. Mainstream media has talked more about the plight of the working class in the past two years than it has in decades. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each made their own claims about this critical demographic, but none have been quite as bold as Trump. He and his pundits insist that it was not the skewed, misrepresentative nature of the Electoral College that propelled him into office, but working-class voters in every state, red or blue.
No matter who is talking about them, working class Americans evoke a consistent image: white men in hard hats and work boots who have fallen on hard economic times, the types of characters you’d find in a novel by John Steinbeck or Upton Sinclair. They are miners, construction workers, and auto workers from the Rust Belt, the Dust Bowl—Real America. These men—always men—are who the media conjures and who Trump surrounded himself with in his most recent order on tariffs, which he insisted was to benefit the American worker. (It doesn’t.)
The problem is, this narrative of the working class is all wrong. It’s not white men who hold the most jobs that fuel our economy; it’s women, and disproportionately women of color at that. Trump’s claims of ownership of these voters is also wrong: In 2016, women voters over all, voters making less than $50,000, and voters of color all overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton.
According to the 2010 Census, of the 123 million women age 16 years and older in the U.S., 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were labor-force participants. Women comprised 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force. And a 75-year analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that non-Hispanic whites are the fastest-declining population of the working class. Latinas are the fastest-growing group.
What would happen if all those women suddenly dropped out of the workforce? The economy would screech to a halt. So why are women workers so invisible? Why, when we think of the working class—which is really the middle class—do we not immediately visualize teachers, nurses, legal aides, and retail workers? Why has everyone been reinforcing a false narrative about America’s workforce since November 2016?
By continuing to promote the image of a hard-hatted white man over a woman teacher or service worker, media and politicians are still fixated on and clamoring for white male votes, leaving women workers where they have always been: struggling for visibility and with it, the economic recognition and equity they deserve.
It is perhaps not Sanders’s fault nor even Trump’s that their image of America’s working class is stuck in 1940—that was the working class of their childhoods and their base is those white men. But ignoring the needs of workers has always ended in those workers suffering from stagnant wages, lack of benefits, poor working conditions and suppressed voices in the halls of power. And we’ve seen time and again that leaving gender out of the story keeps the focus on men by default.
The truth is, women are America’s economic infrastructure. Nearly 95 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants are women. A full 97 percent of dental hygenists are women and 94 percent of child-care workers are women. Legal assistants and paralegals are 87 percent women. More than 80 percent of teachers are women, but 97.5 percent of pre-school and kindergarten teachers are women. More than 90 percent of nurses and 75 percent of medical support staff in hospitals, surgery centers, rehab facilities and nursing homes are women. Women are 88 percent of word processors and typists and 82 percent of file clerks, office clerks and librarians. Nearly 80 percent of everyone who serves you at a restaurant, shop or hotel is a woman. Just over 60 percent of the people who answer phones from 911 to your local electric company are women.
Even those men in manufacturing jobs that Trump spoke of when he gave his talk on tariffs are indeed a subset of America’s working class—a mere 11 percent. And a third of those auto workers Trump likes to talk about, are women.
The connection between low wages and women’s work has become more and more distinct in recent years. As is true with all professions that are majority female, teaching has become a working-class—and in many cases a working-poor—profession. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 81.8 percent of all elementary through high-school teachers are women. Teachers in Oklahoma, who are now into their second week of a labor strike, are among the worst paid in the nation, making on average only $42,647.
The teachers’ strikes highlight how much society ignores women’s work and how blurred the lines between middle-class, working-class and working poor have become for women. In 2018, the majority of minimum-wage workers—more than 23 million workers in jobs that pay $10.50 per hour or less—are women.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Personal care aides, registered nurses, home health aides, food preparation and serving workers (including fast food workers), hospitality industry workers and retail salespersons will be the occupations with the most job growth through 2024. These jobs will account for one in four new jobs through 2024—all low-paid working-class positions—and they will be held almost exclusively by women.”
These are more than just statistics adding up to a gendered underclass in the American workforce. Examine what the striking teachers are demanding—not just better wages and healthcare packages for themselves because many of them are having to supplement their incomes with a second job, but they are demanding more for students in the classroom, which the majority of teachers supplement with books and supplies, and sometimes even food for needy students. Before the West Virginia teachers went on strike, they packed food for their students who had come to depend on those care packages.
When teachers are deprived of what they need, so too are students. When nurses aides are paid minimum wage, patients suffer from the impact of overwork on those caregivers. When a single mother working in a fast-food restaurant gets home after a full work day and still can’t afford to feed her kids, her children suffer and may go to school hungry the next day only to have a teacher provide a meal for that child.
The cycle of impoverishing women by undervaluing their work is clear.
Yet those with the power to change this keep offering incidentals rather than what women workers need: recognition and wages. And their wages are stagnant. The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was in 2009 under President Obama and the then-Democratic-led Congress when it rose from $6.55 to what it is now, $7.25, approximately $15,080 per year, which falls well below the federal poverty line for a family of two or more. More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all. Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income. And it’s even worse for tipped workers, two-thirds of whom are women. The federal minimum cash wage is just $2.13 an hour. Trump recently attempted to roll back the tip-pooling rule as part of his overturning regulations, which would have allowed employers to collect tips in a pool and then tip or even pay other staff with the tips earned by servers.
The narratives of politicians and media need updating if teachers with advanced degrees are now to be found among the working poor and with them other female professionals. Women’s wages, which remain well below that of men, must become a focal point of America’s political and media discourse.
In 2016, female full-time year-round workers made 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap widens when race is factored in. Black women only make 64 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. For Latina women it’s even worse: 56 cents on the white male dollar—Latinas are making barely more than half of what a white man makes for the same work.
As low-wage jobs predominantly held by women are growing faster than any other jobs in the American economy, women are trapped by their invisibility as the true working class, stuck with flat wages and lack of opportunities for advancement. Illumining avenues for change presents myriad challenges. A 2016 study conducted at Cornell University found “gender differences in employment by industry and occupation remain relevant, some of which could be accounted for by discrimination.” This could be attributable to pure gender discrimination.
As long as the debate about America’s working class remains laser-focused on that minuscule 11 percent that is white men, women will suffer, working-class families will continue to struggle, and society—which is utterly dependent on women’s underpaid work—will crumble.
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