When she was 18, my great-grandmother Mathilda Olafsson left Sweden to escape poverty, sailing alone in steerage to Boston where she was lucky to find a job as a maid. Like countless immigrant women, Mathilda was subject to sexual harassment, underpayment, and abusively long hours. As she endured backbreaking labor and meals consisting of her employers’ scraps, she hoarded her meager earnings, working toward a better life.
Growing up, I found Mathilda’s story ‒ so far in the past, so different from today ‒ inspirational. But sadly, even after the enactment of various labor laws and worker protections, many working women are still enduring the abuses that my great-grandmother suffered. The truth is, domestic workers and workers in otherundervalued, female-dominated professions have little more legal protection than Mathilda and her peers had.
Americans tend to think working conditions aren’t so bad today; the U.S. has prohibited discrimination against women, mandated equal pay for equal work, and adopted family leave legislation. But few Americans know that the progressive laws designed to improve wages and working conditions left out large portions of the working population. That’s because during the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt struck bargains with “Dixiecrats,” trading the rights of African American and female workers for votes in support of a minimum wage, overtime, and the right to join a union.
As a result, certain workers – including nannies, housekeepers, farmworkers, small business employees, part-time workers, independent contractors, and temporary workers – have almost zero protection under U.S. law. Not coincidentally, these workers are disproportionately female and people of color.
In addition, women bear the burden of America’s weak family leave policies and lack of affordable child care services. While the U.S. adopted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, providing some workers with the right to 12 weeks of leave for the birth or adoption of a child or other family health care needs, FMLA benefits are limited to certain kinds of employees. In practice, over 40 percent of private sector workers don’t qualify, and those workers tend to be the ones who need it the most ‒ younger, low-wage women of color. And since the FMLA provides only for unpaid leave, even those who qualify often can’t use it because they can’t afford to lose the income. With their families depending on their wages, many women return to work shortly after giving birth even though they are suffering complications from cesareans, recovering from difficult pregnancies, or dealing with postpartum depression.
After childbirth, mothers face the challenge of obtaining child care. There has been an ongoing national conversation about whether women who earn less than their husbands should remain at home when the cost of child care is more than their earnings. Often the focus is on how “opting out” of the workforce will affect women’s income and career prospects in the long run. But more is at stake for low-income working mothers, including child care workers who have children of their own. These women don’t have the freedom to“opt out” as advocated by Anne Marie Slaughter, and the concept of “leaning in,” popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, is as relevant to their everyday lives as a fairy tale.
I wrote this book because the discussions surrounding working women, much like our labor laws, have ignored the large swaths of women whose daily challenges are more fundamental than breaking through the “glass ceiling.” We need to change the conversation. Earning a living wage, finding good child care, and, if possible, saving for retirement; these are the difficult tasks facing the average American woman.
These challenges are daunting, especially when considering that incomes have flattened, organized labor has contracted, Americans are working longer hours, more and more jobs lack benefits, and many workers are denied sick days and family leave. But there are policies that could help. For example, benefits must be separated from full-time employee status. This would prevent employers from cutting hours to avoid providing benefits. Exemptions from labor laws based on job title or employer size must also be eliminated so that all workers are protected.
Instead of focusing on the narrow, elite interests of female CEOs and high-level government executives, we should be focusing on how to fix a broken labor system built on racist, sexist compromises and fill in the gaps that are keeping working women and their families from prosperity.