In December, 156,000 women lost jobs; men gained 16,000, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. But, as is usually the case, evaluating “women” as a general category hides something important: A further dissection of the data revealed that it was Black, Latina and Asian-American women who suffered job losses — white women actually gained jobs. It is expected that when the vast numbers of unemployed women re-enter the job market, they will be paid lower wages than before.
In the last year, 2.3 million American women reportedly dropped out of the work force — often to perform child care when school and day care closed. Because they’ve left the work force entirely, and aren’t seeking new jobs, they aren’t counted in unemployment statistics anymore.
In the last year, America’s billionaires have become $1.1 trillion richer. All this, amid perverse debates about whose lives are acceptable to sacrifice to save the economy. President Trump admitted in May that as we resumed economic activity, more people would die, but, he declared, “We have to get our country back.” Whose country? Back for whom?
It is somewhat less than surprising that there is a growing hunger for a different way, a society less stubbornly resistant to valuing human life when it stands in the way of profit for a rich, white, often male ruling class. A society “that allows millionaires to stow their wealth in empty apartments while homeless families navigate the streets,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in March, “that threatens eviction and loan defaults while hundreds of millions are mandated to stay inside to suppress the virus, is bewildering in its incoherence and inhumanity.”
Taylor is among a generation of scholars and activists bringing renewed attention to the leftist, often Black-led wings of the feminist movement that were shut out by mainstream white feminism. Writing in 1984, hooks summed it up this way: “Particularly as regards work, many liberal feminist reforms simply reinforced capitalist, materialist values (illustrating the flexibility of capitalism) without truly liberating women economically.” Many writers of that era, including Hooks, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and the members of the Combahee River Collective, insisted all along what is now widely seen as common sense: Feminism is both toothless and hypocritical if it ignores the material needs of women who are poor, Black, gay, trans, disabled, immigrants or living outside the United States. Their legacy has been taken up by contemporary social-justice activists and scholars like Taylor, adrienne maree brown, Rachel Cargle, Dean Spade and Mariame Kaba. This is where the energy of the left is now, if not a majority of the money or institutional power.
There’s a pressing question at hand, still unanswered, about how the American feminist movement will re-collect itself now, and whether it will push in an ideological direction more aligned with the thinkers it marginalized. The “liberal feminist reforms” of the late 20th century, which turned into the corporate feminism of the 21st. This hit its logical endpoint in the branded and sloganeered feminism of the last 10 years. There was “lean in” feminism, which held that women’s entrance into the C-suite required only the right kind of will to power and determined obliviousness to the demands of family-making. There was the swagification phase: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE T-shirts, “Nevertheless, She Persisted” baseball caps. There was the merch shop of the Wing (the “women’s space” with the high price tag, baby-pink interiors and, as employees claimed, abusive and racist internal culture) selling wildly popular “Head Witch In Charge” pins and “Girls Doing Whatever the [Expletive] They Want” key chains.
As it turns out, “girls,” or more accurately women, did not get to do whatever they wanted this year. Though — as people pointed out about the key chains — generalizing to “women” as a blanket category is a flawed prospect. (“What do you mean when you say women?” I asked Federici on one of our walks. “To me it has always been mostly in terms of a political category,” she said, defining “women” as all those who suffer under the material conditions that have historically been assigned to women, which includes trans and nonbinary people, intersex and agender people and queer people.) And years like 2020 do not fall evenly on all women.