It is commonplace to accuse the leadership of the feminist movement of being white, middle-class, academic boomers who have lost touch with the realities of the average woman.
In reality, the criticism should be far harsher. Most feminist policies harm the very women they should be protecting — pink-collar workers — and the solutions they offer to poor women are part of what is creating their poverty.
In the sea of elitism that is the feminism movement, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich appears to be an exception. Her roots are working class, which is a rarity. And she speaks out against "middle-class feminism" — the sort of socialist feminist who hires a maid.
Ehrenreich's most recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-Time America, chronicles a fascinating experiment. She worked for two years in menial jobs — a maid, a store clerk, a waitress — to document how difficult it is for a working-class woman to feed her children in America today. She eloquently describes the difficult choices confronting pink-collar workers.
Ehrenreich views the working poor as victims of social injustice inflicted by businesses who violate the dignity and civil liberties of workers. She believes poor women deserve to have the welfare system expanded when key legislation is up for review in 2002.
She has particular scorn for welfare programs based on moving recipients off the rolls and into the workplace. Indeed, Nickel and Dimed was inspired by the fact that millions of women are now being "forced" into the workplace by such programs. Clearly, her purpose was to debunk the idea that getting a low-paid job could lead such women to a better life.
Like Ehrenreich, I come from the working class. My father had a sixth-grade education and made a living with his hands. My mother, with a high-school degree, was considered to be an educated woman in a family that had no college credentials. Like Ehrenreich, I think the working poor are victims of social injustice, but I say the free market is not the culprit and government is not the cure.
In her book, Ehrenreich claims repeatedly that the poor cannot get ahead through hard work and initiative. I agree. Like her, I also appeal to government. It should do the one thing in its power to remedy the situation: Get out of the way.
• Eliminate the regulations that prevent women from establishing cottage industries in their own homes. In California, a woman must have 1,600 hours of state-approved training at a cost of between $5,000 and $7,000 before she can legally offer her services as a hair braider. As a result, most hair braiders operate outside the law. Being "illegal," however, means that their businesses cannot grow because they cannot do things like advertise or get bank loans.
• Remove the laws that keep women from making a living outside the home. In New York City, the cost of a license to own and operate a taxi can be as much as $160,000 because of government-engineered scarcity. And used cars can no longer be brought into service as cabs. As a result, women are prevented from using what might be one of their best assets — their time and the family car — to feed their children.
• Get rid of the costs imposed by social planners that make businesses in North America less profitable and less able to create jobs. Sweep away laws against sexual harassment not involving physical abuse. The billions of dollars spent by businesses each year on sensitivity trainers, legal advice and lawsuits has spawned what Daphne Patai in her book Heterophobia calls SHI — the Sexual Harassment Industry. The SHI represents a massive transfer of wealth away from businesses' productivity into the pockets of social engineers and attorneys. It is impossible to know how many jobs do not exist because of this hidden tax imposed by political correctness.
Yet feminists never seem to call for less government regulation, especially in the workplace.
Even Ehrenreich, with her blue-collar background, doesn't seem to realize that it was because her parents were allowed to work that they were able to give her a better life. They were allowed to translate their energy, initiative and work ethic into productive labor. It was precisely because they were blue collar that they needed every economic opportunity, every door to labor open to them.
And, yet, after working as a cleaning woman for her book, Ehrenreich, in an article in Harper's magazine, asked readers not to hire maids. "Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housecleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect. ... A servant economy breeds callousness," she wrote.
So to protect the moral sensibilities of the middle class, Ehrenreich wants people to unemploy poor women who are working to feed their children. Instead of honest work she would offer these women a more humane welfare system.
Today, government is slamming the door on anyone who cannot afford to shell out for the avalanche of applications, licenses, permits, taxes, and other fees that most business ventures require. Poor women should not have to go on welfare because all other economic avenues have been blocked.
Earning a living should not be a privilege granted by government: It is a right.
McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.