Has The Women's Rights Movement Screwed Over Poor Women?

Illustration for article titled Has The Womens Rights Movement Screwed Over Poor Women?

Good news, ladies! Thanks to the women's rights movement, over the course of the last century or so, American women have made great advances in income equality, education level, and overall ability to have it all-ness. Well, rich women have. Poor women are still getting about equally as hosed as they were in the 1970s.

UMass Amhearst Professor Nancy Folbre notes that the gains that women have made in the last century have slowed in the last 20 years, and this is partly due to the fact that poor women have been largely left behind. The reason? Someone has to take care of the kids, and it's damn sure not going to be the government. That'd be socialist.

The US is the only industrialized country in the world without some sort of state paid maternity leave for all mothers, and thus employers can opt to provide paid maternity leave for women if it strikes their fancy. For highly educated women, this isn't as big an issue— 66% of women with college degrees have employer-provided maternity leave, up from 27% back in the early 1970's. Only 18% of women without high school diplomas receive the same courtesy from their employers. This depressing statistic hasn't completely flatlined since the 1970's, though; in the early 1970's, about 16% of women without high school diplomas were given paid maternity leave, which means poor women have seen a whopping 2% increase in access to maternity leave over the course of almost 40 years. Wait, so I guess it has pretty much flatlined for them.


No matter how you slice it, taking unpaid time out from a job in order to tend to a very expensive baby can wreak financial havoc on a woman.

Some more highly educated women have circumvented the economic penalties of reproduction by forgoing having children entirely. Folbre notes that almost a quarter of college educated women between ages 40 and 44 don't have any kids. Urban, college educated women in their 30's who don't have children actually outearn their male peers. Others women have avoided the penalties of childrearing by outsourcing household responsibilities to uneducated and unskilled women and continuing on in their high powered careers. Folbre doesn't raise this point, but surrogacy offers another way for women to have children of their own while taking as little time away from the rat race as possible.

If poor women haven't made much discernable progress in the last 40 years, then can women claim that they're approaching equality with men? Or is the illusion of progress among college educated women actually just wealthier women exploiting an ever growing wealth gap to buy their way around the shittier aspects of balancing motherhood and career in the United States? Is the progress of the ladies who power lunch coming on the backs of poor women?

One Northwestern University sociologist thinks so. Leslie McCall notes that "...absolute gains among women as a whole, and visible absolute gains among more highly educated women in particular, came at the expense of the worsening situation of low-skilled women, whose real wages have been falling."


It's not clear how an age of extreme economic inequality can produce any real social equality, especially for women, and especially in a country where motherhood is heavily penalized. And until Newt Gingrich gets his way and poor babies are allowed to realize their dreams as working as janitors (or they begin to fill their diapers with money rather than unspeakable horror), there's no end in sight.

Feminism's Uneven Success [Economix]
Image via electra/Shutterstock.

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Thermos Maker, VIP

Can someone recommend some reading for me on why we should have paid maternity leave?

I have the hardest time wrapping my head around the concept that basically is paying someone to stay home and take care of a baby they chose to have.

I understand that there are some benefits to society as a whole, having a parent around raising a child, but I don't see that there are such great benefits to society that I, as a business-owner (for example) would want to contribute by paying someone who isn't showing up to work.