Communists should demand special measures to protect women from capitalist exploitation, not ‘genuine equality’ in the workplace. Daniel Lazare investigates the Pump Act
Two initiatives hidden away in December’s last-minute $1.7 trillion spending bill address key issues for working class women. One is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which seeks to combat discrimination against expecting mothers, while the other, known simply as the Pump Act, requires bosses to provide new mothers with privacy and time off to express breast milk if they cannot nurse their babies directly.
But, while they address such issues, whether or not they resolve them is another matter. The reason is that labour law in neoliberal America is as much of a scandal as food regulations were back in the days of Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 muckraking novel, The jungle. US labour law supposedly protects the right to organise. Yet workers who try to form a union still run a 20% risk of being fired, according to a recent study.1 Federal law says that workers are entitled to overtime pay. Yet workers are short-changed on wages to the tune of at least $15 billion a year - a loss that amounts to as much as 21% of total income for those in the lowest pay categories. Penalties are minimal, while most violations go unreported, because the federal government has fewer than 800 inspectors for the 143 million working people covered by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
It is as if New York had 50 police officers to patrol a city of 8.5 million. Criminals would have a field day, which is why Human Rights Watch concluded more than 20 years ago that “a culture of near-impunity has taken shape in much of US labor law and practice” - and why an academic found more recently that “some companies are doing a cost-benefit analysis and realize it’s cheaper to violate the law even if you get caught.”2
If bosses find it cheaper to flout labour law in general, it is hard to see why they will not flout a law that claims to protect working class mothers in particular.
This is of special concern for socialists, who have long emphasised the needs of working class women, as opposed to bourgeois feminists, whose stress is on the ability of those in the upper strata to compete on equal terms with men. In an 1885 letter to a German socialist named Gertrude Guillaume-Schack, Friedrich Engels went so far as to argue that welfare was more important than formal equality:
Equal wages for equal work to either sex are, until abolished in general, demanded, as far as I know, by all socialists. That the working woman needs special protection against capitalist exploitation because of her special physiological functions seems obvious to me. The English women who championed the formal right of members of their sex to permit themselves to be as thoroughly exploited by the capitalists as the men are mostly, directly or indirectly, interested in the capitalist exploitation of both sexes. I admit I am more interested in the health of the future generations than in the absolute formal equality of the sexes during the last years of the capitalist mode of production. It is my conviction that real equality of women and men can come true only when the exploitation of either by capital has been abolished and private housework has been transformed into a public industry.3
Of course, this is the same Engels who would later express full confidence that “anti-Semitism betokens a retarded culture, which is why it is found only in Prussia and Austria, and in Russia too”, and that widening spheres of economic development would therefore consign it to the dustbin of history - this on the eve of the Dreyfus Affair in a supposedly advanced capitalist society like France!4 But if Engels strikes us today as overly complacent, his concern for the material condition of working women does not. It remains as valid as ever. The same goes for his concern that an exclusive focus on formal equality might actually serve to undermine women’s welfare - that remains valid too.
Prominent female socialists such as Clara Zetkin, the long-time editor of the German Social Democrats’ women’s newspaper, Die Gleichheit (‘Equality’), were of the same mind. Referring to the famous Ibsen play, Zetkin paid tribute in 1896 to “these tragic, yet psychologically interesting Nora figures … who are tired of living like dolls in doll houses and who want to share in the development of modern culture”. But she warned: “The demand for equal professional training and the demand for equal job opportunities for both sexes … means nothing less than the realisation of free access to all jobs and the untrammelled competition between men and women ...” Zetkin went on:
The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society. To be sure, she also agrees with the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement, but she regards the fulfilment of these demands simply as a means to enable that movement to enter the battle, equipped with the same weapons, alongside the proletariat.5
Alexandra Kollontai agreed. “Proletarian women,” she declared in 1909, “have a different attitude” than upper-class feminists. “They do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades, who share with them the drudgery of the daily round and fight with them for a better future.”6
So did Nadezhda Krupskaya, who noted approvingly in an 1899 pamphlet that an international labour conference in Zurich had not only called for equal pay for equal work, but had issued demands for a range of protective measures for women, such as limits on weekly working hours, a ban on take-home work, eight weeks’ paid leave before and after giving birth, plus “severe punishment for factory owners who fail to comply with the law, and the appointment of a well-staffed and independent factory inspectorate to ensure implementation”.7
Yet the United States still lacks both more than a century hence. Instead, bourgeois America has come up with an extreme form of trickle-down feminism, in which “more female leadership” at the top of the corporate ladder “will lead to fairer treatment for all women” below. This is how Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive whose net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion,8 put it in 2013 in Lean in: women, work and the will to lead. As Madeleine Schwartz noted in the US social-democratic journal Dissent around the time that Sandberg’s book was shooting up the best-seller lists, bourgeois feminism like this has emerged as the handmaiden of neoliberalism:
Feminist critiques of the welfare state helped support the deregulation of work and of economic markets. Feminism and neoliberalism also dovetailed in their political goals. Feminists’ condemnation of the androcentric state converged with neoliberalism’s own rejection of state regulation; international efforts to promote gender equality were used to divert attention from issues of poverty and globalisation.9
It is not surprising that a Shachtmanite publication that backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq would refer to the US as male-centred rather than simply as capitalist. But Schwartz’s comments are otherwise dead-on. It is nice that someone like Sandberg has a high-earning ‘woke’ husband to help with the kids. But what about the cooks, nannies and cleaning workers needed to keep wealthy households going - what does ‘trickle down’ mean for them? The same goes for hundreds of Meta-Facebook employees whose union-organising efforts have so far run into a solid wall of corporate resistance. Male or female, don’t they also have rights?10 For someone like Sandberg, feminism means not only equal pay, but an equal right to break unions.
Needless to say, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a motherhood-and-apple-pie measure that forbids discrimination against pregnant women and requires corporations to make “reasonable accommodations”, unless they “can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business”. But, however mild the language, why did an increasingly reactionary body like the US Senate back it at all, approving it by a margin of better than three to one? And why did rightwing corporate groups like the US Chamber of Commerce endorse it as well? The answer is simple: in the absence of strict-enforcement mechanisms, it is a ‘feel good’ measure entirely lacking in substance and bite.
Significantly, the law exempts railroads and airlines - industries that are heavily unionised and whose workers would therefore be in a position to see to it that such protections are rigorously enforced. But the only reforms the bourgeois state wants are ineffectual measures that cost little and affect profits even less.
The same goes for the Pump Act, which requires employers to provide “reasonable” breaks every time a woman needs to express milk, as well as “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public”.
Without enforcement, it is all so much hot air that will have little real impact on the millions of American women who toil in factories, fast-food restaurants and giant retail outlets. Immigrants who clean corporate offices long after people like Sandberg have gone home are too afraid of la Migra to worry about private facilities in which to pump. The same goes for women working in mega-slaughterhouses that process hundreds of animals per hour at breakneck speed. “[N]early all the workers I spoke with told me they are pushed to do more and more, faster and faster,” one researcher reported, adding:
Some workers cried, while speaking with me. Some said their supervisors screamed and humiliated them to keep up production speed. Some told us that supervisors don’t even let workers use the bathroom outside of scheduled breaks.11
Let us not forget that female workers who struggle under such conditions are engaged in a vital social function. As Zetkin put it,
… it must certainly not be the task of socialist propaganda among socialist women to alienate the proletarian woman from her duties as mother and wife. On the contrary, she must be encouraged to carry out these tasks better than ever in the interests of the liberation of the proletariat. The better the conditions within her family, the better her effectiveness at home, the more she will be capable of fighting. The more she can serve as the educator and moulder of her children, the better she will be able to enlighten them, so that they may continue to fight on like we did, with the same enthusiasm and willingness to sacrifice for the liberation of the proletariat.
Her duties as mother and wife? Such language may strike us today as antique. Yet a family imbued with socialist ideals is the opposite of the bourgeois family that Marx and Engels denounced in the Communist manifesto, not to mention the brood of aspiring CEOs that the top one percent hope to raise.
Moreover, families are something that working class women want. Like other advanced capitalist nations, the US saw an average decline in its birth rate of two percent per year during the “great recession” of 2007-19 and a further four percent drop due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 - the largest decline since the recession year of 1973.12 This is not because women reject motherhood. On the contrary, polls indicate that they would want more children if only they could afford them - but increasingly cannot.13 This is hardly surprising in a country in which politicians prate on endlessly about ‘family values’, while providing nothing by way of childcare, paid parental leave or affordable housing. If a decent home in a low-crime neighbourhood with access to high-quality schools is beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, then a decent family life is too.
Bourgeois feminism is at best ambivalent on family and motherhood. The radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, argued that maternity was at “the heart of a woman’s oppression”, while lesbian theorist Adrienne Rich confessed to “envy[ing] the barren woman who has the luxury of regrets but lives a life of privacy and freedom”.14
But socialists have no such compunctions. They defend equally the right to an abortion and the rights of women who choose to give birth. They do so not only because motherhood is what most women want, but because it is what society needs and thus what it should value, honour and support. After all, more children now means more young people at the barricades a few years hence - and what socialist can say no to that?
Breastfeeding is a link in the chain. Medical authorities are unanimous that it protects children against diseases like diarrhoea, ear infections and pneumonia, that it contributes to lower rates of asthma and obesity, and that it also reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It directly benefits mothers as well by lowering the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.15
Yet not only is the practice levelling off in the United States: it may even have started to decline.16 Economic pressures are a factor. But, with nearly half of working mothers afraid that it will hurt their careers, the difficulties of pumping on the job are plainly another.17 A federal law addressing such issues is not unwelcome. But, rather than relying on the bourgeois state, workers are the only ones who can see to it that such protections become real.
Besides, not speaking out in defence of working class mothers means consigning them to the ultra-right, which has not been the least bit shy about using them to the maximum. Socialists should not let conservatives misappropriate issues that are rightfully our own.