Backlash in the Workplace

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Jane Slaughter and Dianne Feeley

SUSAN FALUD! MAKES a passionate case for the 1980s as the decade of backlash against women. Women made gains during the 1970s—thanks to the feminist movement—that, she says, were then derailed or reversed during the Reaganism of the 1980s. But she fails to situate the struggle for women’s rights in the political context of the Reagan era. How far did the African-American community advance? What about working people as a whole? How can we evaluate women’s success without using a yardstick that gauges women’s struggle within the context of other social and political fights? Social movements take strength and courage—and learn—from other movements for social justice.

Most American women work for pay, if not all their lives, then a large chunk of their lives. Yet Faludi devotes only thirty-seven pages of her 460-page book to a chapter on working women’s issues (plus seventeen pages on reproductive rights in the workplace). She cites figures that show women workers holding even, at best. But she neglects to discuss the organizing and the changes in consciousness that laid the groundwork for more tangible gains in the 1990s.

The strength of Backlash is its wealth of facts and its indictment of how the system treats women with contempt. In particular, Faludi’s examination of the Sears sex discrimination case, which women lost, details the complicity of the Reagan administration in reinforcing the sexism of the employer. The book’s weakness is its failure to examine how it is that asocial movement springs into life, raises demands, organizes, builds alliances, analyzes and refocuses. As activists know, a struggle of working women doesn’t just patiently convince employers and legislators, male coworkers and the public at large that the cause is just, and then we win. In fact, we learn as we go, and many of us—and our lives—are transformed by that experience.

When it comes to women workers’ issues, Faludi’s case for a decade of retreat is overblown. Despite the relative quiescence of the organized women’s movement on issues other than reproductive rights in the 1980s (compared to the 1970s), and the devastation of the labor movement, throughout the 1980s women workers made progress in getting our issues into public discussion and in winning allies, even if our tangible gains were small. Let’s briefly review six working women’s issues: pay equity, affirmative action, discrimination, childcare, parental leave and sexual harassment.

Pay Equity

On the fiftieth anniversary of women’s suffrage, August 26, 1970, one of the demands feminists raised was equal pay for equal work. But this demand didn’t address the problem of equalizing pay when jobs are overwhelmingly segregated by gender. Those were the days when the Help Wanted ads were clearly marked “men” or “women? As women challenged this practice in the early 1970s, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was invoked to prohibit advertising jobs by gender.

Yet this segregated system reproduces itself so “naturally” that it was difficult to devise methods for tackling the problem. For instance, the 1980 census revealed that 56% of all men and 26% of women were employed in occupations where their sex predominated. In fact, researchers have found that even integrated occupations tend to be segregated by firm, with the male workplaces paying higher salaries than the female ones.

So in the 1970s women activists devised a new way to argue for higher pay for women’s traditional jobs, from nurse to secretary to librarian. They coined the term “pay equity,” and argued that women’s jobs could be objectively compared with those traditionally held by men. By assigning point values to the effort, responsibility, skill, and working conditions required of, say, a secretary and a tree trimmer, the activists could show that women’s jobs had as much “value” as men’s did, and should therefore be paid as well.

The science was shaky, but job evaluation after job evaluation showed that women’s work was consistently underpaid. Through direct action, bargaining and lobbying, unions and women’s groups were particularly effective at pressuring state and local governments. By 1987, twenty states had granted pay equity raises. Usually the amounts were small: only 24% of state payroll budgets. And almost all progress was in the public sector. (Canada’s province of Ontario has mandated pay equity for the private sector as well.)

The broader meaning of pay equity is simply the comparison of all women’s median pay to all men’s: Remember the famous 59 cents on the dollar that women activists in the 1970s wore on stark buttons? Faludi says that by 1988, on the average, women made 65 cents to a man’s dollar. Women with college degrees or African-American women, she says, were worse off, earning 59 cents for every dollar their counterparts earned. Older women made 58 cents, and Latina women 54 cents. Faludi also points out that the pay gap is widening most in the fields where women’s employment is growing fastest—waiting tables and cleaning, for example.

Sylvia Nasar attempts to debunk Faludi, with figures she says are more recent and more accurate (The New York Times, “Women’s Progress Stalled? Just Not So,” October 18, 1992). Triumphantly citing three women economists, Nasar says women’s median pay rose to 72% of men’s by 1990. She cites women’s rising education, experience, and expectations as the causes.

Nasar admits that part of the reason for the narrowing gap is that the median annual salary for men dropped 8% between 1979 and 1990, while women’s rose 10%. But she discounts the importance of the drop for men, citing an economist who once ghost-wrote for Richard Nixon: “Some of the relative gains of women in the bottom half of the wage scale did indeed reflect the sharp drop in the wages of men with high school educations or less during the 1980s. But … ‘at the upper end, where men did very well, women went through the roof.” And who were Reaganomies all about, anyway?

It is true that the gender gap in wages narrowed between 1985 and 1990 by a penny a year, but at that rate, women workers wouldn’t have reached equality until 2017.

If we look at Working Women’s list of the twenty best-paid women in 1991, we find Turi Josefsen at the top. She made $23.6 million, including bonuses and exercised stock options, as executive vice president of U.S. Surgical Corporation. The list includes eight others who made more than a million dollars last year, while #20 clocked in at $518,000. Despite this largesse at the upper end of the scale, the magazine noted that the wage gap widened in 1991.

Last summer the Census Bureau reported that household income has dropped 5% since 1989 and its purchasing power is lower today than it was in 1979. If we look at the labor movement, we see that the 1980s were first and foremost a concessionary era—neither unions nor working people as a whole were making progress on anything, much less “new” issues. The difficulty of making gains on pay equity underscores the importance of the health of the whole labor movement to women workers, including non-union women.

Discrimination and Affirmative Action

Since at least 45% of the wage gap is caused by job segregation, another way to narrow it is through affirmative action. Affirmative action programs helped women and minorities move into jobs they hadn’t held in large numbers before, from blue-collar skilled jobs to professional and managerial ones.

Formal affirmative action programs were dealt body blows by the Reagan administration, which brought court cases arguing that such programs discriminated against white men. Faludi says that occupational segregation eased by in the 1970s, but stalled in the 1980s. The result: by 1986, more women were taking home poverty level wages than in 1973.

The percentage of women holding down clerical jobs, she says, climbed to nearly40% in the early 1980s, higher than in 1970. Between 1976 and 1986, the lowest job rungs in the federal government went from 67% female to 71%.

In the dozen occupations where women made the most progress entering male jobs, Faludi argues that it was usually because the pay and status of those jobs had fallen dramatically, and men were bailing out Through the wonders of computers, typesetting went through several evolutions, craft unions were busted, and women were allowed into the field. With the spread of chain drugstores, pharmacists were devalued. And as branch managers of banks lost status and autonomy, the job was opened to women.

Faludi points out that between 1972 and 1988 women increased their share of legal, medical, and other elite professions by only 5%. But even in the elite professions women face remarkable discrimination. The Working Women’s survey (January 1993) noted that the entry of larger numbers of women into law and medicine has widened the wage gap between men and women in those professions.

After 1983, women made no progress breaking into the skilled trades. The percentage of women carpenters, for example, fell from 1% to .5% of that trade. Overall, between 1975 and 1988 women working in blue-collar nontraditional jobs rose from 1.1% to 1.4% of the workforce—not a lot of progress in fourteen years.

Even more distressing is the fact that 70% of girls attending vocational high school are in programs leading to traditional women’s jobs. In 1990 the Michigan Women’s Assembly–a coalition of twenty-two organizations with predominantly women members—called on vocational administrators to “stop training girls to be poor….”

The 1964 Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination and gave victims the right to sue. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), created by the 1964 act, reported that during its first year of existence, over one-third of all charges were brought on the basis of sex discrimination.

Throughout the 1970s women worked to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the federal Constitution. When Congress passed the amendment in 1972, it placed a seven-year time limit on the second stage of the process, ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

Time limits had been imposed on only a handful of amendments, so in the late 1970s the women’s movement fought for—and won—an extension. But in July 1982, with bipartisan collaboration in various state legislatures blocking ratification and an active right-wing campaign against the ERA, time ran out.

This setback was followed, at the end of the decade, by Supreme Court rulings that made it much harder to prove discrimination under the 1964 act The Court said, for instance, that the law covered hiring, but not any discrimination after the employee was hired.

To put some teeth back into the law, Congress passed another Civil Rights Act in 1990. The first version was vetoed by George Bush, but he eventually supported a watered-down version in 1991—one that specifically outlawed “quotas.” Nonetheless the 1991 Civil Rights Act is significant because it overturned several Supreme Court decisions that had weakened affirmative action plans. It also wrote “adverse impact” language into law for the first time, and made it easier for women and people of color to sue for damages as victims of discrimination.


Fewer than 7.5% of all U.S. families have a father who goes to work and a mother who stays at home to care for the children. Today nearly 60% of women with children under six are in the labor force; within ten years that figure will reach 70%. How prepared is our society for these changes?

During the 1980s a coalition of women’s groups, unions, and advocates for children fought for the Act for Better Childcare, which was finally passed in October 1990. It provided three years of block grants to states, which then had some discretion how to spend the money. ABC was meant primarily to aid low-income families—those whose income is less than 75% of the state median. They were to receive tax credits plus vouchers to use at the daycare centers of their choice. There was to be more money for staff training and more subsidized slots, with 750,000 children slated to benefit.

But 10 million children under the age of six are in need of childcare programs, with another 10 million in need of before-school and after-school programs and planned summer activities. A study funded by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department recommended that the $8 billion in public subsidies for childcare be increased to $20 billion.

Are employers taking up the slack? Of the six million companies in the United States, 4,150 provide childcare assistance, and much of this is minimal—such as a referral service. Only 850 employers provide on or near-site childcare.

In September 1992, 137 companies and organizations committed $25.4 million toward 300 childcare and eldercare programs in forty-four communities across the country. The money was for ten new facilities; to train providers; to start in-home program for the elderly, and to develop school vacation programs. Eleven blue-chip companies led the drive, including IBM, Xerox, and American Express. This initiative indicates that parts of the corporate class are taking the availability of childcare seriously. They want their women workers to be at work every day, just like the men.

But nothing was said about cost That’s the rub. Care for one pre-school child can easily cost $6,000 a year. And childcare would be even more expensive if childcare workers didn’t subsidize the industry through their low wages. These workers are %% women, with an average wage of $9724, most often without benefits. The turnover rate approaches 40% a year—only dishwashers change jobs more frequently!

Clearly the only solution is publicly funded and operated childcare. The idea sounds too expensive to attain—but so did public education in the early nineteenth century.

Parental Leave

Rather than fighting only for maternity leave, in the 1980s activists expanded the concept to meet women’s changing needs and to secure rights for fathers. Many women workers in the “sandwich generation’ were finding care of aging parents as big a responsibility as child-care. Thus family leave was proposed, and in September 1992 Congress approved a bill that would require companies with over fifty workers to grant twelve weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a new child or for serious illness of the worker or a family member. In addition, the employer would have to continue health coverage during the leave.

The bill affects about half the workers in the country. Gentle George Bush vetoed it twice because, he said, the government should not tell employers what to do. But passage sailed through Congress and was signed by President Clinton in the first few weeks of new administration.

Twenty-five states have passed their own parental leave laws—many weaker than the federal bill (only a few provide for health benefits; seven cover only the public sector). Of companies with a hundred or more workers, 37% offer parental leave—usually only to women. Thirty-six percent of union contracts provide for extended maternity leaves.

Note, however, that all these gains are unpaid leaves, unlike the situation in many western European countries. Once again, the burden is placed upon the individual family unit.

Sexual Harassment

In the late 1970s a small but articulate movement of women held hearings, demonstrated, spoke on talk shows, and pressed employers and unions to install guidelines for dealing with harassers. They argued that sexual harassment has less to do with sex than with power and control Federal enforcement agencies and courts responded by interpreting existing anti-discrimination laws to include sexual harassment, and by defining it quite broadly.

Progress on achieving language in union contracts was mediocre, although many unions have paid attention to the issue—publishing pamphlets, for example, and holding classes for women or stewards. One reason, of course, that union women’s departments and women’s committees take up sexual harassment is that it’s much easier than broaching higher pay.

Ironically, the Anita Hill case did more to raise public consciousness on sexual harassment than did all the excellent work done by the women’s movement and union women over the past decade. Hill, of course, rested on their shoulders—they had defined the problem that previously had no name. In the year since Hill’s testimony, the EEOC reports that sexual harassment complaints have risen dramatically, from 6,500 to more than 10,000.

What’s A Victory?

While Susan Faludi has compiled impressive statistics and cases about the institutionalized sexism of our society, her analysis isn’t all that helpful to activists Looking through her lens—defining everything that happened in the 1980s as evidence of a backlash—she ends up minimizing any partial victories that women won, and leaves any possible allies completely out of the equation. This is particularly striking in her discussion of the 1991 Supreme Court ruling banning “fetal protection” policies on the job. Under these policies, women who could not prove they were infertile were banned from certain jobs, such as those involving lead. These were often the higher-paying jobs in a plant.

Faludi correctly nails employers with the charge that they developed the policies not out of concern for growing fetuses but out of their fear of liability. She points to the Reagan administration’s double standard: encouraging fetal protection policies for the 1.4 million women working in traditional male industries, but opposing investigation of the harm that VDT work might pose to 11 million women clerical workers. She notes, too, that male coworkers were often delighted with the policies because they felt threatened by losing the exclusive right to bid on higher-paying jobs.

Actually Faludi has little to say about the 1991 ruling, in which the justices found the company’s plan violated the law. In one paragraph she notes the victory, then adds that the court could not recompense the women for nine years of lost wages and missed opportunities. Nor were the corporations touting fetal-protection policies discouraged; they simply shifted to subtler and more sophisticated tactics…. (440) In fact, Faludi loads the dice so much that she reverses the story of the two important fetal protection cases, telling the victory first (1991), then the defeat (1983).

Our evaluation of the 1991 decision is different. The Supreme Court ruled on a class action discrimination suit filed by the United Auto Workers on behalf of all past, present and future production and maintenance employees in the bargaining unit at Johnson Controls, Inc., a manufacturer of lead-acid car batteries. Under company policy only those women who could prove they were infertile, had been surgically sterilized, or had gone through menopause were allowed to work in battery production. In fact, the policy banned fertile women from all jobs that could lead to promotions into jobs with lead exposure.

The Court ruled that company policy was exclusionary, pointing out that it “is not neutral because it does not apply to the reproductive capacity of the company’s male employees in the same way as it applies to that of the females.” (“Fertile Women Can Apply,” Patricia Horn, Dollars & Sense, June 1981)

From the beginning of the twentieth century, employers and legislators have sidestepped the problem of providing a safe work environment by writing various protection policies for women. These include the right to sit down on the job, limiting the amount of weight a woman can lift, or restricting women from night shift work. All too often unions were willing to go along because they saw such policies as saving jobs for men. As the Cigarmakers International wrote as early as their 1879 annual report, ‘We cannot drive the females out of the trade, but we can restrict their daily quota of labor through factory laws. While protective legislation didn’t create a sex-segregated work force, it did reinforce the pattern.

One of the reasons that working women championed the ERA was its sweeping challenge to the mountain of state protective legislation and company policies. It wasn’t that women wanted terrible conditions. Rather, they saw how those protections kept them out of the higher-paying jobs. So ERA advocates fought to write into the amendment’s ‘intent’ the principle that discrimination would be ended by extending protection to men.

This approach to protective legislation, developed by the women’s and union movements, is key to overcoming the division of workers at the workplace—and winning victories. Let’s look again at the problem of reproductive hazards. An estimated 20 million workers work with these hazards, ranging from lead to pesticides and anti-cancer drugs. And of the 90,000 chemicals in commercial use, only 5,000 have been studied for toxicity. Of those, three (lead, ethylene oxide and dibromochloropropane) are currently listed as reproductive hazards.

But obviously much investigation still remains to be done, and rarely did the studies consider the problem of male reproductive health. The companies chose only to1protect’ the fetus, where the link between birth defects and poison in the workplace is more obvious, and not the sperm, which are also susceptible to damage. The companies’ fetal protection policies were in reality a way of getting off the hook—evading the responsibility for cleaning up the workplace for everyone.

Interestingly enough, the Court’s decision boosted workers’ efforts to reduce workplace hazards, by charging employers with more responsibility for learning about and publicizing the effects of toxic substances they use. It’s true that those companies will seek to evade the implications of the decision. But that’s nothing new, or related to the 1980s. That’s just the nature of capitalism itself.

Employers may deal with the decision in a number of unacceptable ways. They could scrap the bans on women of childbearing age and institute a “let the worker beware” policy. They could shut down the plants and move to a Third World country. Or, if workers and their unions continue the fight, companies could be forced to exclude toxic substances, and not the workers.

The 1991 decision was an important, though limited, victory, just as the Roe v. Wade decision was twenty years ago. It is up to the social movements both to wage the legal battle and to fight for the broadest, most user-friendly interpretation. If we misevaluate our victories, we disarm ourselves.

The Crucial Question of Allies

Throughout Backlash, and especially in the chapters we are focused on, Faludi introduces the reader to many brave, determined, intelligent and perceptive women. She makes the point in the epilogue that no matter how bruising each woman’s collision with the backlash was, each continued to fight in her own way. Yet there’s the overwhelming impression that those women carried out a relatively isolated struggle. There’s rarely a reference to a meeting, petition, educational conference, demonstration or leaflet Almost always she portrays the male coworkers as equally brutal enemies of women as the employer and the Reagan administration.

We believe that approach is self-defeating. Women workers need allies. We need to figure out how we can win others to understand that our fight is part of a larger battle for social justice.

What’s the basis for alliance? Simply the reality that, in the big picture, most of us do not gain from discrimination. As Freada Klein, who conducts training sessions for major corporations on sexual harassment, points out, “workplaces with high rates of sexual harassment also have high rates of racial harassment, discrimination and other forms of unfair treatment” (Working Women’s Survey on Sexual Harassment, June 1992) The old Wobbly slogan that -An injury to one is an injury to all” applies. The UAW is a thoroughly male-dominated union. That it brought suit against Johnson Controls on behalf of its women members and pursued the case for seven years indicates unity is achievable.

Women at Work

During the 1980s, then, feminists and their allies launched a teach-in on a range of “new” issues—especially parental leave and sexual harassment—as well as new approaches to the old problem of the wage gap. Just about everyone except the hard right wing now accepts that childcare and parental leave are a reality that workers need.

If you listened to the right-wing ideologues of the 1980s and 1990s, you might think that women’s choice” to work was still an unsettled issue But if anything became clearer than ever during the 1980, it was that women will not be forced back into the home. Today business and government can’t function without women’s labor.

In 1989, 68% of all women ages 16-64 were in the labor force, and women made up fully 45% of the labor force. Women not only have to work, they want to work—in spite of how hard it is to have both a job and a family. Our task is certainly unfinished, but through the 1980s we learned both from the few victories and from the many setbacks.

March-April 1993, ATC 43