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Don't Do Us Any More Middle-Class Favors
July 24, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

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. I think the situation is far worse. I believe that most feminist policies harm the very women they should be protecting -- that is, the pink-collar worker. I believe 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 to clean up after her.

Ehrenreich's most recent book (Spring 2001), "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-time America," chronicles a fascinating experiment. She worked for two years in menial jobs -- as a maid, a store clerk and a waitress -- in order to collect material on 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. For example, do you take public transportation to work or eat lunch? -- because there is not enough money to do both.

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 and rendered more friendly when key legislation is up for review in 2002. Welfare programs based on moving recipients off the rolls and into the workplace attract particular scorn. 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 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 by 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. And I also appeal to government. It should do the one thing in its power to remedy the situation: get out of people's way.

Eliminate the regulations that prevent women from establishing cottage industries in their own homes. For example, 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 pursue standard business practices, like advertising and applying for a bank loan.

Remove the laws that keep women from making a living outside the home. For example, in New York City, the cost of the license to own and operate one taxi can be as much as $160,000 due to a scarcity engineered by government. Moreover, used cars can no longer be brought into service as cabs. As a result, women are prevented from using what might be their only 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. For example, sweep away laws against sexual harassment if it does not involve 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 work place. 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 during research for her book, Ehrenreich issued an appeal to the readers of Harper's (April 2000) not to hire maids. She wrote, "Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housecleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect. ...A servant economy breeds callousness..." And, so, to protect the moral sensibilities of the middle-class, she asks them 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.

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