“What If All the Secretaries Went On Strike?”
Many years ago, a friend and I were talking about our experiences in the work world with male bosses who expected us to do most of their work for a fraction of their pay when she turned to me and said, “What if all the secretaries went on strike?”
Women’s status as the class that provides the unpaid labor is the most basic underpinning of the capitalist economic system and patriarchy’s social system of hierarchies. There’s an anonymous quote that Karl Marx used: “Wealth is liberty—liberty to seek recreation, liberty to enjoy life, liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time and nothing more.”84
Wealth is what men gain from the extra time they expropriate from women’s lives and women’s labors; why should men use their own time and labor when women are willing to give up their own? According to UNIFEM, women’s unpaid work around the globe is valued at approximately $11 trillion, or nearly 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.85 That’s $11 trillion in profit to the gender that didn’t have to do that work or pay for it; $11 trillion in additional wealth for men.
It stands to reason, then, that the only way to create an alternative structure is to remove the underpinnings of the current structure. In other words, women need to stop providing the means for perpetuating their own oppression. And so I come to the same question that feminists have been asking for generations: How do we educate, empower, and organize women?
It’s almost a contradiction; trying to instill a sense of self-worth in those who’ve been taught they have no worth. Even worse, how do we remove misogyny from the consciousness and practice of those for whom misogyny is not just normal, but offered as the best and most valued choice for women who want to be equal with men. This is especially true of the generations of females born during and after the Reagan years.
The backlash that began after the women’s liberation movement really hit its stride after the 1990s: It’s no longer a backlash from a portion of society, it is society. Misogyny is so woven into the fabric of women’s lives today, we are afraid to unravel that fabric; misogyny has become so embedded in each women’s sense of self, she can neither see it nor does she care to. Her sense of self and who she aspires to be is increasingly becoming, not just a male ideal, but a misogynist male ideal.
The more we lose our sense of self as a woman, the more we lose that soul-sustaining connection to other women known as Sisterhood. As successive generations in America fall further and further away from Sisterhood, feminists—as a movement and as a body of wisdom and experience—have grown further and further away from constructing feminist lives; we fail repeatedly to make our personal and family lives feminist. As a result, our children not only don’t learn feminism, they learn what is modeled for them: patriarchy.
Modeling patriarchy means relying on men to speak for your organization, while women remain in the background doing all the office work; it means scheduling men instead of women as speakers, showing films by and about men, using quotes by men and ignoring the wise words of women. This is how you show by example that only men can be the thinkers, the writers, the activists, the leaders, while women are only capable of being passive listeners.
Modeling patriarchy means going home after work every day and doing the laundry, the shopping, the bulk of the housework and childcare, while the males in the family “do their part” on weekends—if there isn’t a game on. This is how you show by example that women are the servants. Modeling patriarchy means substituting your own, less important name for his; even hyphenating your name while he fails to give your name the same respect and honor, diminishes your importance in the family. This is how you teach your children to carry patriarchy and inequality into the next generation. This is how children learn to disrespect and disregard women who are, after all, merely the servants of the world.
But this is not the way it’s always been. There was a time when women were the decision-makers, the leaders of their communities, the scientists, the agrarians, the inventors, and the builders.