Popular feminism

Shikanosuke Yagaki, Handrail detail, 1930–9


Social class differences among women and their implications for the development of relevant public policies

This article addresses the social class differences that exist among women and their implications for the development of public policies relevant to women (and men).

Among men, the way of expressing their machismo (the way of oppressing women) depends, to a large extent, on the social class of the person who manifests it. Of course, there are common points and behaviors, but always, or almost always, the man's social class very strongly defines how such machismo is expressed. It is therefore not surprising that the same thing happens among women (in a behavior that is precisely the opposite of machismo). The welcome awareness of women, as a social collective, of the need to conquer the same rights as men, is also very palpably marked by the social class to which the woman belongs or represents. Hence the plurality of feminist movements.

This became clear a few days ago at an event with high media visibility in the US, which took place at Harvard University, the most resourced, richest and most powerful academic institution in the US. This university has 37 billion in endorsement (i.e. into assets on which to generate income). Student tuition is a minuscule part of its income, and with such properties it has become one of the most important investment fund centers in the country. The fact that it is an educational institution is another activity that gives it its name, but most of its funds are obtained through the investments of its endorsement.

The wealth of resources is, therefore, its main characteristic. Such a university is also where part of the US elite is educated, socialized and models its way of thinking through the values ​​that this university promotes. In the US, it is well known that the culture of such a center is predominantly conservative and liberal ("liberal" in the European sense of the word, as the word "liberal" in the US means social democrat or socialist, of which there are very few at Harvard. Incidentally, the fact that Spanish media correspondents seem unaware of this difference in the use of the term “liberal” creates enormous confusion in their audience.)

Harvard's conservatism shows in all its dimensions, including its lack of sensitivity toward vulnerable and discriminated populations such as African Americans, Latinos, and women. However, in 1977, they decided to try to look more modern and slowly opened up to African Americans (coming, however, from elite private schools, as was the case of student Obama, who would become president of the country) , later to Latinos and, lately, to women. Harvard wants to look hip and feminist.

However, its conservatism and structural liberalism remain and are marked, appearing when least expected, as happened recently when the former finance minister in the Clinton administration, Mr. Larry Summers, was appointed president of the University by the Executive Board of this institution. In an interview, Mr. Summers said that the fact that there were no more female professors in scientific disciplines such as physics or chemistry was due – according to him – to biological reasons, that is, that women were not qualified for these sciences.

Upper- and upper-middle-income class feminism

The scandal such statements created was so great that the University's Executive Board quickly indicated that it would nominate a woman as president, which it eventually did. Appointed as President Dr. Drew Faust, who was, in addition to being a woman, a well-known feminist in the scientific community who had encouraged women (of her social class, of upper and upper-middle income) to aspire to places of high institutional power, thus breaking the male monopoly about power structures. This nomination was practically celebrated by the majority of feminist associations in the USA.

popular feminism

 Now, there were some women at Harvard who didn't celebrate this event. They were neither teachers nor students, but workers. They were the cleaning women at Harvard University (specifically at the seven-story, forty-room hotel Harvard owns on its grounds, managed by Hilton Hotels & Resorts). This hotel is one of the most successful in Boston (and all of them depend mainly on the clientele provided by their links with the academic world of this city). Last year, the hotel had one of the highest profits in the hotel industry in the city. But despite this wealth, the hotel's cleaning women (the vast majority of whom are Latino) were among the lowest paid in the industry, with the most rooms to clean per day and the highest number of accidents.

For more than three years these women tried to unionize, because if they did, they could collectively defend themselves and negotiate their salaries, benefits and working conditions. Harvard, including its feminist president, has opposed it for many years. And despite the workers' demands, many recognized US feminists, establishment country's political-media sector, ignored these demands. In an interesting article in the magazine The Nation, Sarah Lemand and Rebecca Rojas detailed the enormous and heroic struggle of these workers to get Harvard to accept their unionization. And the cleaning workers discovered that there are as many feminisms as there are social classes in the US. And that the feminists of establishment American political-academic-media did not represent the interests of the majority of women who do not belong to these wealthy and wealthy classes. The conflict between these two classes (the high and upper-middle income classes, on the one hand, and the working class, on the other) also appeared in the definition of their interests. The reality is that the integration of the former into power structures was and is irrelevant for working-class women.

This was also clear in the last presidential elections in the United States. The fact that the Democratic Party presidential candidate tried to mobilize women, presenting herself as the feminist candidate, is an example of this. The vast majority of working-class women did not vote for her; supported Trump who, along with the socialist candidate, called for a class vote, including a speech and some questions of clear acceptance and appeal to the working classes. Social class, after all, continues to be a key variable to understand what is happening around us, not only in the world of men, but also in the world of women.

The consequences of the weakness of popular feminism

And this also happens in Spain. The existing scientific evidence clearly shows that, in Spain, the welfare state services that are least developed are precisely the services that help families, such as day care centers – badly termed "day care centers” in our country – and home services for dependent people. The deficit in the development of such services in this country is huge.

And in Spain, when we say “family” we mean woman. She is the woman who bears the greatest burden of family responsibilities. The contrast between countries in the south of Europe (where the right has historically been very strong) and the north (where the left has historically been very strong) is overwhelming. In Sweden, for example, the number of hours per week dedicated to family tasks by women is 26, for men it is 22. In Spain, the ratio is 42 to 8.

This is the reason for the very poor development of family support services in southern Europe, at an enormous human cost. Spanish women have three times more stress-related illnesses than men. And the most affected woman is the working-class woman who does not have private services like the wealthy woman (the maid) who can help her. Thus, most polls show that, in addition to better working conditions and better wages, the most common demands of women from the popular classes are directed towards these services. It is urgent that the political parties that are rooted in the popular classes and consider themselves at the service of these classes are protagonists and lead the universalization of such services in Spain. Spain (including Catalonia) needs a greater awareness of the needs of women from the popular classes. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Everything is very clear.

*Vicenc Navarro He is a professor at Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Pompeu Fabra University (Spain). Author, among other books, of Los amores del mundo (booket).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal New Tribune.


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