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featuring guest blogger Jade Moss ('21)

The assertion that a just wage should be anti-discriminatory seems like not only a given, but something that we should have already achieved today. Indeed, the United States has federal legislation that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, ability, and most recently, sexual orientation and gender identity. However, a more nuanced understanding of wage labor, and in fact, unwaged labor, shows us that as a country we are failing to deliver an inclusive, anti-discriminatory just wage to millions of Americans. For one thing, significant gender and race-based pay gaps persist in America (which shows at the very least that wage discrimination exists), while occupational segregation remains rampant. Here I will focus on sex-based wage discrimination in the US workforce today, paying particular attention to its historical roots, as well as opportunities for change in light of COVID-19.

As Susan Thistle and other scholars have shown, the gendered division of labor within the nineteenth-century American household had lasting effects on the economy to come. With the rapid commercialization and industrialization of the economy, both men and women increasingly sought work for wages outside of the household in order to make ends meet. Women’s roles within this new waged-labor system, however, were relegated to low-paying jobs, such as making butter, cleaning homes, and childcare. Even when women participated in manufacturing labor in textile and garment mills, their wages paled in comparison to men’s, which were conceived of as a “family wage” to support a household (even though working-class men hardly ever earned the “family wage” ideal). And yet, upon returning home at the end of a long day working-class women still undertook the bulk of the household chores. This phenomenon of the so-called “second shift” still burdens women today, even as studies show that men have taken on more unpaid work in the home. Similarly, sex typing of jobs still dominates the US economy today, as the cases of the building trades (male) and home health care aides (female) illustrate.

Of course the origins of wage labor are further complicated by the practice of slavery, in which the vast majority of African Americans labored without any pay until emancipation in 1865. Even in antebellum northern states, African American men almost never received the “family wage” and were excluded from higher-paying skilled labor jobs. African American women likewise were relegated to the lowest paying occupations like domestic labor. Such trends persist today, revealing the long shadow of both white supremacy and the gender-based household economy.

The American customs of occupational segregation and wage discrimination largely went unchecked into the twentieth century, even in eras of labor reform like the 1930s. The New Deal’s establishment of an economic order promising novel protections and rights for workers left many women, and women of color especially, behind. Championing the “family wage,” New Deal rhetoric and laws reinforced expectations about the male breadwinner and his dependent wife while also excluding domestic and farm workers, who were predominantly women and people of color. As historians like Ryan Patrick Murphy have documented, an “ideology of domesticity” not only demanded higher wages for men on behalf of their breadwinner status, but also justified lower wages and subordinate positions for women on the grounds of their economic dependence on men. As men, including those men of color in the new industrial unions, reaped the benefits of a newly enshrined social safety net and unionization protection, women’s contributions to the economy remained forcibly undervalued.

Real-life Rosie the Riveters, however, as well as millions of other wage-earning women, fought for inclusion during World War II and in the decades after. Challenging the ideology of domesticity, “labor feminists” (as historian Dorothy Sue Cobble terms them) in and out of unions played vital roles in pushing for the expansion of New Deal coverage and creating the grounds for passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As historian Nancy MacLean and others have documented, however, despite the success of these movements for inclusion in weakening, if not destroying, Jim and Jane Crow, the tides reversed beginning in the 1970s as the neoliberal turn away from government regulation of the economy worked to undermine workers’ organizing rights and access to the social safety net for men and women alike. While the pay gap between men and women has narrowed, albeit slowly, in the decades since, women’s paid and unpaid labor in the home is still undervalued, and the US remains one of the few industrialized nations to grant workers neither subsidized childcare nor paid leave. Even in an era increasingly dominated by two-income households, families still find it hard to afford childcare and perform the necessary, but unpaid, caregiving work at home today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly made that unwaged labor more visible, and, as the home has become the workplace of necessity for millions of wage-earning Americans, many more are realizing the extent to which the home has always been a sort of workplace. Feminist scholars and theorists like Silvia Federici have been arguing for decades that societies such as our own have failed to acknowledge and support such “reproductive labor” -- reproductive in the literal sense of childbearing but also in the way in which women overall care and sustain the laborers of our economy. To put it crudely, the home is akin to the manufacturing plant in its productive output: the home produces the next generation of workers. The work of educating and caring for children, of keeping and cleaning a home, has been brought front and center to the eyes of many Americans who for many years conceived of the household as a place where labor does not happen, and as such, where wages are not due. Many women, roughly 2.3 million, have in fact been forced to leave the paid workforce in order to perform the necessary childcare at home as a result of the closure of schools and day care facilities.

Moreover, many are beginning to notice the ways in which not only household labor has been unrecognized, but the service economy at large has been undervalued and unprotected. Over half of essential workers during the COVID pandemic are women, and disproportionately women of color, who have risked their lives to keep their jobs: 72% of health care workers hospitalized due to COVID between March and May of 2020 were women. These women serve as nurses, nurses’ assistants, and home health aides who perform critical, direct patient care such as feeding and administering medication, but they earn a fraction of the compensation made in other male-dominated health care jobs. The domestic workers we rely on to take care of our children, our aging parents, and our homes have fared even worse: 80% of domestic workers did not have a single paid sick day heading into the pandemic, most did not have health insurance, and the average salary of a home-care worker was $17,000 per year. 

A truly non-discriminatory just wage must work to counteract these disparities. Already, debates are happening about instituting a $15 federal minimum wage and increasing workers’ access to basic benefits. Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, and Stephanie Gharakhanian, special counsel for the Workers Defense Project in Austin, TX, recently spoke in favor of  both initiatives at Notre Dame’s Just Wage Forum. They also addressed  the ways that raising the minimum wage and empowering workers in unions would benefit women wage-earners and workers of color in particular.

Going further, we need to ask ourselves the important questions of who is included in the federal minimum wage, and to what extent this will benefit women and workers in the care economy specifically. As Ai-jen Poo, co founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, argued just last month at Notre Dame’s inaugural distinguished Asian-American address, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent to which low-wage service work and unpaid caregiving is essential to our safety, health, and well-being as a society. Poo argues for a reimagining of our laws and policies in order to transform the reality of low-wage work such that “we assure that we have a minimum wage people can survive on, that everyone has access to a safety net and basic benefits… that we have a strong care infrastructure, and know that our caregivers were well compensated and secure and taking care of their own families too.” Looking ahead, we need to use the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to expand Americans’ access to a non-discriminatory just wage.

Jade Moss is a senior at Notre Dame pursuing a major in Finance and a supplementary major in Gender Studies. She enjoys learning about the intersection of gender and labor and engaging with the Higgins Labor Program. 

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