Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 5, 2006

Another Pioneer Passes
Bettye Naomi Goldstein, better known as Betty Friedan, lost her battle with congestive heart failure Saturday, on her eighty-fifth birthday. A rare combination of insightful scholar, gifted writer, and activist organizer, she became a household name in the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s. Her seminal, best-seller book, The Feminine Mystique, encouraged women of all classes to take a fresh, questioning look at their place in society. She became a principal founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and later the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL).

This new wave of feminism coincided and interacted with a world wide radicalization on many levels. In the United States NOW and NARAL initially adopted much of the format of the mass civil rights and antiwar movements. The first major project by NOW was a Women’s Strike for Equality, urging women to knock off their usual domestic chores for a day (don’t iron while the strike is hot, was one slogan), accompanied by mass marches of tens of thousands in most major cities. National demonstrations numbering in the hundreds of thousands were later organized around birth control rights–paving the way for a big victory with Roe v. Wade--and a failed effort to revive the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. constitution.

But Friedan, who played an important role in this early mass movement approach, also personified some of the tensions within feminism that inevitably arose because of differing class interests. She had a brief connection to the labor movement, working as a reporter for the UE News during the short, but intense labor upsurge of 1946. The UE at the time was carrying out a campaign around the slogan, "no rates below common labor." That peculiar formulation addressed General Electric’s practice of the time of paying women assembly and machine workers less than the male janitors.

But she left that position when she married Carl Friedan, a theater director who later became an advertising executive. Her new milieu as a house wife and mother in a suburb of New York mainly kept her in touch with well-to-do, well educated women. After early experiments with a radical activist approach, Friedan tended to drift back to this elite base.

Bourgeois–and wannabe bourgeois–women started focusing more on the "glass ceiling" that sealed off qualified women from promotion up the corporate ladder. While that’s fair enough they often complained that they were too good for simple tasks many labeled as "shit work." Instead of the UE’s approach to rewarding all necessary work with adequate pay and dignity they had no problem with others being consigned to jobs they felt beneath them. This approach did not endear them to the millions of women–and quite a few men as well–doing the "shit work" of society.

Friedan was also a promoter of The First Women's Bank and Trust Company, a failed venture intended to provide women capital not easily obtained from mainstream banks.

During the 1970s the mass action approach that mobilized millions of women began to become subordinated to lesser-evil electoral and lobbying activity. Along with Gloria Steinem, and some Democrat women office holders, such as Bella Abzug, Friedan helped launch the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). More and more, fund raising for candidates, and letter writing to office holders, supplanted public educational and protest activities.

The bankruptcy of this approach was once again demonstrated just this past week with the confirmation of Alito to the Supreme Court–setting the stage for a likely overturn of Roe. This was the inevitable conclusion of a rotten deal made last year by the Democrats to abandon blocking of nominations through filibuster. The beneficiaries of NWPC generosity could safely vote no on Alito without it making the slightest difference.

Friedan should be recognized for her contribution to putting feminist issues back on the political agenda. Significant progress was achieved by the early movement she helped spark. But to even defend those gains, much less tackle the many remaining obstacles to genuine women’s liberation will, in my opinion, require new organizations, new strategy, involving working class women and working class forms of struggle.

Ingrate Democracy
Poor President Bush. He’s spilled a lot of blood around the globe–including some American–to bring the unfortunates of the world democracy. But is anybody grateful?

In Haiti a couple of years ago the U.S. engineered a coup to oust President Aristide. They got other countries to send in "peace keepers" to sufficiently subdue the population in preparation for an election of a pro-Bush president. But all the polls indicate that voters favor an Aristide supporter by a wide margin.

To advance their "Road Map to Peace" Washington not only used the purse strings of aid programs to influence an election in Palestine; they also kicked in two million dollars in direct campaign contributions to their favored slate. To everyone’s shock the Palestinians voted overwhelmingly for the semi-outlaw Hamas.

In Venezuela–where Bush once orchestrated a coup that failed after a few hours in an effort to eliminate Hugo Chavez–Washington now grudgingly acknowledges Chavez was democratically elected. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld goes on to elaborate, "He's a person who was elected legally just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally. And then (he) has consolidated power."

Let’s see, was Chavez the one who lied to his country before taking them in to an illegal war of aggression? Was it Hugo who wiretapped his citizens in violation of his country’s constitution? Or am I confusing him with some other national leader?

Since nobody seems to appreciate President Bush’s efforts to spread democracy I think it would serve them right if he just called off all such generous initiatives.

A Minimal Effort by State Fed/ACORN
When ACORN petitioned to put a raise in the Missouri minimum wage on the ballot a decade or so ago it was opposed by the Missouri AFL-CIO because it was seen as an embarrassment to Democrat candidates for the state legislature. But, like hair styles, times change. The Dems now think the minimum wage can tarnish Blunt and the Republicans. So the state fed and ACORN announced last week that they hope to put an increase on this November’s ballot.

The proposed change to the minimum is pretty minimal. They’re talking about 6.50 per hour–possibly just six bucks even for those under eighteen. While I suppose any increase is welcome when you’re toiling for the present 5.15, 6.50 is poverty level any way you cut it. And paying those under voting age fifty cents less seems insulting as well as discriminatory.

Of course, this campaign may well go where they have often gone before–nowhere. They estimate they need 124,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot and 400,000 dollars to finance a credible campaign.

If you’re going to lay out that kind of energy and funding why not fight for something that can really make a difference? At its 1996 Founding Convention the Labor Party went on record favoring a ten dollar an hour minimum wage–adjusted annually to keep up with inflation. That would put it around fifteen today. With nearly ninety percent of the working class unorganized such action is the only way to quickly elevate the working poor out of poverty.

But that’s not the objective of the Missouri Democrats–and the state fed tail is not going to wag that dog.

As usual, much of the material for this column came from stories posted on the Daily Labor News Digest.

That’s all for this week.

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