Feminism in the Age of Precarity

Source: In These Times

An interview with historian Alice Kessler-Harris on how the past 30 years have changed women’s workplace demands.

In 1981, Alice Kessler-Harris’ Women Have Always Worked delivered a short, sharp and lasting rebuke to standard U.S. histories that confined women to the domestic sphere. In five tightly argued but wide-ranging chapters, the book laid out the full scope of women’s work since the nation’s founding, from political activism to social reform, wage labor to household management, demonstrating that women have always been central to families, communities and the nation. Kessler-Harris, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and an expert in both women’s and labor history, has now updated the book to address the vast changes in women’s professional and public lives over the past 35 years.

Why revise this book now?

AKH: Between 1981 and today, the world changed dramatically. Women’s work has changed and the questions women are facing have changed. Instead of revising the existing chapters, I decided to write a new section dealing with the past 30 years as a whole, looking at economic trends and how those have influenced attitudes about work and women’s expectations. It begins with the conundrum of how to combine work and family.

One theme that emerges is how profoundly social class affects the gains and struggles of women in the workforce.

AKH: In the 1970s, we were making a transition from an industrial society to a postindustrial society and we were asking, as women, for access: to education, to opportunity, to some form of economic equality. Members of the women’s movement used to say, “Just drop the barriers and women will be fine.” But in fact, when those barriers dropped—when medical schools and law schools, for instance, started admitting women—we saw that it wasn’t enough. It helped those who already had access to education, good colleges, cultural capital. But it did virtually nothing for poor women, African-American women and immigrant women.

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