Faludi contrasts the corporatist, individualistic, me-first, privileged, self-centered, pseudo-feminism of "Lean In" with the collective, cross-class activism of some of the original feminists: the "Mill Girls" of Lowell, Massachusetts, who fought for human rights and labour rights for all women. Describing the links between feminism, class struggle, the labour movement, and even the abolitionist movement, Faludi demonstrates how all oppression is interconnected, and how only collective solutions can affect change. She shows how an effective women's movement most be anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist, too.
Faludi dissects and deconstructs the Facebook-based "Lean In" and its corporate partners, peeling back the cheery, self-help facade to reveal the status quo underneath. It isn't pretty.
Lean In Platform Partner Wells Fargo: In 2011, the bank reached a class-action settlement with 1,200 female financial advisers for $32 million. The sex discrimination suit charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.And so on. Lean In's message to women confronted by institutional barriers and the absence of social supports: try harder. Join a Facebook group. Believe in yourself. If it isn't working, you haven't tried hard enough.
Goldman Sachs (whose philanthropic arm, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is a Lean In Platform Partner): In 2010, former employees of Goldman Sachs filed a class-action suit against the company, accusing Wall Street’s most profitable investment bank of “systematic and pervasive discrimination” against female employees, subjecting them to hostile working conditions and treating them “like disposable, second-class citizens.”
Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and Nestlé: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.”
Faludi contrasts this with an inspiring history lesson.
In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement. . . . .You may imagine that the obstacles faced by working women in 2013 and those faced by female factory workers 150 years earlier is an apples-and-oranges comparison. They have more in common than you think. So do the solutions. Read the essay here.
The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.
From the start, the female textile workers made the connection between labor and women’s rights. . . . The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office — nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley went on to work for prison reform, women’s rights, and education and decent jobs for poor women and prostitutes. After a stint as the first female telegrapher in the nation (where she pointed out that she was being paid two-thirds of a male telegrapher’s salary), she taught herself homeopathic medicine and became a doctor, billing her patients according to her personal proviso, “To the rich, one dollar—to the poor gratis.”
Increasingly, the mill girls were joined in these efforts by their middle-class sisters. Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children. (The mills in Lawrence would later give rise to the famously militant “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, in which female workers again played a leading role.) In the aftermath of the Pemberton disaster, middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women. By the postbellum years, with industrialization at full tide and economic polarization at record levels, a critical mass of middle-class female reformers had come to believe that the key to women’s elevation was not, as they once thought, “moral uplift,” but economic independence—and that cross-class struggle on behalf of female workers was the key to achieving it.
The story of the Mill Girls is one of my favourite pieces of history - women's history, labour history, and the history of radical people's movements. So for me, Faludi's essay contained an amazing bonus: I learned that there is a Lowell National Historic Park! It preserves the historic mill buildings and celebrates the work of our radical foremothers. I had never heard of it before. I hope to make a visit within the next year.
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