Congress' despicable war on working women: How our warped laws perpetuate discrimination

Salon talks to author Caroline Fredrickson about how women have been excluded from key labor victories

Published May 5, 2015 2:03PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul                                                                            (Jeff Malet, Brandon)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul (Jeff Malet, Brandon)

Women account for two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and a great many of them are supporting families on just $7.25 an hour. For a family of four, that's well below a poverty wage. Women also account for two-thirds of tipped workers, whose wages have been frozen at $2.13 since the fall of the Soviet Union. And while key labor victories of the 20th century guaranteed millions of workers the right to organize, protections from discrimination and basic health and safety standards, domestic workers -- 95 percent of whom are women, and overwhelmingly women of color and immigrant women -- are still excluded from these laws except in a handful of states.

For millions of women, the safety net simply doesn't exist. And this wasn't an accident.

I took furious notes while reading Caroline Fredrickson's "Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over." The book, which is out this month from the New Press, traces the many ways that women have historically been excluded from the laws and systems designed to protect workers, and how those exclusions continue to shape policy being drafted today. "Furious" because I had to write fast to keep up with information Fredrickson packs into this relatively slim book, and furious because the every new thing I learned made the hair on my neck stand on end.

The book offers a history lesson as well as a set of policy recommendations to ensure that women, particularly women in precarious, low-wage jobs (which is many women), can access the basic rights and protections so many take for granted. I talked to Fredrickson about the pay gap, the Fight for $15 movement and what might be politically possible at a moment when a majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage and paid leave even while their elected officials drag their heels.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Signature labor victories of the 20th century, from the New Deal to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, include exemptions that disproportionately affect women, particularly women of color and immigrant women who are domestic and agricultural workers. This was no accident. Can you talk a bit about how these exemptions -- which you call the “the Faustian bargains on a road to a better America for some” -- came to be? 

When I started digging into the history of the legislation, trying to understand where the exclusions came from, it was so clear that there was a concerted effort by certain members of Congress to preserve the Jim Crow economy in the South. And so what they did was they took categories of workers who worked in the agricultural sector or who were involved in maintaining the plantation of the landowners and exempted all those workers from the protections of the law. Those were mostly black workers, people of color, women who were working as housekeepers, cooks, and nannies, but also a lot of women were in the fields.

The resulting impact was you’d have a large number of workers who were never protected, and it’s so explicit in the Congressional record. We’re so much more used to the muted language of today or euphemisms, but they were pretty direct about why it was that they wanted to exempt these workers and how much the racism and misogyny influenced their policy decisions.

And I think what has happened is the exemptions have been perpetuated. The origin were very concretely racist and responding to a certain economy and the Southerners feeling like their way of life was being challenged. But then as we built on that structure, we haven’t fixed those omissions.

So what you actually have is a growing category of workers. Right now the domestic worker category encompasses a whole bunch of workers like home health aides that are in one of the fastest growing professions in the country. So more and more people, and mostly more and more women, are filling those jobs, and they continue to lack basic labor protection.

You mention in the book that you worked on a bill, the Genetic Justice Act, that had an exemption for small businesses, but you didn’t question why the exemption existed or why it would need to be part of a new piece of legislation. Have such exemptions become so standard that we’ve stopped considering their actual function and consequences?

We don’t even think about it. The groups of workers who were cut out remain so vulnerable and have so little political leverage that it’s very hard for them to bring it forward, to actually raise the issue that they continue to be excluded from these laws. So I think part of it is almost an ignorance more than an intentional omission.

Although in the size-based exclusions, I think you’re right, we sort of generally, glibly accept that it’s just too expensive we shouldn’t expect small employers to be subject to these laws. And yet nobody has demonstrated that there’s a cost, except to the employees who are discriminated against.

The chapter on the wage gap is incredibly comprehensive, and pulls from multiple sources to document the kinds of direct and indirect discrimination that women face on the job across industries. But I’ve found in my own writing that, no matter how much data there is to make the point, people still tend to respond that the disparities are about women’s choices, not discrimination.

It’s exactly what the right is trying to suggest -- that really women are choosing to have more flexible lifestyles or choosing to take time off. But what they’re ignoring is that we’ve already accounted in the 59 percent of the wage gap all of those factors, all of those include occupational segregation -- which I actually think is a manifestation of discrimination, but we could talk about that separately -- time that women may have taken out of the job of the workforce, experience levels and racial discrimination. And so all of those already add up to the 59 percent [of the gap], and there’s still 41 percent that doesn’t get accounted for.

There is a very interesting study where they looked at women right out of college, women coming out of the same colleges as men, they compared their salaries in their first year, working the same kind of jobs with the same degrees, with the same grades, from the same schools. And women were already making five percent less. And then they looked at that same cohort, and the same type of cohort, ten years out -- still without children, still within the same set of experiences and skills -- and they found that that wage gap had grown to 12 percent. So there’s some statistics that people who will contest the wage gap can’t dispute. It’s a fact. There is at least some amount of discrimination.

I was just at C-SPAN Book TV and I was interviewed by the head of the Independent Women’s Forum. She was actually extraordinarily sweet and it was very pleasant. And she said, Yeah everybody here in D.C., all women know that there is some discrimination. And I thought wow. That is the first I’ve ever heard someone from her part of the political spectrum say that.

The argument about women’s choices also assumes that women take time off to care for children or other family members because of some innate desire. It ignores the gender norms and structural kinds of coercion that might factor into such a decision. Like if you're making less money than your partner because of the pay disparities we just discussed, for one thing. 

You have situations where women are either working jobs that are dominated by women and paid less [because of this], or they’re subject to discrimination and tend to make less money than their husband or male partner. As a result, child care services becomes a very rational calculation about how much money they need to earn and how much they need to spend to accommodate a job. So it may just be better economics for the women to stay home and raise the kids herself rather than being in the workplace. So is that a choice? Only in a very constrained set of circumstances.

You also write about how professions dominated by women tend to pay less than those where men are in the majority, which can feel like a kind of chicken and egg question. But you point to research that suggests that these jobs pay less precisely because they are filled by women, not because of the kind of work it is.

There are plenty of studies that show that when you take a job that’s dominated by men and you compare it to a job dominated by women -- and they have the same amount of schooling, the same amount of skills, workers with the same amount of experience in the workplace -- women in a women-dominated job are going to make less than men in male-dominated jobs. That doesn’t make any sense. If the market really functioned as perfectly as conservative economists would have us think, that wouldn’t be the case. There is a sort of built-in bias, an expectation that women will work for less.

This is just my hypothesis but I think to some degree the women in female-dominated jobs tend to be more on the caregiving side and I think there’s some idea that women should... that it’s natural for them. This idea that it's not really work, and since it’s not really work, it shouldn’t really be paid like work.

What do you make of the populist turn in the Democratic party right now? It seems like labor issues, particularly as they relate to women’s work, are much more central to the party’s messaging and policy priorities. What do you see as being possible at this moment?

I think it is in some ways a reflection of the good work that people like Ai-Jen [Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance] has done, the fact that they’ve been able to move forward on getting the regulation at least promulgated at the Department of Labor, although we still have to go through the implementation to add domestic workers into the Fair Labor Standards Act protection. So there’s been a lot of attention to that.

I think it’s also the change in demographics of our country. We are seeing a society that is becoming more diverse, more racially diverse. Women are working in higher numbers than ever. And I think it’s just becomes a pressing moral issue as well as an important economic issue to figure out how to create an economy that doesn’t penalize... not just the women who are having children, but their children in our society, who will suffer enormous consequences.

Even as the center has shifted on issues like the minimum wage and paid leave, things like universal health care, a living wage and a guaranteed basic income feel like political non-starters. Do you think that there is a future in which talking about a universal basic income will feel like our current conversation about the minimum wage?

Without question, even though I am pretty much a creature of D.C. -- I live here, and I’ve worked on the Hill and I worked in the White House, did all the things that people do in D.C. I think the real progress has been made at the state and local level. And we can see there that the demand is strong and it’s being met in some places, like in Seattle where they raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the fight for $15 across the country, which is very powerful. States are responding and so we have a patch-work now of states with a higher minimum wage or you have states with a living wage or municipalities with a living wage, you have paid sick leave policies, you have vacation policies, you have Civil Rights laws in some states that cover all employees no matter what the size of the employer.

So it’s sort of the cliche to say that states are the laboratory, but in this case I think they are. As things become tested out and are shown to be not only viable and affordable and actually good for the economy, I think we have a much stronger platform at the federal level. I’m not counting on Congress passing universal health care and a basic wage support any time soon, but I do think one has to put things on the table and you have to start working it so you can to build the popular support. I think we’re seeing that.

I see your book as very much in conversation with “Lean In” and the question of who can lean in and what they can lean into. 

I was definitely inspired in part by what I thought was the two messages addressing women like me, lawyers and professional white women, which is Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg. With Slaughter, the idea that you can’t have it all. And then you have Sandberg, [this idea that] women really need to be stronger, need to speak up for themselves.

I think they are both true narratives in a very narrow way. I think there are a lot of pressures on working women. They are expected to be perfect in every way, and that’s just an impossible burden for anyone. I also think there are cultural constraints that women absorb that help explain why we may not be having an easy time speaking up.

But what I really thought was missing was this whole set of stories about what most women are dealing with, which isn’t a choice. Most women who work don’t have the option to opt-out. There are a significant number of families that depend extraordinarily on women’s wages. And then there are an extraordinary number of single mothers and of course they can’t opt-out at all. The “lean in” piece, which again is an important thing to put on the table, [but] it’s just not really relevant to women in a wide variety of job categories. Asking for a raise is a dangerous thing in many cases. But beyond that, there’s not a whole’s speaks to if you are a nanny, or if you’re working at a cash register at a CVS, leaning in isn’t really part of the dialogue that is going to make a whole lot of impact on your life.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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