At War: Women in the United States in 2005

BY: Elisabeth Armstrong| April 2, 2005
At War: Women in the United States in 2005

Women and men in the United States have lived through another year of a ‘jobless recovery.’ Growing wage inequality meant that wages were flat or falling for all workers in the US; all workers, that is, except those in the top 95th percentile, who saw a salary increase of 7.7%. Working class, middle class, and even high-waged people saw unchanging prospects for the future, alongside skyrocketing health insurance and medical costs. The living conditions for those in poverty and extreme poverty fell drastically in the face of ‘welfare reform’ TANF laws passed in 1996. The youngest children in extreme poverty, the poorest group of people in the United States, were the least likely to receive cash assistance and food stamps under the new TANF laws. Women, particularly poor women, working class women and women of color, face the direct blows of an administration that wants to further privatize survival. The United States is at war in Iraq and at home. Women in the United States are in the direct line of fire.

To be a woman in the United States is to work. And work hard. The easiest work to measure is paid employment, and those figures show that women hold almost 44% of all full time jobs in the United States. That means over forty four million women perform jobs in those worksites dominated by women, like secretaries and nurses, as well as in factories, on trucking routes or in corporate offices. One difference from five years ago, is the loss of women’s full time employment, with roughly 560,000 fewer women working full time in 2003 than in 2000. Women still work for significantly less pay than men, after years of shrinking the wage gap, women’s wages have stagnated at an average of 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. Yet all of these numbers fail to measure the work women undertake for no payment at all: the labor of child rearing, of daily housework, of caring for elderly parents, of volunteering at public schools, hospitals, and charities. Women still work the hardest at unpaid labor of care and nurture, working far above the labor rates of men.

To ask about women in the United States demands we ask about the divisions among this grouping. Class and race mark how women act, live, work and vote in the United States. During the 2004 presidential election, class and race deeply cut into any easy generalizations about ‘the women’s vote.’ White women were the largest electoral bloc in 2004, with 41% of the vote, and swung towards Bush in the largest percentage difference of any configuration. Bush increased his voter share among white women by a whopping ten percent over 2000. While women of color only gave Bush 24% of their votes, 55% of white women voted for Bush in 2004. Bob Wing, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice and co-founder of the publications War Times and Colorlines, has raised (but not answered) the question about white women voters. Why did white women, most visibly working class white women, swing so sharply towards Bush in 2004? What does this herald for a womens movement for working people that takes the fight against anti-immigrant, anti-black racism at its heart?

As the Women of Color Resource Center states bluntly, Had it been up to women-of-color voters, the current resident of the White House would be packing his bags and heading back to Texas (Sister 2 Sister, 1). They raise two important points: Bush did not take his so-called mandate from women of color. Secondly, if women of color took the lead for womens political participation in this country, we would not be debating the privatization of Social Security and making permanent Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, nor would we be making frantic calls to our representatives about the loss of funds for Head Start. To ask about race, racism and women is to ask about leadership in ideas, values and visions for womens politics.

Working women gave Bush 48% of their vote, and all working class people making under $50,000 also voted against Bush, with only 44% voting in his favor. But Bush managed to gain votes in both of these categories since 2000. Even as almost all women feel the brunt of Bush policies to reduce social spending, increase the national debt, drain resources from affordable health care policies and education, as well as systematically gut environmental protections for clean air and water, and for uncontaminated food, not all women reacted the same in the voting booth. Bush made his most significant gains among white, working class women: single white working class women were still three points more likely to vote Democratic, but that is down from the fifteen point spread in favor of the Democratic candidate in 2000.

Married white working class women moved from 15 percent more likely to vote for Bush to 31% more likely. Thats a sixteen point increase in Bushs favor. For these women, Bush won out on two primary issues: terrorism and national security, but also the economy. Terrorism and National Security is an issue usually understood as a measure of womens fear about their safety and the safety of their families. If leadership from women of color is to be taken seriously, then security as an issue includes economic security to provide for oneself and ones family. Security also includes the freedom to live without physical, social, institutional, and sexual violence. Womens rights must take the war at home on as part and parcel of the wars waged in our name abroad. We cannot cede the definition of womens rights to mean a mandate for war, a mandate for attacking the poor, a mandate for destroying the right to organize in the workplace, or a mandate for dividing working people against each other.

The Bush administration is openly hostile to legal support for women’s equality and womens rights. By April of 2004, equal opportunity legislation was rolled back. Popular initiatives like the Equal Pay Matters have been eliminated. While pregnancy discrimination complaints are on the rise, the United States still has no paid maternity leave policy. The Department of Education has ‘archived’ its guidelines to fight sexual harassment in schools. The Department of Labor wants to stop collecting any information about women workers, about the pay gap, or workplace discrimination. The fight to criminalize abortion has picked up steam, with more punitive laws on the books, and less access to safe abortions or even information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Systematic defunding of emergency shelters, crisis hotlines and domestic violence services makes women more vulnerable to violence. Bush has just renominated the judicial nominees earlier rejected by the House or the Senate: one of whom wrote that wives must ‘subordinate’ themselves to their husbands.

Given the evidence, white women’s support for Bush is more confounding than his overwhelming support from high-income earners. Women are less likely to thrive under Bush’s policies. Women’s families are less likely to see better futures under Bush’s attack on public education, and less likely to be able to afford college with his erasure of government scholarship programs in favor of high-interest private loans. Perhaps part of the explanation for white women’s support of Bush lies in the one venue Bush has chosen to talk about women’s rights: the venue of war. Bush used women’s rights as one excuse to bomb Afghanistan immediately following the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Ignoring the rich history of women’s rights before the US-backed Afghan civil war in the seventies and eighties, Bush made Islam the enemy of women’s equality. He proposed we drop tons of bombs laden with depleted uranium on a virtually unprotected country to create new rights for women. As food supplies became ever scarcer, women are more likely to starve. As Afghanistan’s weak infrastructure crumbled, women must carry the additional burdens of finding clean water supplies, and the means to heat homes and cook food. Somehow, Bush wanted us to believe, women had greater rights under these murderous conditions.

Bush lied again in the attack on Iraq. Bush pretended that women’s rights were in jeopardy under Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq. Particularly before the first Gulf War and the U.S.-led embargo in the nineties, Iraqi women had the greatest freedom of movement, of employment and of education among all Arab countries. Bush sold war to women in the United States as a fight for equality and a fight for rights; but he also sold war to women through old-fashioned paternalism. The story of trampled Muslim women demands a sense of superiority, of arrogance, and of racism. Women can’t fight for themselves, Bush’s logic goes, we must fight for them, we must tell them what they want and need, they will be grateful. Bush has threaded together militarism and womens rights in a way that changes how we define terrorism, how to defeat terrorism, and what movements for womens rights look like. In Afghanistan, the Bush administration is currently paying women from the virulently anti-feminist Independent Womens Forum to teach Afghan women about democracy and voting. We cannot cede the meaning or the struggles for womens equality or womens rights to the language of war.

The polls suggest that working class people as a whole didn’t buy these stories. Even more emphatically, the polls suggest that women of color in the US saw the lie of war for women’s rights. The polls suggest that a higher percentage of white women in the US, particularly white working class married women, may have bought the line about racial and national superiority, but that it was a last minute sale. Many white working class women in 2004 were also undecided voters, and they made up their minds in the last ten days of the campaign. Their shift in favor of security and an ongoing war on terrorism is recent. As progressive and left movements pay attention to the concerns of how race divides working class people along gendered lines, the shift does not have to be permanent. Movements to organize workers into unions provide a measure of economic security and could change lines of solidarity. A womens movement led by women of color and working class women could reframe security again to take up economic security and physical security from violence, perhaps as quickly as Bush cobbled together his own national coalition of the willing. While these speculations only begin to trace the fissures in the American women electorate, they suggest the fight against racism has many fronts, all of them vital to the political organization of women in the future. Moreover, every fight is vital to the survival of the planet.

Edison/Mitofsky, 2004 National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll, February, 2005.

National Women’s Law Center, ‘Slip Sliding Away: Administration Rolling Back Progress for Girls and Women,’ April 8, 2004

Heidi Hartmann, Vicky Lovell, Micsha Werschkul, ‘Women and the Economy: Recent Trends in Job Loss, Labor Force Participation and Wages,’ Institute for Women’s Policy Research #B245, October 2004

Deanna Lyter, Melissa Sills, Gi-Taik Oh, Avis Jones-Wheeler, ‘The Children Left Behind: Deeper Poverty, Fewer Supports,’ Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2003.

Ruy Teixeira, Public Opinion Watch, February 7-13, 2005, Center for American Progress.

Women of Color Resource Center, ‘No Mandate from Women of Color,’ Sister 2 Sister, 10:2(Winter 2005):1,3.

Bob Wing, The White Elephant in the Room: Race and the Election 2004, A Globe of Witnesses website, , December 3, 2004.

Women’s Voices, Women Vote,

Educational Papers Series A Communist Party Education Commission project for the pre-convention discussion period leading to the CPUSA 28th National Convention July 13, 2005, Chicago Illinois



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