Neoliberalism has created a new political, economic, and cultural context through deregulation, privatization, securitization, and the dismantling of the welfare state. These changes have had a contradictory impact on women. Proponents of neoliberalism have praised the benefits of an unfettered, market-driven economy, extolled the virtues of personal choice and economic individualism as the keys to freedom, and argued that these ostensibly gender-blind economic structures offer opportunities for the agency and empowerment of women. Women’s human rights have been part of the discursive and ideological justification for the implementation of neoliberalism in many parts of the world. Some women, especially economically better-off, educated women have benefitted from the dismantling of the old patriarchal order. However, as many authors have argued, because neoliberalism promotes the idea of a rational individual exercising free will while eroding social democracy, it has made life harder for most women and has widened the race/class divide among women. I suggest that, despite the many negative repercussions of neoliberal economic changes, these dramatic disruptions of the social order may offer avenues for poor women’s collective mobilization and progressive political transformation.
Neoliberalism has reversed the benefits of social welfare citizenship that were a hallmark of the twentieth-century Fordist state. Neoliberalism’s dismantling of the economic safety net, trend toward privatization, and rise of the security state have increased the burden on women. The reduction or elimination of welfare benefits for the poor, cutback of social services, reliance on market strategies, and mass incarceration have led to a crisis of social reproduction and a corresponding increase in women’s workloads. With a decline in social rights and publicly-funded support services, women have access to fewer economic resources and must either turn to the private sector or increase their own unpaid labor. In this way, neoliberalism has intensified women’s oppression and exploitation.
The rights of social citizenship instituted in the United States in the 1930s, however, were far from egalitarian. They created and institutionalized a racialized and gendered hierarchy with welfare policies that controlled and regulated women’s behavior and reinforced the male breadwinner/family wage model. Women were more likely to receive social benefits as dependents rather than as independent individuals, and their benefits were stigmatized and less generous. In addition, protective labor legislation excluded occupations such as agricultural, domestic, part-time, and temporary work filled largely by women and people of color. These exclusions not only left these workers in a precarious situation, but they circumscribed the very definition of “work.” Although some exclusions were eventually remedied, they had a long-lasting impact by shaping Americans’ notion of “real” work, which was most closely associated with the factory floor, and excluded many women workers. And mainstream labor unions were only marginally interested in organizing excluded sectors. The New Deal and other social reforms of the mid-twentieth century naturalized a racial and gender hierarchy and established firm boundaries for the rights of labor citizenship, which was tied to full-time, largely male employment. Women and people of color were subordinated in this form of state-organized capitalism.
Despite its claims of race- and gender-neutrality, neoliberalism is replacing the old hierarchies with new patterns of racism and sexism. There has been an increase in low-paid, part-time contingent service sector and outsourced manufacturing work that relies disproportionately on immigrant women of color. While women of color have always worked in low-wage devalued occupations, the dramatic expansion of a low-wage service and manufacturing sector on a global scale has intensified their exploitation and reshaped the labor market. This has been coupled with new forms of discipline and control rooted in heightened xenophobia and border control. These growing employment sectors tend to be without benefits or labor protections, while full-time, well-paid, mostly male manufacturing jobs are on the decline. This shift in the labor market has resulted in women increasingly carrying the burden of financially supporting the family. The average American worker today is experiencing working conditions similar to those experienced by workers excluded from the rights of labor citizenship in the mid-twentieth century.
While the new political climate has made it more difficult for many women, it has also generated activism among low-wage women workers at the grassroots level. The activism has been most visible among immigrant day laborers, domestic workers, guest workers, farm workers, and other sectors historically excluded from the protections of labor law. Neoliberalism’s dismantling of the New Deal’s structured race/gender hierarchy has created an opening for worker mobilization and may offer opportunities for rethinking work and justice. Because of their exclusions, these workers out of necessity have developed innovative strategies for organizing. I will draw on examples from domestic worker organizing to analyze how it offers one model for grassroots, feminist labor organizing under neoliberalism.
New forms of domestic worker activism are flourishing outside the framework of the modern welfare state. During the 1930s, domestic workers were excluded from New Deal social benefits such as minimum wage, social security, unemployment compensation, and the right to organize and bargain collectively. While they won certain of these benefits over the course of the twentieth century, they still do not have the right to unionize and are not protected by civil rights and occupational health and safety laws. Because they work in isolated settings in the privacy of the home and often have multiple employers, domestic workers have generally been considered “unorganizable.”
The inability to organize into traditional unions has fostered alternative methods of organizing. Domestic worker activists have organized by geography, rather than solely by occupation; demanded state-based, rather than employer-based rights; developed democratic grassroots political support, rather than relying on a union hierarchy and model of representation and collective bargaining; and cultivated public support, rather than speaking only to their constituency. They seek to revalue care work and regard it as legitimate work that is entitled to the same rights and protections as other kinds of labor. Domestic worker organizers employ an intersectional analysis that takes into account race, class, gender, culture, and nationality that speaks to the particular needs of their immigrant, women-of-color constituency. Through their organizing, domestic workers are challenging the neoliberal premise of market fundamentalism and asserting the need for state regulation and protection of labor.
In addition, domestic worker activists are modeling a notion of rights that is not citizenship-based. Many social movements over the course of the twentieth century—including the civil rights and women’s movements—advocated inclusion in or expansion of the rights of citizenship. Neoliberalism has led to population displacement and migration, and relies on immigrant, especially undocumented immigrant, workers. These workers are usually denied citizenship rights or state-based labor protections either because of their immigration status or their occupation. Through organizing, however, they are pushing back against neoliberal disciplinary mechanisms and offering new conceptualizations of justice outside the framework of the nation-state. They seek state protections, but insist that these protections be extended even to those outside the boundaries of state-based citizenship and, thus, may offer a way to reconceptualize the role of the state. They organize both the documented and the undocumented and make claims for these workers regardless of citizenship status. They have also developed alliances with domestic workers in other parts of the world, further illustrating the way in which their struggle is not solely a national one.
Neoliberalism’s reversal of the social democratic gains of the mid-twentieth century has created a need to consider the value of alternative strategies. As the state-protected benefits of labor citizenship diminish, more traditional workers—who are increasingly finding themselves without a safety net—are looking to previously excluded sectors as a possible model of organizing. By breaking down the Fordist assumptions of gender and work, neoliberalism is creating openings for a new feminist praxis and for new ways for thinking about gender, justice, and social change.