Women at Work: Gender Inequality to Strike

Much of the “care industry” depends on a gender division of labor that pushes domestic workers and other women workers into low wages, unpredictable hours, and scarce labor protections.

| November/December 2013

“A hundred years ago [Benjamin] Franklin said that six hours a day was enough for anyone to work and if he was right then, two hours a day ought to be enough now.”

Lucy Parsons spoke those words in 1886, shortly before the execution of her husband, Albert. The two had been leaders in the eight-hour-day movement in Chicago, which culminated in a general strike, a rally, and the throwing of a bomb into the crowd in Haymarket Square. Albert Parsons, along with three other “anarchists,” was hanged for the crime, though he’d already left the rally by the time the bomb was thrown. Lucy kept up the fight for the rest of her life, working with anarchists, socialists, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Communist Party for the cause. Women at work like Lucy Parsons were at the heart of the struggle for the shorter work week, an integral part of the labor movement until the end of the Depression, which saw the 40-hour week enshrined in law after the defeat of Hugo Black’s 30-hour-week bill. As Kathi Weeks writes in “‘Hours for What We Will’: Work, Family and the Movement for Shorter Hours” in Feminist Studies 35, after World War II, the demand for shorter hours was increasingly associated with women workers, and was mostly sidelined as the 40-hour week became an institution.

“Not only wages—I am thinking here of the ‘female wage’ and the ‘family wage’—but hours, too, were constructed historically with reference to the family,” Weeks notes. The eight-hour day and five-day week presumed that the worker was a man supported by a woman in the home, and it shaped expectations that his work was important and should be decently paid, while women’s work was not really work at all (even though, as Weeks notes, the gender division of labor was supported by some paid domestic work, done largely by women of color). The postwar labor movement focused on overtime pay and wages, leaving the women’s issue of shorter hours mostly forgotten.

But the power of the eight-hour-day movement was that it didn’t require the worker to love her job, to identify with it for life, and to take pride in it in order to organize for better conditions. The industrial union movement rose up to organize those left out of the craft unions, the so-called “unskilled” workers who recognized that they were not defined by their work and that they wanted to be liberated from it as much as possible. That, in their minds, was what made them worthy of respect, not their skill level or some intrinsic identity.

The fight for shorter hours unified workers across gender and race, class and nationality, skill and ability. It did not require the valorization of “man’s work” or the idealization of women’s natural goodness.