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The ‘Feminization of Poverty’: Women’s Poverty Sows the Seeds of Struggle

November 11, 2005


from Socialism and Liberation, August 2005

Inequality in the workplace forces women to take low-paying jobs.

More women are working jobs outside the home today than ever before. Yet, even though more women are working, they have not achieved equality with their male counterparts in wages, working conditions or benefits. Working women disproportionately suffer poverty and discrimination.

In 2003, women were about 40 percent more likely to be poor than men. Poverty in the United States is officially measured by comparing annual income with the federal poverty standard, which the government adjusts annually for inflation. Almost 60 percent of adults with an income of less than half of the poverty standard were women. In addition, Black and Latina women have a much higher poverty rate than white women—generally two to three times as high, according to U.S. Census figures.

Women of color suffer most

Poverty rates in the United States are generally higher than in other developed countries. Women, especially women of color, suffer the most.

“One recent study concluded that the United States had the highest poverty rate for female-headed households among the 22 countries studied. … This study defined poverty as an income less than 50 percent of the median income and was based on national income surveys conducted in the early 1990s.” (Reading Between the Lines: Women’s Poverty in the United States, 2003) “However, the official U.S. poverty line has not been adjusted … since it was formulated over 35 years ago,” the report continues. “If the poverty standard were adjusted to reflect the [change] in real household median income since 1967, many more women (and men) would be counted as poor.”
Over 3.5 million people are homeless each year.

The phrase “feminization of poverty” was first used in 1978 by Professor Diana Pearce to describe U.S. standard of living trends. Pearce noted then that two-thirds of the poor people in the United States were women. These trends persist today. Many of these women are actually working two or more jobs to support themselves and their families.

In the United States, women work longer hours and make less money than men. Equal pay for men and women has been enshrined in federal law since 1963. But for every dollar a man with similar education, skills and experience earns today, a working woman earns less than 76 cents—closer to 50 cents to the dollar for women of color. The average 25-year-old working woman in the United States will lose almost $500,000 due to unequal pay during her lifetime as a worker. Yet, she will pay the same for rent, food, utilities and services as her male counterpart.

Among working women earning less than $40,000 per year, up to half are without basic benefits, including secure, affordable health insurance, prescription drug coverage, pension or retirement benefits, equal pay or paid sick leave.

The impact of living in poverty includes many acute and chronic health conditions including infections, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, ulcers, migraines and depression. Poor women are more vulnerable to violence and abuse. Poverty limits women’s choices both socially and financially.

Women’s labor and capitalism

Although the phrase was coined in 1978, the feminization of poverty began with the feminization of labor under capitalism. When women began to enter the labor market in the 1700s in Europe, they didn’t take over the jobs of men at the same rate of pay. Instead, women entered mostly low-paying jobs in the service sector. Their overall status in society did not increase.

Nowadays, women make up 45 percent of the world’s workforce, yet up to 70 percent of women worldwide are living in poverty. Most work in low-skilled, low-wage jobs. They are paid less and work longer hours than men in nearly every capitalist country in the world. Women also face additional threats on the job including discrimination, sexual harassment, physical abuse and unwanted pregnancy exams.

Families worldwide are increasingly relying on women workers to support them. Thirty percent of all working women make nearly all of their family’s income, and 60 percent earn about half or more of their entire family’s income. Forty percent of working women work evenings, nights or weekend shifts, and one-third work different shifts than their spouse or partner. These percentages are even higher for women of color.

In March 2005, the UN announced that, 10 years after the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, “governments … are failing to mobilize the political will and leadership needed to carry out the commitments made to women. … As a result, many women in all regions are actually worse off now than they were 10 years ago.”

The UN report strongly criticizes countries—overwhelmingly imperialist countries—for failing to meet their pledge to revoke laws that discriminate against women. The report documents the staggering level of violence and discrimination against women condoned by governments.

Deepening class struggles

The number of women in the workforce has greatly increased in the past several decades. Workers in the United States have been most affected by this shift.

The introduction of computers and high technology under capitalism has created a sharp shift from higher to lower paid jobs. This has led to a relative reduction in the percentage of skilled workers. As a result, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of semi-skilled workers working in lower-paying jobs. This has transformed the social composition of the working class overall and ravaged workers’ living standards in the United States and throughout the world.

The objective changes to the character of the working class are superimposed on the racist and sexist structure inherent to capitalist society. While there are more women workers in the workforce, women’s rights have not improved greatly over the past thirty years. The capitalist drive for increased profits undercuts any “democratic” reforms that tend to equalize the social situation for women or other oppressed people.

At the same time, the changing character of the working class lays the basis for militant class struggle. As women play more important roles as leaders and participants in labor and community struggles, the sexist and patriarchal relations that work to divide the working class can be challenged and overcome.

The same women who today find themselves victims of the capitalist economy will tomorrow be the ones who stand as leaders in the revolutionary struggles to overturn the racist and sexist system of exploitation.

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