First marriages, sometimes cynically called “starter marriages” often don’t work. Second and third marriages work out even less. Americans marry and also divorce more than any other people on earth. I believe that a prime reason for our remarkable remarriage rate is Americans’ loneliness in our time of disconnection from each other.
According to Cacioppo and Patrick’s brilliant book, “Loneliness,” our basic sense of self is built on three legs of support. Each leg is a way of connecting to others. One basic support is personal, individual, intimate connection to a person who puts us at the center of her or his emotional life. The second is a relational connection to a wider circle of friends and/or family whom we trust and with whom we share personal bonds. The third leg of support is collective connection to a wider group. This can be a political group, a work-related group, a religious group, a sports group or any other social group with which we identify and with whom we are active. Americans have lost two of the three legs that hold up our sense of self. We have become isolated and separate from relational and collective supports.
Countless studies agree that Americans are disconnected from one another. The most thorough is Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone.” In one dramatic example, Putnam points out that in spite of the increase in the US population since 1970, there are fewer members in active groups in America now than were in bowling leagues alone in 1970. One out of four Americans has no one to talk to even in a crisis. Americans may marry more than other people because they have lost two of the three basic constructs for a human self. A vast number of Americans has neither a circle of friends nor trusted family members nor collective connection to and membership in a wider social group. People may look to marriage to support them on every level.
Marriage is the only form of deep connection our society enthusiastically endorses. People seek marriages for the same reason they are so hard to sustain. People need marriage to do the impossible job of compensating for social loneliness and collective disconnection. When marriages work, they can be a basis of deep, lasting and productive partnership in which people connect around collective actions, deeply held beliefs, shared trusted friends and family members, and intimate relational bonds. Although some marriage partnerships help people profoundly, most fail. Marriage was never, nor could it ever be, a substitute for a wider relational circle or social collectivity. Traditional marriage was, historically, in law and in practice, a relationship of male dominance and female and child subordination. It is not something the left needs to celebrate. However, the left and feminism both need to address the breakdown of the one cooperative and non-capitalist form of connection that Americans counted on.
The left was a pioneer in questioning traditional marriage, with its confining gender roles and till-death-do-we-part life sentences. As Delores Hayden illustrates at the turn of the 20th century, America had over 200 thriving collective communities which were living alternatives to traditional marriage. It is recent and sad that the left abandoned personal terrain to the right wing. The current right-wing focus on traditional marriage is a necrophiliac romance with a dying or dead institution. We need the left and feminism to create alternative models of personal egalitarian partnership. The problem is, feminism and the left are suffering their own estrangement from one another.
In order to understand and combine the personal and political spheres of life, we need to understand why the left/feminist breakup happened and how to create a successful marriage or partnership on different terms. This short work tries to facilitate a necessary truce and a new partnership.
What Went Wrong
There are two parties in a marriage or partnership. Here I look at heterosexual marriage, because although gay partnerships are an enduring part of the human landscape, gay marriage is a right only recently won. The first thing I will explore is what might have gone off course from the side of feminism. Then I will look at what spoiled the marriage from the left’s side of the partnership. I will conclude by exploring some possibilities for healing and a possible reunion.
What Went Wrong: A View From the Side of the Women’s Movement
The founding mothers of what was called the women’s liberation movement were socialist activists. Most of us believed that since we, as women, were at the bottom of economic and political hierarchies, if we demanded economic and political equality for women, we would bring everyone with us to create an America with equal opportunity for all. Although the early women’s liberation movement was a mass movement of distinct and differing groups, all of the feminist foremothers were leftists. We were multiracial and multi-ethnic. The first significant publication of the women’s liberation movement in 1968 was “Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation” edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anna Koedt. The first anthology of women’s liberation statements, “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” was edited by Robin Morgan and published in 1970. Both were written within an avowedly left, class-conscious perspective. Both included multi-ethnic and African American women’s liberation pieces. In addition, there were groups of minority women who had their own feminist groups. The Third World Women’s Alliance was formed in New York City in 1968. Their revolutionary statement is published in “Dear Sisters,” a collection of writings from the women’s liberation movement. The women’s liberation movement lost its class focus and left-connectedness. One reason for this loss was our naiveté.
The naiveté of many of our hopes came in part from the times we lived in. The 1960s were a time of promise, prosperity and optimism. Unemployment was about 3 percent. Job opportunities for white men were omnipresent. White men were paid a family wage whether they had a family or not. Jobs for women and people of color were available, albeit at lower wages and in fewer sectors. Men of all races earned more than women did. Education guaranteed a job, even though a lesser one for women or people of color. There was a mass and largely successful civil rights movement and a powerful mass movement to stop the war in Vietnam. There was a sense of hope. The United States and the US dollar were the kings of the world. In prosperous 1960s and early 1970s America, women were paid fifty-nine cents for every dollar of men’s pay, even when women supported their families alone or worked side by side with men on the same job. That was the historical context of early feminism.
The early women’s liberation movement was unsophisticated. We, like most of the new left at the time, were class conscious, but we were neither immersed nor much interested in leftist history or theory. Early feminists formed our agenda through a radical technique called consciousness raising. We talked together about the struggles in our own lives and found a platform built upon our personal experiences. That was a powerful and effective method. However, if we had been more knowledgeable of and grounded within foiled attempts at gender justice or class equality, we may have done better. Had we seriously studied the way wealth and power operate, we would have had a far greater appreciation of the resources, resilience and manipulation that threatened our dreams. Perhaps, we would have been better able to forge common cause with the left had we anticipated right-wing determination to expunge the demand for class justice from our new feminist agenda.
We felt that we could do it all. We could change capitalism, racism and sexism through our demand for equal opportunity for all women, the secondary citizens at the bottom of every institution, from the family to the political system to the economy. We did not know the forces arrayed against our vision of a better future. Funding from and manipulation by the FBI and CIA combined with our naiveté to blunt the impact of our class awareness. In just one example, Gloria Steinem quickly rose to prominence. She seemed to have magical access to money and press. We did not imagine that she was financed by and connected to press and other resources by the CIA and the FBI.  With the prominence of capitalist liberal leaders such as Steinem, the voice of class in the women’s movement diminished to a whisper. The mainstream feminist movement became a movement for gender equality within the American system of class inequality. Because the women’s movement focused almost exclusively on gender issues, it lost the mass of American women whose struggles for economic survival grow harder each year. Feminism also lost most women of color for whom race and class were as relevant as gender.
As an almost entirely gender-based movement, the women’s movement excluded men and blamed men for a gender system in which men and women both unwittingly participated. Uniting for common class-based struggles moved outside of the feminist purview. Unity was impossible within a discourse that designated men as the enemy. Once separated, growth for all of us was slower, harder and more easily opposed.
The feminist movement became a set of gender-based projects and institutions, such as groups for abortion rights and legislation for equal wages. Each gender-based institution competed against the others. Each found its way to cooperate with powerful patrons in order to obtain institutional resources. Larger women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) worked to pass legislation protective of women. They lobbied for pro-female legislation within our highly unrepresentative two-capitalist-party system. Thus, what was a unified women’s liberation movement became a series of projects working for equality without systemic change.
Better treatment for women and more opportunities for women were won. However, we lost our vision of a just society for all. There is no longer a central, militant, powerful, unifying movement to demand support for universal, high-quality, free child care, medical care or elder care – all cares that fall disproportionately on women. A marriage of the left and feminism might have demanded those services as rights the way most of Socialist Europe does. Our divorce from a left, socialist, class-justice movement was destructive to the ideals of equality that inspired us to create a movement in the first place.
That does not mean that we accomplished nothing. Significant inroads in all areas of economic, political and social life were achieved by the feminist movement. The women’s movement won the abortion rights that are now contested. Equal opportunity became the law, if not the practice. Although one in three women still suffer physical violence at the hands of their husbands or partners, domestic abuse is outlawed. Women are now paid 77 cents out of every male dollar, 23 percent more than we were paid before the movement. Job possibilities for women have expanded in every direction. Educated women now enter previously male-dominated prestigious and lucrative professions. Women are more economically and politically empowered. However, paid work outside the home is added to primary domestic responsibilities and emotional labor within the home. Emotional labor is the psychological work of figuring out what emotional support people need and providing that support. It is the kind of labor that exhausts people in caring professions such as nurses, nurse’s aides, therapists, early childhood educators, and daycare and elder care workers.
We did not address or try to redress the burden of the unacknowledged and unpaid labor women expend in sustaining family life and maintaining homes. Our neglect of class led to wealthier, more privileged women being able to purchase household help: expensive, quality child care, hired domestic labor and costly services such as nutritious takeout food, restaurant food or professional laundry and shopping services. Those services were and are unaffordable for the mass of women who work a “second shift” at home, where many less privileged women provide domestic labor for their supposed “sisters.” In spite of the many real gender gains feminists achieved, 43 percent of women’s work remains in pink collar, lower-paid and less prestigious jobs. 
Because we did not sufficiently struggle for quality domestic relief and free, quality child care, afterschool care and day care, mothers particularly suffer. Mothers suffer more discrimination than other women. US mothers earn 30 percent less than men earn. Fathers do not suffer wage discrimination as fathers. We are simultaneously counted on and financially penalized for our work in the home caring for men and children. As if to illustrate the cost of women’s domestic and emotional responsibilities, the latest reports from scholarly books and a recent article in Time Magazine state that young college graduate women who are unmarried and childless earn more money than their male peers. It is marriage and child care that hold women back.
We Failed to Value the Skills We Acquired as Caregivers and Sustainers of Personal Life
The women’s movement made a second grave mistake that hurt the feminist/left partnership. We ignored the strengths, the knowledge and the considerable emotional power that we had. There is a great deal of strength in understanding other’s emotional dynamics. Such understandings taken into the workforce are one reason that the majority of managers are now women. Women’s traditional gender training includes the power and skill to understand the perspectives of other people and negotiate and compromise. Emotional power can be used to manipulate people. In the workplace, it is a strong component of advertising and sales. In the home, it is most often used to meet people’s needs, negotiate problems and soothe family members. Emotional labor given to infants is the interactive communication and soothing without which infants literally fail to thrive and cannot develop normally.
We focused solely on the economic and political power we did not have. We learned too well to devalue our traditional invaluable and invisible contributions to life as caregivers and sustainers of personal life. Understandably, women wanted to be included in the valued, rewarded, economically powerful areas of life from which we were excluded. We wanted jobs, careers, political power, economic independence, and professional and intellectual recognition. We wanted to be in the sectors that are rewarded, recognized and funded in American culture. Of course, those are worthy goals.
We shared society’s devaluation of the knowledge and wisdom learned from sustaining vulnerable lives and maintaining the conditions for life, creating order, aesthetic environments, cleanliness, and emotional and physical comfort. We neither recognized nor valued emotional labor, which is the labor to build others’ psychological well being and sanity. We did not understand the power that can come from recognizing our subjectivity and the shared fragility of all humans. It may sound peculiar to claim power in fragility; however, individuals and political groups that understand that we are only human and can make mistakes are much more like to form egalitarian relationships and democratic movements without any one human assuming excessive, unchecked authority. In my long experience in left movements, I have seen more organizations fail because of assertions of inappropriate authority and personal intransigence than I have seen fail because of ideological differences. There is, therefore, power in humility and acknowledgment of human frailty. Even though our movement formed in large part through consciousness-raising personal discussion of our struggles, we did not recognize and celebrate the power of a movement based on both shared strengths and our common human fragility.
Women perform most of the world’s domestic labor of nurturing children and men. We who performed that labor would have been in the best position to explore its importance and share our discoveries. Our method of consciousness-raising would have been an excellent tool. Since we neither developed our knowledge nor valued it, we could not teach our male partners to value and share our domestic labor or emotional labor as a source of strength. We therefore did not develop together with left men the necessary respect for the power and meaning of domestic and emotional labor in all of our lives. Powerful, life-affirming areas of knowledge were unspecified, unexplored and depreciated then as they are today. An important source of bonding was lost. We fought only for the set of powers denied to us instead of fighting together to change the conditions that held us all back and separated heterosexual men from women and the left from feminism.
Ironically, the Christian right became the only voice championing traditional female labor. They celebrate traditional women’s work while they provide no financial support or relief for exhausted women. They fight against crucial family support in subsidized or free family and child care programs. They define women’s household labor as a divine, biologically mandated duty. In spite of its actual destructiveness to women, the right is the only place where women’s traditional labor is, at least verbally, celebrated. Those are mistakes from the woman’s side of the divorce. Feminists failed to appreciate the full importance of our traditional work or to share it with our partners, or to struggle to make that work a recognized remunerated and socialized part of society.
Mistakes of the US Left
The left devalued women’s traditional work just as the rest of the society did. Rigid dismissal of a partner’s value hurts any relationship. Most of the left considered the economic sphere as the base, “the motor of history.” Although personal life was sometimes mentioned, it was of lesser import. Class analysis applied to the economy, state and industry, not to human relationships, family or the household. Because personal life was relatively less important, the left ignored consciousness raising, the successful organizing principle of the original women’s liberation movement. The early women’s movement’s vitality came in large part from our method of consciousness-raising, from learning about our personal life experience as women by sharing that experience and finding respect, recognition, unity and a set of political issues that came from our shared experience. The left had little place for our personally relevant methods or organizational principles. A good partnership requires mutual respect. That was missing on both sides.
What Can Be Done Now
There were and are allies for a new left and feminist movement. In the interests of space, I will focus only on those allies which directly offer a path to reconnection. I want to think that my life partnership with Richard Wolff and my close political connection to Stephen Resnick influenced their way to connect left and Marxian class analysis with feminism. Wolff and Resnick and their school of Marxian analysis of which I am a part have a way to extend left and feminist analyses from the boardroom right into the bedroom. That left analysis is devoid of hierarchies of analytic importance. Every aspect of life is a valid left focus. That includes the spheres of home, emotional work and domestic labor. They ask three basic class questions at all sites:
- Is there an extra or “surplus” produced?
- Who does the work to produce it?
- Who gets the goods and services that are produced?
They and I ask and answer those questions in the household, where it is usually women who labor to produce goods and services such as cooked food, cleanliness, order, mended clothing and emotional care. Men and children usually reap the benefit of the majority of women’s household labor.
Women’s production in the household becomes more visible when left analysis and feminism puts these services on the map of class consciousness, where they are every bit as important and worthy as labor for industry or the government.
Once we recognize the value of labor to produce crucial domestic and emotional goods and services, we can repair the ugly rift that has weakened the left and feminism. We can unite to reward all work, particularly labor that has been devalued. Other nations provide a model for how governments can help. The United States is the only nation in the Western industrialized world that does not have paid maternity leave. The Scandinavian nations mandate both maternity and paternity leaves. France, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Portugal, Italy and Spain all guarantee more than three and a half weeks of paid vacation time. Every other nation in the EU as well as the UK guarantees more than two and a half weeks of paid vacation time. The United States guarantees none. France, like many other countries, offers low cost daycare, after school and summer care and free education from three years old on. Other nations create subsidies in housing and child care for single parents. Free sports facilities are available for children. Elder care is subsidized. Medical care and counseling are free. Together, we can follow their example and demand that our government and employers provide the wide array of home services we need. In that way, we could support families in ways that facilitate gender equality and chances for both men and women to fully participate in, learn from and value all parts of life whether economic, political, social, personal or domestic. We can respect the contributions of both partners and share their valuable skills. We can create thousands, if not millions, of well-paid jobs in child care, elder care, counseling, production of quality, low-cost restaurant food, cleaning, household organizing and so much more. In order to achieve the benefits that so many others take for granted, we would, of course, need to reject the right-wing propaganda that tells us America has no money to spend while billions are spent on unjust wars and billions more are forfeited because the wealthy escape taxation.
A solid partnership between feminism and the left may undo our costly mistakes. We can take back the family agenda from the right and relate to all people in the United States who struggle at work and at home.
In a successful partnership, each partner learns from the other. Both benefit from the other’s perspective. Learning from the mistakes of the feminist movement and the left movement allows the left and feminism to reunite. Here’s to a long and happy reunion.
1. See also: https://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a1M9EAly2hog&refer=hom; https://www.amazon.com/Mighty-Wurlitzer-How-Played-America/dp/0674026810; https://www.amazon.com/World-Split-Open-Movement-Changed/dp/0140097198; https://www.mail-archive.com/[email protected]/msg02217.html.
3. https://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2109140,00.html; https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Life-Professional-WomenChildren/dp/0786867663; https://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2032116-4,00.html; https://www.amazon.com/Why-Men-Earn-More-Startling/dp/0814472109.
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