This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 12, 2017.
So, there is hope. It’s not quite like the play “Lysistrata,” in which women used the ultimate trump card to stop their men from killing each other. First performed in Athens, around 411 B.C., Aristophanes’ comedy had women on both of the warring sides, Athenian and Spartan, come together, organize and use the power of their bodies to bring about sanity. When they withheld sex the war was quickly ended.
And now, for me, some 2,400 hundred years later, there was no breakfast at the Ladybird Diner. Dutifully, at 7 a.m., I was at the door, but a sign waiting for me announced the staff had gone on strike. The grad student with a wonderful smile and her friend who knows my order without the need of saying it were not there — gone out on strike. The Ladybird men were also gone. Unlike the Saturday in January when it was man-service only, while the Ladybird women did the Women’s March, on this day the men, apparently, had also gone out in solidarity. I’d have to find my breakfast elsewhere.
USA Today reports that women get paid 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. My wife has a relic of the ERA – for those too young to remember, the Equal Rights Amendment. Out of some drawer, somewhere, she pulled out a pin that simply says “59¢.” That’s what women made for the same work in 1982. At the time the main argument against the ERA was that women’s rights were already protected by the Constitution, and we did not need to mess up the simplistic beauty of the document by adding unnecessary words. Besides, why do women need a declaration of equal rights any more than men do? The ERA fell three states short of ratification. That means 35 of the 50 states voted for, and 15 did not. The amendment needed 38 votes.
So, 35 years later, how has it turned out? Here I’ll focus just on the economic issues, ignoring issues such as birth control and abortion rights. Using USA Today’s 80 cents and trusting the truth of the 1982 59-cent pin, it appears the Constitution’s gender neutrality has not yet resulted in parity of pay.
My experience has taught me that our legal system doesn’t recognize much of the value in many of the most important things that women — primarily — do. Things women do within our homes and within our families are never transactional, never bartered in marketplaces where Adam Smith’s capitalistic invisible hand relentlessly reveals final economic truths. Few women stay home like the mythic June Cleaver, and those with children must now be both breadwinner (at reduced rates) and a nurturing wife or mother. But when we value women do we account for all of these things — invisible to the market — that women do?
I’m reminded of Helen Earline Riggs Pearson. My mother-in-law died too young, just a few months shy of 78, from a brain tumor. I think she was the victim of sloppy medical practice. During life she was the center of the lives of her four children and their 10 children. Every grandchild, most of them already adults, knew Grandma was watching over them, interested in everything they did, sharing every joy and disappointment. They telephoned for her advice and counsel, and her death left a giant hole.
But in the eyes of the marketplace Earline’s life had little monetary value. She had never made a “living” and all her kids were “full-growed.” In our justice system Earline’s economic value was mostly invisible.
I have not read that any female CEO went out on strike. But, the strike was not about them anyway, or even about female doctors or lawyers or architects or engineers. It was about the most vulnerable of women, the women who work in menial jobs, or fast-food restaurants, and particularly those who are raising families. The college and grad students who work at Ladybird, apparently, can miss a day’s pay, but the most vulnerable cannot. There are millions of women who would strike in solidarity if they could afford to, but cannot. So, it seems to me that the women of the Ladybird, and their male coworkers, struck on behalf of and as a voice for the others. Nothing wrong with that. A missed breakfast well worth the missing.