(RNS) — My mom saved a notepad from the 1980s that included a drawing of a straggly, red eyed woman holding a baby, another child pulling her hair, and one wailing next to her. The caption read, “If it was going to be easy to raise kids, it never would’ve started with something called labor.”
This Labor Day, I am thinking about women, labor, and how much those who raise kids need labor unions, and my memory of that cartoon is helping put Labor Day 2022 in political perspective.
Christian feminists have been back on our heels since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in their ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The spectacle of comportment that is Justice Amy Coney Barrett haunts our laptop screens as we rage against the machinery that has cast her as an icon of proper Christian womanhood — a very well-behaved woman making history.
Meanwhile, the unkempt woman in my mother’s cartoon is the image Christian feminists hold in their minds as they continue laboring for a world in which we have universal childcare, parental leave, a truly living wage, and well-funded public schools for the kids we raise. We take heart from prophets in the Hebrew Bible who were creatively maladjusted, refusing to adapt to political absurdity.
That image on my mother’s notepad was created by Barbara and Jim Dale for Recycled Paper Products in 1984. I was 16 years old, watching my mother care for both her children and her elders, all while laboring full time in the Texas public school system. A few years before the Dale’s cartoon was published, Dorothy Miller, then a University of Kentucky professor of social work, and Elaine Brody, a gerontologist, had published seminal essays describing what they called “the sandwich generation” — women of middle age who were working three shifts: tending children, parents and their regular jobs at their places of employment.
The phrase became part of popular culture. Newsweek and Time ran articles on the phenomenon, while women’s magazines offered advice on how to appear at our best alongside articles about surviving labor in the “sandwich generation.” Teenage girls and their grandmothers found time in between labors for sisterly sabbath, playing make-up.
Today, we dance water Zumba to Britney Spears’s 2013 “Work Bitch” and avoid the sharks in our work tanks. In her 2013 article “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” Susan Faludi explains that the “Lean In” brand of labor politics — extolled in Facebook COO Sharon Sandberg’s book (with Nell Scovell) of the same name — is akin to the fakery of corporate Christianity. Sandberg’s version of labor success highlighted faux feminist gurus promising women triumph through personal, strategic striving. Faludi draws from the portrait Katherine Losse’s account in her 2012 book “The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network,” of her own time working at Facebook. It’s a dysfunctional twist on “Work Bitch.”
Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by “Lean In” then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.
An obvious, all-American alternative, Faludi notes, is solidarity — fighting together for our rights at work. Being part of a labor union is one way to secure time for our other vocations as aunts, mothers, grandmothers, nieces and daughters.
Labor unions already help women secure better pay and care-related benefits. They can foster an environment where women feel safe to use existing benefits. A 2018 study found that women who were represented by a labor union were at least 17% more likely to use their paid maternity leave than women who were not represented by a labor union.
The history of reproductive rights in the U.S. is intertwined with labor history. As Alana Casanova-Burgess noted in her 2019 article for WNYC Studios, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have preferred to use Susan Struck v. Secretary of Defense, not Roe, to secure true reproductive freedom for women. The case involved the right to continue in one’s vocation (in Struck it was an Air Force career) through labor and raising kids.
Said Bader Ginsburg: “The argument was it’s her right to decide either way, her right to decide whether or not to bear a child. In this case, it was her choice for childbirth. The government was inhibiting that choice. It was the price of remaining in the service.”
Struck, a 26-year-old nurse and Air Force captain, was seeking to change the terms for her own rights, and the rights of other Air Force women to keep laboring and to raise her own kid.
The North Carolina AFL-CIO has been working with faith communities for a decade on an effort we call “Labor Sabbath,” making a simple request: Say the words “labor union,” without epithet, in your community of faith the weekend before Labor Day. Note together, in a prayer, song or lesson, that labor unions continue to help people work with dignity.
This isn’t charity work. Like my mother and my daughters, I need a labor union. A favorite banner at rallies for basic, feminist rights is: “I can’t believe I am still fighting for this stuff.” I can’t believe we are still having to fight for this stuff. And, we need to keep fighting together.
(Amy Laura Hall is associate professor of Christian ethics and of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke Divinity School. She is the author, most recently, of “Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World With Julian of Norwich.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)