Under the Bus covers

Feministing Reads: Caroline Fredrickson’s Under the Bus

Under the Bus book coverWith her book Under the Bus: How Working Women are Being Run Over (The New Press, May 2015) Caroline Fredrickson joins a growing cadre of writers who are analyzing the precarious economic status of women workers in the United States. Like writers Sarah Jaffe, Michelle Chen, Kathy Geier, Melissa Gira Grant, and many others, Fredrickson outlines how our economy today is failing the many, many women who are working in low-wage sectors, and how labor policy has long denied these workers basic protections such as overtime or paid family leave.

Fredrickson’s book also critiques the “lean in” and “having it all” conversations generated by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous 2012 article in The Atlantic. These frameworks, Fredrickson writes, focus on privileged women and ignore the vast majority of women who are working in low-wage jobs to make ends meet and many who are also struggling as single parents.

But Under the Bus goes beyond critiquing corporate feminist frameworks. Fredrickson acknowledges throughout the book that even as a highly educated progressive leader and longtime policy advocate, she too has been blind to the struggles of many low-wage, part-time, or freelance workers. And that is what is most important about Under the Bus: Fredrickson takes ownership of the problematic “lean in” and “having it all” frameworks and the class chasms they reveal. Rather than trying to distance herself from her privilege, she presents an honest and unflattering account of how it can blind those who drive policy debates.

Fredrickson, President of the American Constitution Society and a Demos senior fellow, is also a former congressional aide to Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD). Her book applies both data and personal narratives to show out that most women in the US are working in low-wage, unpredictable, insecure, and exploitative environments — even though many women are the sole breadwinners for their families. Women make up 55 percent of minimum wage workers and more than 25 percent are parents. (The New York Times highlighted the working conditions of nail salon workers last week — an important example of these problems.)

As Frederickson points out, basic labor protections, including overtime pay, have long excluded low-wage work, including home care work. Restaurant and fast food jobs are rife with low wages and unpredictable schedules — and the single moms filling these jobs are struggling to make ends meet. Smart movement-building is slowly pushing against these centuries of exclusion.

Fredrickson notes several times in her book that she herself was previously unaware of these gaps in law and policy. Humbly, she writes, “Few of us are aware of how the labor and employment laws leave out so many women. Indeed, even I, who practiced labor law and have long been involved in legislative and policy efforts in this area, must admit how blind I have been.” As she recounts in the introduction, she has helped write legislation that accepted widespread exceptions for certain people, like domestic workers, without ever stopping to question why.

Fredrickson notes the same about the women makeup artists who help her get ready for cable television appearances:

I started chatting with the woman doing my makeup before an appearance on a liberal cable show and discovered how blind I have been to the circumstances of people who provide many services in our service-dominated economy; we regularly talk to people who clean houses, cut our hair or do our nails, or provide some other service, but we don’t often think about the laws that do or don’t govern their work.

Under the Bus points out that keeping makeup artists a part-time workforce is a strategy of many major television networks so that these workers — mostly women — cannot claim to be employees and therefore ever invoke the protections of an employee. “This could be true of your hairstylist, manicurist, and maybe the janitor in your office building” she writes, showing that there is a large swath of women-dominated professions who are kept out of secure, predictable, and well-paid employment.

Overall, Under the Bus is an important overview of the troubling economic status of women in the US and the reforms that are needed to correct these problems. But the most refreshing part about her book is the way Frederickson connects this narrative with her own personal story — that even she, as a policy advocate, didn’t think about low-wage workers until recently. Few of us ever acknowledge our own blind spots. Indeed, if more policymakers (including judges and Justices) and businesspeople possessed this level of humility, the economy would look far, far different than it does today.

Header image credit: Elle

Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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