What is feminism?

Noun | the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

Our mothers’ or grandmothers’ feminism might have sounded something like this: “Women can be equal to men.” But what does equity mean when all of us experience the world in such different ways because of our sex, gender, and class?

For women of color, migrant women, working-class and poor women, the path to equity is complicated by the racism, xenophobia, and anti-worker policies that define America’s capitalist economy. These women are expected to do the most exploited kinds of work, like domestic work, home healthcare, and sex work. They’re more likely to experience violence from the police, immigration enforcement, and in jails and prisons, and are most likely to suffer from attempts to restrict the choices they make with their own bodies.

Old-school feminism made important contributions to our thinking and our politics by asking, “What does it look like if women can do more than just vote?” And over the years, the way we think about feminism has been woven into how we think about race and sexuality.

Now, as socialism has gained increased attention in our politics, we have an opportunity to start thinking about socialist feminism.

What is socialist feminism?

We know that we need to move away from the idea of Lean In feminism, in which women can just “work” their way to equity. Instead, we have to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a woman under capitalism, a system that already only works for the very wealthy, in which women are undervalued, underpaid and overworked?”

It’s impossible to look at the inequities women face on the basis of gender without also looking at what it’s like to be a working-class woman, an immigrant woman, a woman working three jobs to feed her family, or a woman working in the sex trades with little state protection.

We believe in collective liberation. In Audre Lorde’s words, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Socialist feminism helps us understand why the political, economic, and social equality of people of all genders is impossible under capitalism. Capitalism requires women to do a lot of work for cheap or for free, and primarily for the benefit of other people.

In the workplace, we know that women disproportionately have the jobs with the lowest pay and the least protection. But that doesn’t mean these jobs aren’t important. In fact, our society and economy depend the most on jobs women do, like teaching, childcare, and health services. Women who have “professional jobs,” such as doctors, lawyers and designers, or women who work in management have greater economic security, but are still often paid less than men for the same work. And ultimately, the greater economic security women in management positions hold is built on the backs of working-class women.

Not only do most women work outside the home at jobs where they’re underpaid, they’re also expected to work in their own homes for free. Women are still the ones primarily responsible for raising children, managing the household, and caring for sick or eldery relatives, even when a partner is present in the home. But just because this kind of work isn’t paid doesn’t mean it’s not just as essential to our society and economy. If children aren’t well cared for, not only will they suffer, but there will be fewer workers for the economy. If elderly or sick people weren’t taken care of by their families, that burden would fall on the state. If women didn’t run our homes, our homes wouldn’t run.

The truth is that capitalism requires all kinds of work, but it only pays for some and expects the rest for free. Women are paid the least, if they’re even paid at all.

A Socialist Feminist Future

To confront the obstacles faced by women, nonbinary people and parents, we need to consider:

  • how people have control over their own health;
  • how to address the vital work of running households and raising children;
  • how to address exploitation in the workplace; and
  • how to end violence against women.

Here’s how we’re going to fight for a socialist feminist future in New York.

Health Care for All

  • Fight for the New York Health Act. We need a statewide, single-payer healthcare system so that people do not have to stay at jobs they don’t want, or jobs where they are harassed, demeaned and underpaid, in order to keep their health insurance. Additionally, everyone deserves free and legal access to abortion, and that should be covered in our health care.
  • Establish a statewide abortion access fund. New York should eliminate abortion-related costs as quickly as possible, as a bridge to coverage under a single-payer system like the New York Health Act. In the meantime, we should establish an abortion access fund that pays for abortion-related costs for those not covered by Medicaid or private insurance.
  • Extend eligibility for postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year. Under current law parents with pregnancy-linked Medicaid eligibility have access to a range of postpartum benefits, but only for a period of around 60 days after childbirth. This period should be extended to one year so that parents don’t lose access to critical postpartum care and other health services shown to improve outcomes for parents and their children.
  • Establish an essential plan that covers New Yorkers regardless of immigration status. Until a single-payer system is enacted, New York should create a low- or no-cost public insurance plan available to our undocumented neighbors to ensure they can access reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion.
  • Mandate comprehensive sex education. Sex education is not mandatory in New York. Less than 40 percent of six, seventh, and eighth graders, and just 80 percent of high school students, received adequate sex education in school, according to the Centers for Disease Control. All New York schools should implement age-appropriate, science-based sex education curricula that includes information about consent and access to reproductive health benefits.

Protect Parents and Their Kids

  • Improve New York’s system of paid family leave. Beginning in 2021, employees in New York will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave at 67 percent of their average weekly earnings, capped at 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage, currently about $1,400. But working families are already struggling to make ends meet even with their full salaries, if they are able to find work at all. Parental leave should be paid at 100 percent of a workers’ earnings up to the minimum wage, and 67 percent of their earnings. If a new parent has no earnings on record, they should be entitled to benefits equal to the minimum wage for the length of the leave period.
  • Expand universal pre-K to New York State and lower the age eligibility. Currently, children are eligible to enroll in free, public pre-K in New York City when they turn 4 years old. This benefit should be extended statewide and begin when children are 3 years old, which will not only improve children’s educational outcomes, but will reduce the burden on working families to provide childcare for children aged 3 to 5.
  • Universalize childcare subsidies. Currently, only parents below a certain income threshold are eligible for limited childcare subsidies. This program should be replaced with a universal childcare benefit available to all new parents to receive assistance, and pegged to the average cost of childcare in their county of residence.
  • Compensate at-home childcare. If a parent provides at-home childcare to children under 3 years old, they should receive the childcare subsidy available to parents who use daycare services. This would come to parents directly as a cash benefit.

Protect Workers

  • Fight for the SWEAT Bill. This legislation empowers workers to seek a court order freezing the assets of employers who engage in wage theft, or when employers do not pay their workers fully for their labor. This can look like not paying minimum wage, not paying overtime or making employees work off the clock. Employers steal more than $1 billion every year, primarily from service industry workers, such as those who work in restaurants, nail techs, and domestic workers. Disproportionately, these roles are filled by women. Empowering wage workers, or those who don’t have salaried jobs, allows laborers to fight back against employer exploitation.
  • Fight for the Nail Salon Accountability Act. Nail techs are not only almost entirely women, but many are migrants and women of color. In Queens, many of our nail tech positions are filled by East Asian women. This bill would ensure that nail salons engaged in wage theft and other labor abuses would be ineligible for renewing their operating licenses.
  • Improve New York’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. We need to protect people from retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination, in their workplace by: banning punitive clauses in non-disclosure agreements; prohibiting employers from discriminating against people who’ve made complaints against the company or its workers; clarify that employees of elected and appointed officials are state employees under the law, and that the state is responsible if harassment or discrimination that occurs; protect public employees who come forward to report harassment; replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics with an independent commission that investigates discrimination and harassment claims in Albany; and provide funding for employees of elected officials to travel and live independently from their bosses while on business trips.

Protect Sex Workers and End Violence Against Women and Nonbinary People

  • Pass the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act and repeal the “walking while trans” ban to decriminalize sex work. By criminalizing the sex trades, we endanger working-class people. Sex workers experience higher rates of police violence than other workers, and could go to prison just for doing their jobs. This is wrong.

    The so-called Nordic Model aims to make sex work untenable; it decriminalizes selling sex, but makes it illegal to buy sex. This model discriminates against women who have few other options to earn a living besides sex work by making their jobs impossible: Sex workers can sell sex, but there’s no one to buy it. This disproportionately impacts trans women, migrant women, and street-based workers. That’s why we need to fully decriminalize both the buying and selling of consensual sex.

    To do so, we need to repeal other sex work-related charges, like “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” In New York, the police often profile trans women as sex workers, and arrest them simply for walking down the street or standing in public. This over-policing of neighborhoods does not make anyone safer, and endangers people who are transgender.

    Sex workers should be at the forefront of advocacy and legislation that affects them and their ability to work. This is especially important in Queens County, where we have a significant number of people involved in the sex trades, including East Asian migrant women in Flushing and Latinx migrant trans women in Jackson Heights.

  • End mass incarceration, and along the path toward this ultimate goal, we need to immediately protect trans people in prison. It’s imperative that New York works toward restorative justice. We need to end over-policing and mass incarceration. On our way toward this more just future, we should immediately seek to reduce harm in our communities. New York State should ensure that trans people in its custody are placed in detention facilities that are consistent with their gender identity. This protects prisoners from additional risks of violence that often occur in prison. And we must remember that this is a first, small step toward liberating our incarcerated community members; we must continue to fight for legislation that ensures folks don’t end up in prison in the first place.