Every year during Women’s History Month, we celebrate the strides that women have made throughout history. In the fight for dignity and equity on the job, the government played a crucial—albeit imperfect—role in ensuring that women today are better off than their sisters of past generations.
Yet, workplace equality remains out of reach for many. As a result of entrenched racism and sexism, women of color are the most vulnerable in the labor market, face the biggest wage gaps, and dominate undervalued sectors of the economy. To ensure that all women can work and live with dignity, it is time for the government to step up once again and support policy that lifts all women workers.
From it’s very beginning, America has run on the undervalued and uncompensated labor of women, and in particular, women of color. As slaves, Black women provided coerced, uncompensated labor across all parts of the exploitative slave system. We see the legacy of this exclusion throughout America, but particularly as it relates to the role of Black women as caregivers for the children, homes, and families of slaveholders. This devaluing of domestic work and childcare—and the presumption that such labor would be provided for free in the context of our homes—is baked into today’s labor laws.
Domestic workers, who even today are predominantly women and women of color, were intentionally excluded from New Deal era labor protections of the 1930s that gave workers the right to unionize and set minimum wage laws and other workplace protections—rights that these workers are still denied to this day.
As women began to transition into formalized work in the 1970s, the labor force participation rates of women skyrocketed, propelling the US economy forward. While women were afforded some legal protections as a result of hard-fought legislative battles, many still faced huge barriers in the form of entrenched discrimination and racism.
In response, women increasingly sought positions in public sector jobs, where they found stronger pathways to economic mobility and smaller wage gaps. As a result, women and, in particular, women of color have historically been overrepresented in the public sector. In 1997, Black women made up 15.1 percent of public sector employment, compared to about 10.5 percent in the private sector (though Black women’s public sector employment declined much more than other demographics following the 2008 recession to just 12.8 percent in 2011).
Unfortunately, many of the gains and security that women found in the public sector have not yet extended to the private sector. As we look to the future of women and work, the power of the government is once again necessary to redefine how we as a society value “work” and how workers should be treated.
Just last year horrifying accounts of women miscarrying in Amazon warehouses circulated, highlighting to an extreme degree the lack of care America affords its low-wage women workers. Faced with declining unionization rates, weakened labor protections, the rise of the gig economy, and outsized corporate power, women workers need their government to reinvest in them. Women in the 21st century—and particularly women of color—need stronger labor protections, broader inclusion in labor law, and bolder policies, such as revived antitrust enforcement, to rein in the power of employers and corporations.
To start, policymakers should use government power to bring historically excluded groups into the folds of labor law and extend protections to America’s most marginalized workers. This includes providing domestic workers with the right to unionize. But it shouldn’t stop there. Government power can also provide big universal protections like affordable health care and flexible childcare. Large-scale investments in publicly provided benefits would ensure that women do not have to rely on inadequate, markets-first approaches made by the private sector to remedy broad structural issues. We can afford a more robust public sector that champions women too.
And it is not just a matter of whether such programs are feasible. As a country, we have weighed these decisions before and acted to dismantle barriers that held women back from participating in the labor market unconstrained. Achieving progress for women in the 21st century labor market simply boils down to whether we as a society choose to value women as workers and choose to value the domestic labor of women as work.
As we reflect on women in the workforce during this month, we should both appreciate the leaps we’ve made but also acknowledge the room we have yet to grow. It is past time that America invest in all of its women workers, which requires guaranteeing that women can prosper in all jobs: public, private, and at home.