Sisters in Arms

Sisters in Arms


Is the #MeToo “moment” the beginning of a new feminism? Coined by the civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the term took off in 2017 when celebrities like the actress Alyssa Milano began using it as a Twitter hashtag. Extensive reporting in The New York Times and The New Yorker on harassment in the entertainment and tech industries helped the movement bring down some of those fields’ most powerful figures. By speaking out, a number of famous actresses—some of them better known previously for their not-so-feminist roles as cute witches and beguiling prostitutes—have done so as well. To date, most of #MeToo’s attention has been aimed at the rich and influential: for instance, abusive talk show hosts and other notorious media figures.

#MeToo has too often ignored the most frequent victims of abuse, however, such as waitresses or hotel housekeepers. These are among the invisible people who keep society going—cleaning homes, harvesting our vegetables, and serving salads made of these vegetables. Who among those of us who depend on their labor knows their struggles or even their names? It can seem like an uphill battle to bring attention to the working-class victims of harassment, even though these women are often abused in starker and more brutal fashion than their counterparts in Hollywood.

Bernice Yeung, an investigative journalist for the reporting nonprofit organization Reveal, has helped correct this imbalance. Yeung is no tourist in the lives of the working poor women she covers. She has been writing about the plight of farmworkers and maids harassed and raped by their overseers for more than five years, in places far from executive offices—fields, basements, and break rooms. Her new book, In a Day’s Work, is a bleak but much-needed addition to the literature on sexual harassment in the US.

Consider, for example, a female farmworker whose supervisor violated her in a shed:

He held gardening shears to her throat. He pulled her hair or slapped her while he raped her because he said she wasn’t putting enough effort into it. Then he coerced her into silence by threatening to kill her children in Mexico or by reminding her of the power he had to fire her sister and brother, who also worked at the same farm.

Then there is Georgina Hernández, a cleaning woman in Orange County, California, who rejected her supervisor’s advances when she took a new position cleaning the lobby and exterior of the hotel where they worked. This job paid better than her previous position “scrubbing the oily kitchens and lifting the heavy rubber floor mats.” She ended up, however, having to hide in the women’s bathroom, where her boss followed her, murmuring disturbing little nothings like “you’re delicious.” Finally, he raped and impregnated her.

This sexual and social violence is happening all around us. A domestic worker in Yeung’s book who was assaulted at the rental house she was required to clean recounts that her rapist “cornered me and pinned me against the wall and…tried to pull my pants down again.” Yeung writes that “she did not report these attacks because,” in her words, “I was afraid that I would be fired.” Another janitorial worker, Erika Morales, was put under the supervision of a convicted sex offender who went to her worksite “to watch her as she vacuumed or scrubbed bathrooms. In addition to staring at her and making sexual comments, she says the supervisor sneaked up behind her and grabbed and groped her.”

Like most of the women Yeung interviewed, Morales felt disgust and a sense of shame that then permeated her life. Her pain was compounded for another reason: she was a single mother with two children who couldn’t afford to lose a paycheck. “In that moment, I was going through a situation where I couldn’t stop working,” she tells Yeung. “The father of my children wasn’t there. I was alone with the kids.” It was also a matter of time: it would “take weeks of filling out applications before she could land a new job and [she] didn’t know how she would feed her children in the meantime.” She made an appeal to her assailant himself, pleading that her children needed to eat. He laughed in her face.

A few women eventually went to the police, but a number felt they could not do so for various reasons, including not knowing their rights. A farmworker named Norma Valdez, whose foreman assaulted her in an apple orchard, was asked on the witness stand why she hadn’t gone to the police, Yeung relates. “Valdez said she didn’t know she could.” In another instance, a Latina domestic worker told a human rights activist that she “wanted to make a report to the police, but she was undocumented and felt stuck in her job.” They also fear—or know—that they will fall into destitution if they lose their jobs. They may also face the possibility of deportation. “The supervisor knew that for workers not authorized to be in the country,” Yeung recounts of one sexual assault case, “the prospect of losing a job was almost as menacing as a death threat.”

Other victims grappled with longstanding taboos around sex,” and those prohibitions initially kept them from speaking out. “Marilyn from Orange County said that her supervisor openly watched porn on his computer,” Yeung writes. “Others reported that their supervisors had taken pictures of their chests or behinds on their phones and sent them to their male coworkers. None of the women knew that this could be considered sexual harassment.” As one of the workers Yeung interviewed put it, they thought such voyeurism was “just the culture of buildings at night.” These women assumed, often correctly, that they were close to helpless against their leering male coworkers.

The men in Yeung’s book who are neither abusive nor sleazy are not automatically “allies,” however, or even quietly benign. American unions have not always had good records when it comes to dealing with the needs of their female members, including discouraging sexism among their male members. Yeung describes a union meeting in February 2016 when a female member of SEIU United Workers West named Veronica Laguna shared a list of grievances—from low wages to overwhelming workload—and then mentioned sexual harassment. At that point, some of the male members booed. “As she spoke, a low roar emerged from the audience,” in Yeung’s words.

This “incident,” Yeung continues, “made it clear to the union leadership that they had to overcome the misconception” among male members that, as an SEIU officer put it, “women’s issues are not worker issues.” For some men, sexual harassment and violence is still a trivial problem, or even something they imagine women enjoy as proof of attractiveness. White-collar men, under the shield of human resources departments that can pay mere lip service to complaints, may simply hide their disdain better. But at least some of the male workers at SEIU must have come around: that chapter ultimately signed a contract with new sexual harassment provisions.

In a Day’s Work suggests how the struggles of working-class women align with those of their sisters in the creative class. It offers an opportunity rarely found in our class-polarized society: to bring together women across economic levels around a single issue. What might make this opportunity hard to seize is that the outcome of sexual harassment is significantly different for women of varying social classes and occupations. Actresses like Mira Sorvin
o can be “heartsick” after learning they may have lost major film roles due to Harvey Weinstein’s machinations against women who refused his sexual demands (he allegedly blacklisted her to the director Peter Jackson and others). But the very idea of having a career that can be derailed might seem foreign to women simply working to get by or to stay in this country.

Unlike many victims of harassment in the film, TV, and technology industries, a number of the women in Yeung’s book are terrorized not only by physical violence but also by deportation warnings and threats against their children. (“Then he coerced her into silence by threatening to kill her children in Mexico.”) Is there enough here for a common cause? If women like Sorvino and women like the domestic workers in Yeung’s book are being abused in such divergent ways, or with such variant outcomes, can they still share a movement?

The history of women’s fight against sexual harassment is as full of disunion and fragmentation as it is of solidarity. Class differences among women have troubled the movement since the 1975 case around which the phrase “sexual harassment” was coined. Carmita Wood, a forty-four-year-old administrative assistant at Cornell University, left her job after her boss, Boyce McDaniel, a famed nuclear physicist, thrust his hand up her shirt, shoved her against her desk, and lunged at her for unwanted kisses. Wood, a mother of four, afterward found working with her assailant unbearable and filed a claim for unemployment benefits. Cornell rejected the claim, and Wood sought help from upper-middle-class female activists at the university’s Human Affairs Office. Together they created Working Women United, which held events where everyone from filmmakers to waitresses shared their horrific stories.

Wood ultimately lost her appeal. Working Women United, for its part, fractured after just a year due to tensions between its working-class and its middle-class members. Carmita Wood was also quickly excluded from news coverage of the group: it seemed that she was less interesting to reporters than its middle-class organizers were. As those women shored up their movement, Wood paid the greater price for her bravery, becoming, as her grandson called her in an interview, “a black sheep” in the local community, struggling for her unemployment benefits. She finally left town and resettled on the West Coast.

The gap between bourgeois and working-class feminists has troubled other alliances as well. Working-class women and trade unions rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) throughout much of the twentieth century out of concern that it would remove the few on-the-job protections women already had, like limitations on the amount of weight they were required to lift. Even in the 1970s, after the AFL–CIO endorsed the ERA, many working-class activists continued to consider it purely a middle-class issue. Then there is Roe v. Wade. The plaintiff, “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), a working-class woman, felt alienated by the upper-middle-class feminists who had pushed her case to the Supreme Court. McCorvey eventually switched sides to join the pro-life movement.

A particularly stark case in which well-off women mistook their interests for the common cause was a public relations campaign sponsored in 2003 by the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO). The campaign was meant to shame the Masters Golf Tournament, held at a club called Augusta National, which excluded women as members. The assumption behind the campaign was that if famous female golfers were admitted into Augusta, all women would somehow benefit—never mind that the only form of golf most working-class people can afford is of the miniature variety. Many have since doubted the idea that victories like the one the NCWOpursued around Augusta might trickle down to the non-golfing female majority. “Trickle-down economics wasn’t the best experience for people like me,” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a black feminist and sociologist, has written. “You will have to forgive me, then, if I have similar doubts about trickle-down feminism.”

The recommendations in best-selling feminist business books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In likewise are most effective—if they are effective at all—for women who can advocate for their interests without risk of retaliation. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” Sandberg wrote, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” For ordinary working women, leaning in would be immediate grounds for termination.

But not all attempts at cross-class solidarity have failed. Upper-middle-class women have long supported working-class and lower-middle-class women’s strikes, including the ongoing teachers’ strikes, and efforts by workers to organize themselves in unions since the “mink brigade” protested with the New York shirtwaist strikers in 1909. Since 1974, the Coalition of Labor Union Women has advocated on behalf of unorganized women workers and lobbied to make unions more receptive to the needs of their female members. More recently, and on a smaller scale, there are organizations like the Brooklyn-based Hand in Hand, which was founded by upper-middle-class women: it seeks to improve conditions for domestic workers and nannies by simultaneously urging their employers to improve their wages and working conditions and encouraging the workers themselves to know their rights and make their needs known to their employers. Hand in Hand and groups like it are not a substitute for a national feminist movement for all classes, but they suggest what can be done if we are determined to include as many women as possible in the struggle against abuse and exploitation.

In a Day’s Work does offer several examples of working-class women who only needed a little encouragement to defend their rights. Georgina Hernández, the hotel cleaner and rape victim, spoke out after she met the labor activist Vicky Márquez, who had “found her at work, cleaning the movie theater,” and convinced her that her complaint would not make her already difficult life still harder. After she came forward, she was “proud that she set aside her fears to challenge what had happened to her.”

But what Yeung’s book suggests primarily is that feminists don’t need a policy program first. Rather, we need unity, or, as we used to say, sisterhood. Whatever #MeToo becomes, it mustn’t simply resemble this winter’s Golden Globes awards, where actresses paraded working-class female activists with them across the red carpet. Nor should it resemble boutique women’s-only workspaces, like Manhattan’s the Wing, where membership can cost up to $3,000 a year. Affluent women can use their privilege to help strengthen the movement among working-class women like the ones who appear in In a Day’s Work, but only if they manage to put their resources to good use.

This might, for instance, mean the creation of more initiatives like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which aims to support sexually harassed and abused working-class women and give them legal aid. Or it might mean offering financial support to women who lose their jobs after speaking out and have no savings to tide them over. Another possibility would be to create “safe spaces” both real and virtual, where women like farmworkers, cleaners, and servers can share stories and sketch out strategies to improve their working conditions. Whatever else it involves, building a cross-class movement, as Yeung shows, will mean l
earning to stop unseeing the working women around us.


Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, was published in April. With Alissa Quart, she founded and runs the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit that covers income inequality.
 (July 2018)

Alissa Quart’s new book is Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. With Barbara Ehrenreich, she founded and runs the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit that covers income inequality. (July 2018)

Co-published with The New York Review of Books.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Barbara Ehrenreich (1941-2022) was a bestselling author and activist, whose 21 books include Fear of Falling, Bright-Sided, the recent essay collection Had I Known, and Nickel and Dimed, which the New York Times described as “a classic in social justice literature.” In 2012, she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a media non-profit devoted to reporting on inequality, which she sometimes described as her “third act.” An award-winning journalist, she frequently contributed to Harper's, The Nation, The New York Times, and TIME magazine. Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in the women’s and labor rights’ movements, and soon devoted herself to writing her ground-breaking and often quite humorous journalism and cultural criticism.

Skip to content