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Taking on the Big Boys -- and how to get started

An interview with Ellen Bravo

Interview by Judith Stadtman Tucker

August 2007

Public debates about bringing the United States up to speed with the rest of the industrialized world in providing support for working families tend to skirt the issue of how powerfully resistant the conservative business sector is to legislation that regulates the so-called "flexibility" of the U.S. labor market. (In this case, "flexibility" doesn't mean giving Americans more control over their work hours -- it means assuring that employers have more rights than workers do.) The same special interest groups that tried -- and are still trying -- to bring down the Family and Medical Leave Act have mounted formidable opposition to campaigns for paid leave in California, Washington State, New Jersey, and New York, and won important compromises. These are the Big Boys -- and make no mistake, they'll be out in force to defeat any legislation that increases worker's access to job flexibility, guarantees paid time off for health and family emergencies, or prohibits workplace discrimination against people with caregiving responsibilities. Forget about all that "family values" talk. Where the rubber meets the road, these folks don't give a damn about you or your family.

Which is why it's so refreshing to read Ellen Bravo's Taking On The Big Boys: Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation (Feminist Press, 2007). Bravo, a former director of 9to5, has a long track record of fighting for women's workplace rights and has no reservations about exposing and criticizing the tactics of heavyweights who profit from the status quo. On the subject of pay inequality, for example, Bravo writes: "The reason women earn so little money is -- their employers pay them so little money. Why do their employers pay them so little? Because they can, and because they think they have to in order to compete."

Taking On The Big Boys is more than rant against the power elite of the employer lobby, however. It's also a compassionate argument for feminism as a positive force for social transformation, and a practical guide to working for change. The Big Boys, Bravo explains, "have a huge stake in making us think the status quo is inevitable, immutable. They minimize both the need for and the existence of opposition, characterizing people as satisfied or apathetic…But more typical are people who simply feel disheartened, disempowered, disenfranchised, overwhelmed -- or afraid. What they lack isn't a belief in the need for change, but a sense of how to accomplish it."

The MMO recently interviewed Ellen Bravo about her new book and how to change the workplace.

MMO: According to the "Big Boys," the only barriers to women's full equality are the ones we create ourselves. Who are the Big Boys, and what are their favored strategies for protecting the status quo?

Ellen Bravo: The Big Boys are what I call the powers-that-be -- those who control wealth and power in our country, and their spokespeople. They profit from our labor, set the conditions under which we work, create or greatly influence public policy. In addition to running the show, the Big Boys also control its description. By their reckoning, the status quo isn't a particular system that serves their interest. It's inevitable and beneficial to all. Because they're in charge, they get to tell the story of what's happening in the world -- what's working, what the problems are, what solutions are needed. Anyone can put forward opposing views. But the Big Boys' version is the one we hear most often.

I came up with this shorthand to describe how the Big Boys operate. They:

Minimize -- what problem? ("Women have it made.")

Trivialize -- that's a problem? ("Feminism means ugly women will sue to get a man.")

Patronize -- you don't understand the needs of business. ("You think you can socially engineer behavior.")

Demonize -- you're the problem ("Women shouldn't have kids if they can't afford to raise them.")

Catastrophize -- your solution will cause greater problems for the very ones you want to help ("These laws you want to pass will lead to discrimination against women. You'll drive business out and cause people to lose their jobs.")

Compartmentalize -- if you get what you want, it will hurt some other group ("Why should non-parents bear the burden of mothers taking off to deal with their kids?")

In general, the Big Boys deny there is a problem -- and if there is, they blame it on women's deficiencies or choices. The only thing they say we need to change is ourselves. This conveniently takes the heat off the root of the problem.

MMO: The Big Boys and their minions argue that women workers are paid less and are underrepresented in higher status jobs because they make different choices about work and family than men do. Although research findings repeatedly challenge that worldview, this particular narrative seems to be practically unkillable. For budding grass-roots activists, what are the most important steps we can take to dispel the myth that women's inequality is self-selected?

Ellen Bravo: We need to shine a light on the real problems -- the lack of options that exist for women and men to be whole people who can integrate work and personal lives, not to mention the fact that the lowest-paid jobs are the LEAST flexible. Even those who aren't parents have parents or partners or other loved ones and interests beyond work, and need time and flexibility. Steps include the many ways women activists are creating their own media and trying to utilize mainstream media -- writing op eds and letters telling the truth of their own lives, and creating newsworthy events that get covered. The most effective way to do that is to build grassroots organizations with activities that are accessible even to those with little time and no money.

MMO: You explain why it's not enough to "raise the floor" and "shatter the glass ceiling" -- we need to change the way we organize and think about work in the United States, to "redesign the building from the ground up." What will that look like, and where do we begin?

Ellen Bravo: The good news is that we know what the redesigned building looks like because all or parts of it exist already, in individual companies in this country and entire countries in much of the rest of the world. For parents, it means being able to share up to a year of paid leave and returning to work at reduced hours with no penalty in pay rates or benefits or advancement opportunities. After that year, the child can go to quality child care starting at 10 hours a week or so and gradually increasing but always within a reasonable amount -- the access to trained (and well-compensated) personnel and good social interaction would be a draw, especially combined with lots of time with parents at home. A full-time work week would be no more than 35 hours, and parents could arrange their hours to avoid rushed mornings or child care or school squeezes at the end of the day.

The costs for all these reforms (including universal health care) have been estimated at 1.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. That's a mere fifth of what the government is now spending on corporate handouts. We can easily afford it if we can create the political will.

Where to begin? By working as part of a network of diverse state coalitions for new minimum standards like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.

MMO: As you note in your book, the stereotypical feminist is bitter, humorless, and believes that "all men are pigs," "all women are saints," and "women who stay home with kids are wasting their lives." Even some organizers in the mothers' movement are reluctant to define their agenda as "feminist" due to concerns about alienating potential supporters. You describe your own work as based in "social justice feminism." What are the principles of social justice feminism, and why does feminism matter to the future of the mothers' movement?

Ellen Bravo: My definition of feminism is fully valuing women and work associated with women in order to help all people reach their potential. The Big Boys have profoundly devalued caregiving work both in the home and in the marketplace. While claiming to cherish motherhood, the Big Boys reveal their disdain for what mothers do when they declare that women on welfare "don't work" and when they pay poverty wages to child care workers, home health care workers and others who do caregiving work as paid employment. Feminism exposes this -- and also provides the framework to expect men to share this work, putting relationships on an equal footing and enriching men's lives by enabling them to share in the care of children and others. In the book I tell the story of a kid whose father says, "I really miss your ball games when I'm out of town, and I know you and Mommy miss me a lot, too." The boy replies, "I do, Daddy, but I miss you most when you're home."

Social justice feminism ensures that our scope includes all women. It takes into account women's different experiences depending on class, race and sexual orientation. We know we can't end domination by the Big Boys in one area if we allow it to continue in another. Social justice feminism centers on those who are most affected by injustice not out of guilt or pity, but from a recognition of power -- only in this way can we reach systemic solutions that guarantee meaningful change for all. For example, creating a new minimum standard of paid sick days will most help low-wage workers who now have none – having a sick child can mean not only losing a day's pay, but losing your job. But the process of winning this standard also helps expose the problem and challenge the corporate culture that makes women (and men) with paid sick days feel they'd better not use them.

MMO: Many mothers I've spoken with support transforming the workplace to help women reconcile paid work and caregiving (such as creating rewarding career tracks with more "off ramps" and "on ramps"). But a fair number are hesitant to advocate for legislative reforms (like paid sick days and parental leave). Mothers with professional training often want to see more market-driven solutions -- campaigns encouraging employers to adopt family-friendly practices because it's good for the bottom line, for example. This low-pressure approach certainly seems fair to employers -- but can it really work for women and families?

Ellen Bravo: We know that the changes we want aren't a favor for women, but a better way of doing business. My book has lots of examples of this. Smart employers know this, and we want to spread the word about their practices. But waiting for the Big Boys to make these changes on their own is like expecting two-year-olds to tell us when they need a time out. We have to build our capacity to make change from the bottom up.

MMO: You observe that "many people would like to do something about the problems that concern them, but don't know where to start." That's my impression as well -- mothers want change, but can't fathom adding a commitment to social activism to their overloaded "to do" list. There are structural barriers to individual activism as well -- for example, legislators often complain that women aren't showing up to support woman- and family-friendly legislation, but it's difficult for most mothers to attend committee hearings held during work hours or when child care is an issue (or if you're not connected to a network of activists who send out alerts when an important hearing date is coming up). In addition to participating in one-click activism through virtual organizations like MomsRising, what are other ways overscheduled mothers can start making change by starting small?

Ellen Bravo: Here are some of the possibilities I mention in the book: Share information about bills and candidates with friends, relatives and neighbors; contact elected officials and your local media to say what various initiatives would mean concretely to you and your family; if you can't attend a public hearing, make a poster with photos and a statement for someone else to bring; vote, and help educate and turn out others; support progressive candidates with activities you can do at home (like mailings or holding a house party); help prepare the next generation in the ways you play, share chores, deal with hurtful remarks, talk about future careers; be an informed consumer -- if a local store is targeted for not having sick days, for instance, let the owners know why you won't be shopping there until they change their practice. Above all, join organizations to magnify your voice.

MMO: Historically, effective cross-class organizing has been a challenge for the mainstream women's movement -- and within the new mothers' movement, there is a conspicuous divide between the goals of organizations targeting highly-educated, professional-class mothers who want more and better options for combining careers and family responsibilities, and groups organized by lower-income mothers who are agitating for basic workplace and education rights as well as public policies that recognize the value of their caring work. Is it possible to bring these groups together to work for change -- and if so, how can professional-class mothers' advocates start building strategic and supportive alliances with middle- and lower-income mothers?

Ellen Bravo: The best way to build alliances is by recognizing common interests and by having those with more opportunities take a stand with those who have fewer. For example, in New York a group called Domestic Workers United is organizing for basic rights. Contacting them to find the most effective ways to support their campaign is a concrete way to build bridges. Many state coalitions working to change public policies are vehicles where diverse groups come together.

mmo : august 2007

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online.
The print version of this article does not contain links to additional reading & resources included in the original.
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