Today marks the end of Women’s History Month and I spent these last couple of weeks at colleges across the country talking about feminism, racial justice and media. From Michigan to Florida to Minnesota, I heard students debate what activism looks like for their generation while fielding their questions about immigration and hearing their fears that when graduation comes they might not find a job.
The conversation that stayed with me though took place in Michigan, a state where the economy has imploded spectacularly.
A student at Eastern Michigan University, Laura Hoehner, 24, works part-time counseling women who are getting beat up by their boyfriends or husbands. Sometimes the violence is physical; always it’s emotional and psychological. Increasingly, she says, it’s economic.
"He has the job; she doesn’t. She has to ask for an allowance," says Laura. "He gives her X amount for groceries. He’s the dad in the picture."
She points to one of her clients as an example. The woman had given birth to the couple’s first child and her partner’s family gave him $300 to help with groceries. But her partner, who received the cash, lied and said it was only $100, only enough to buy milk, eggs, juice and a Swifter mop. The new mom was left to dip into what money she had to provide groceries for the family of three. Money had become one more weapon for the abuser.
Advocates call it "economic abuse" and it’s part of the rise in domestic violence that they report happening nationwide in this recession. The last data available on the issue is a 2004 report by the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the Department of Justice, which found that when unemployment rates go up among men so does violence against women. This is of particular significance for Black and Latino communities where unemployment rates are in the double digits.
Stats on domestic violence though aren’t released every month along with unemployment data. As such, we’re trained to place the major issues of the day into their little silos: Women’s rights over here. Job issues over there. Health care to the left and the war in Afghanistan to the right.
But the stories Laura shared with me suggest that if we don’t pay attention to the so-called women’s issues then our chances at a real economic recovery are nil because creating more Dunkin Donuts-type jobs isn’t going to save women (or anyone else for that matter).
Last month, for example, our ColorLines video team released a half hour TV show on race and the economy. In it, Tisha, a single Black mom in Connecticut, spoke about reaching a point where she had to go back to her child’s father, an abusive partner. In one of the show’s most poignant moments, she said she felt she had no other option because she knew he could help pay the bills.
Low-wage jobs–in the absence of access to higher education, child care and a political education–simply keeps women vulnerable.
In Michigan, one of Laura’s clients left her abuser and moved in with a sister. Now that her sister’s losing her house in a foreclosure, the young woman is trying to decide if she should go back to the abusive ex or move to a shelter.
And then there’s the safety plan.
Safety plans are what advocates create with women in domestic violence situations. The idea is to have a plan in place for when a woman is ready to leave. This can mean putting an extra set of keys, copies of birth certificates and clothes in a safe spot like the trunk of the car. Ideally of course it means putting aside any little bit of money, a task that’s hard with low-wage jobs and impossible when those jobs disappear.
These problems won’t go away because Walmart or Starbucks start opening more stores and hiring more people. As Siobhan Brooks wrote in a ColorLines essay years ago, when she took part in union negotiations she realized she had never thought of making demands on any system. It was a classic moment of the feminist personal is political ethos, of realizing that what a person can fight for at work is closely tied to what they believe they can have in their personal lives.
And men need this just as much.
The year my own father started working as a janitor after almost two decades in manufacturing as a union member, he seemed to come undone in new ways, snapping at me when I just asked about his work. I don’t think it was that cleaning other people’s dirty plates alone hurt his self-esteem, although clearly it did, but it was also that there was no collective work, no union, no organizing, no sense that he could do anything about what was happening.
In the end, economic problems, as well as domestic violence, are expansive and complex. If our solutions are going to last–and if we really want to honor the histories of the women who’ve come before–then we need to step outside the silos and start thinking about these problems in ways that are much more intricate.