A Message to Clinton: Time to Lean In for Working Class Women

05/11/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Hillary Clinton has long identified as a champion of women's rights. Lately, on the domestic scene, Clinton has pushed women's economic justice to the front of her campaign agenda. As a presidential hopeful, Clinton has a chance to do more than portray her campaign as the pinnacle of a successful working woman's career. She has an opportunity to create a message broad and inclusive enough to resonate with working class women which would not only build her base, but harness the political potential of courageous and politically mobilized women in invisible and low-wage sectors of the economy. These women have been cultivating a powerful movement that positions gender equality in a larger framework of intersecting class, race and social inequalities.

A lot has changed since 2008 with respect to the discussion around women's economic advancement. Tech heroes like Sheryl Sandberg and policy gurus like Anne Marie Slaughter had led the way for women to have it all by leaning in and being bossy, sharing housework and practicing half a dozen other buzzy mantras which have stoked the public imagination around what is possible for working women. But all of this conceptual progress rests on a flimsy foundation, given that it ignores the millions of American women who desperately need a higher minimum wage, who work in exploitative and dangerous workplaces and who will never enjoy the basic economic security required to contemplate the possibility of having more than just enough to survive.

While populists like Elizabeth Warren and socialists like Bernie Sanders have taken the 1 percent to task, women's economic justice issues have for the most part been articulated by members of that very class. Even more, they have been cloaked in aspirational self-help terms that, while meant to help, permit entrenched social inequalities to thrive. Americans are obsessed with tropes of exceptionalism, and the Sandbergs and Slaughters of the contemporary feminist movement cleanly fit the bill. It's time to elevate the voices of working class women who have bravely taken their employers, industries and elected representatives to task for maintaining a status quo that is not just unfair, but responsible for a labor standards floor so low that Americans' collective understanding of decent employment has become woefully stunted.

This election cycle, candidates have an unprecedented opportunity address women's economic justice as a live campaign issue. Living wages, equal pay for equal work, paid time off, subsidized childcare and employment accommodations for pregnant and nursing women are no longer politically untenable talking points. Candidates need to be ready for them. Not only have these questions made it into the public discourse, but they have actually made it to the offices of legislators, and in rare cases, onto the floor of Congress. Many states have passed bills to address federal stagnation around women's economic justice issues. The cries for equality have become too loud to ignore. With the energy of the electorate behind her, Clinton must capitalize on this moment to lift these issues up and frame women's equality as intrinsically tied to broader issues of inequality plaguing progress for the American working class.

It would be easy to isolate issues like government subsidized childcare to a sanitized image of a corporate mom kicking off her heels to play with her kids, or focus on pay inequality between male and female celebrities in Hollywood. But the meat of these issues, the very essence of them, is buried miles deeper in the underground economy. In ignoring how class and race inequalities intersect with sex inequality, Clinton would miss an opportunity to sell the truly far reaching benefits of gender parity reforms.

Without acknowledging the invisible labor of domestic workers which permits women to work outside the home, the full range of economic benefits of subsidized childcare, elder care and paid family medical leave remain unspoken. Subsidizing domestic work not only would benefit women who pay for it but also women who provide it -- lifting them out of poverty level wages and into the formal economy. Paid family leave would also allow workers to take time off work when their family members are sick, creating more reliable schedules for all working families, including those whose breadwinners are paid caregivers.

Similarly, equal pay for equal work is a pressing gender equality issue. But politicians and pundits miss some of the underlying reasons why low wage earners aren't pushing harder for wage equality: namely, that individually advocating for wage equality is not a safe or viable option. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a whopping 90 percent of restaurant workers have reported sexual harassment on the job, while organizing efforts by Wal-Mart workers have been crushed through unlawful retaliation. With so many silenced voices, it's no wonder that the fight for equal pay is not gaining traction in low-wage workplaces. It doesn't mean however, that working class women don't care deeply about these issues. While Clinton has started to take up the issue of the gender pay gap, she will capture a broader swathe of the electorate if she addresses the underlying abuses that have enabled wage inequality to persist.

And while women across the economic spectrum have struggled to juggle pregnancy, childbirth, and steady employment, it took a UPS truck driver -- Peggy Young -- to fight for basic workplace accommodations to keep pregnant workers safe and employed. Young's request -- a heavy lifting restriction while pregnant so she could make money to support her family -- cost her her job. Her story not only exposed a gaping hole in pregnancy discrimination law, but also revealed how gender inequality in the workplace threatens the basic economic survival of American families, even in the face of normal life events like childbearing.

Working class women have been leaning in for all of us. Domestic workers across the country are lobbying for inclusion under basic labor laws. Restaurant workers are fighting against sexual harassment that is rampant in the industry. Fast food workers are making the case for a living wage. A lone delivery truck driver took the case for pregnancy accommodations all the way to the Supreme Court. Women's economic equality rests on these women's shoulders -- without safe and dignified working conditions at the lowest rungs of the economy, efforts to truly eradicate gender inequality in the American workplace are destined for failure. And yet, the political work of these working women has not received the attention it deserves. As they stand in the way of an endless race to the bottom by unscrupulous economic actors, our presidential nominee needs to stand with them.

As part of her economic justice agenda, will Clinton lean in for working class women? Will she amplify the voices of the low-income, predominantly women of color who have been left voiceless in debates about work/life balance, pay equity and breaking the glass ceiling? And more importantly, will these mighty women lend their growing political capital to Clinton's campaign? If they do, it will be part of a larger effort predating this election to break barriers in our economy for all women, from the bottom up.