Document 12: Martha Hooven and Nancy McDonald, "The Role of Capitalism: Understanding Sexual Harassment," Aegis (November/December 1978): 31-33.


   This document provides an example of the view that a system of related oppressions was at the root of sexual harassment. AASC members Martha Hooven and Nancy McDonald, who worked at the Washington, D.C., Rape Crisis Center, argued in this 1978 article in Aegis that capitalism contributed to the proliferation of sexual harassment because the conditions of work under capitalism made women vulnerable to sexual harassment. They argued, "capitalism feeds on sexism and racism." They suggested that ending sexual harassment might require abolishing capitalism.

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Alliance Against Sexual Coercion

the role of Capitalsm


by Martha Hooven and Nancy McDonald

Simply put, sexual harassment at the workplace is harassment at your job because of your sex. Understanding sexual harassment requires analyzing our position as women in society (which cannot be separated from sexism and patriarchy) and analyzing our position as workers under capitalism. Although sexual harassment at the workplace occurs under other economic systems than capitalism, this article will focus on how conditions of work under capitalism are a factor in women's vulnerability to sexual harassment.


Capitalism is an economic system characterized by: (1) private and corporate ownership of the means of production (i.e., the tools people need to make a living are owned by a company or a few individuals), (2) private, competitive production of commodities for profit; (3) a distinction between the outside workplace, where men are the primary workers and the home, where women are the primary workers. Jill Raymond states:

This rigid division between the outside world and the family creates three ways in which capitalism distinguishes the value of women's labor: 1) the value of their contribution as a part of the labor force; 2) the value of women's labor in the maintenance of the family and reproduction of the labor force; and 3) the value of women's labor in performing a maintenance function which contributes to men's labor in the workplace.


By looking at some statistics, how women fare as workers under the present economic system can be seen. The following statements describe the status of women-as-worker:

1.   More women than ever are working outside the home. In 1950, 29.6% of the paid workforce was female. In 1977, 40.5% of all paid workers were women. There are a variety of reasons for this increase: inflation and increase in female headed households are most obvious.

2.   Women's wages are substantially lower than men's. In 1955, women's average wage was 64% of men's. By 1974, women's average wage was only 57% of men's. Further, in 1974, the median income for all full-time women workers was $6,772. In the same year, the Bureau of the Census defined poverty as an annual income of $5,038 or less for a family of four. This means that the woman worker earning average wages, supporting a family of four, earned only $1,734 above the poverty level. Also, since 1967, the cost of living for the average wage earner has risen 80%, while the earnings of women workers have risen only an average of 60%. As inflation rises there is no increase in real wages. The gap between

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earnings and the growing cost of living continues to broaden.

3.   More women than men work in low status jobs.
Women are more likely than men to be white-collar workers, but the jobs they hold are usually less skilled and pay less than those of men. Women are two-fifths of all professional and technical workers, but these women are mainly teachers and health workers. Women are less likely than men to be managers and administrators, and represent only about one-fifth of these workers. However, 78% of all clerical workers are women.

About 1 out of every 7 women workers is employed in a blue collar job, while almost half the men are in such jobs. Women are almost as likely as men to be working in factories, but they are very seldom employed as skilled craft workers -- the occupational group for 1 out of 5 male workers.

More than 1 out of 5 employed women is a service worker as compared to 1 out of 11 men. Most service workers are employed in occupations other than private household work, such as maintenance and restaurant occupations.

4.   Job classifications for minority women are changing. In 1974, 4.6 million minority women were in the paid labor force. They represent 49% of all minority women in the U.S. populations, and one-eighth of all women workers. The proportion of minority women in the labor force exceeds that of white women in all age groups above 25 years. The following chart outlines the 1974 occupational structure of minority women workers.Recently, the changes in the occupational structure of minority women workers have been more marked than those of all women workers. For example, between 1960 and 1974, the proportion of minority women employed in professional and technical jobs rose from 7 - 12%. In clerical jobs, it rose from 9 to 25%. Over the same 14 year period, their proportion in private household work decreased from 35 to 11%. In terms of low level service jobs to which minority women previously had been limited, these figures are encouraging. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the majority of their positions have shifted merely from service work to clerical work. Although an improvement, clerical jobs are basically low paying and without opportunities for promotion.

5.   But minority women are still on the bottom of the heap.

Although earnings have increased for minority women workers, from an average of $2,372 in 1960 to an average of $6,611 in 1974, this is barely above the poverty level for a family of four ($5,038/year). In comparison to the 1974 average earnings for minority men workers -- $9,082 -- minority women earn
substantially less as well. In addition, the unemployment rate of minority women in 1975 was 14%, higher than the 8.6% rate of white women workers, the 7.2% rate of white men workers, and the 13.7% rate of minority men workers


The stark reality of these numbers conveys profound implications for women's work lives. Monetary livelihood, to a great extent, determines women's consciousness and self-expectations, including what women will tolerate at the workplace. Most women have little autonomy or control over working conditions. We must answer constantly to an employer and are often powerless to change work situations. Thus, women learn to put up with

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sexual harassment at their jobs because they are in very real fear of losing them.

Further, low wages, low status occupations and high unemployment among minority women workers directly reflect their perilous economic position. These factors, coupled with pervasive racist attitudes of white employers and co-workers, demonstrate the particular vulnerability of minority women in regard to sexual harassment at the workplace, in addition to other problems they face.

In designing our strategies for the elimination of sexual harassment at the workplace, we obviously must include demands for better job status and increased earnings. However, we must also analyze the relationship between these factors and the economic system of capitalism itself. Capitalism creates some of the above problems experienced by workers for two reasons: 1) all workers who sell their labor to someone else are exploited because their work creates a profit which they do not receive, and 2) capitalism creates two basic classes, workers and owners (although there are many sub-divisions of these classes). This means that there must always be someone on the bottom of the heap in order that those at the top can remain there. To get people to accept being at the bottom, i.e., workers, they must be taught that they are inferior to those at the top -- that the reason they receive less money and have less control is that they're worth less.

Sexual harassment on the job serves to keep women in their place both as women and as workers. Both men and women are threatened with loss of job, promotion or benefits, for "uppity" behavior (e.g., union organizing). But for women, "uppity" behavior also includes defending oneself against sexual insults and refusing sexual demands. Under capitalism, being a woman worker is a double liability. And for minority women, there is the additional liability of racism.

Thus, capitalism feeds quite nicely on sexism and racism. If these did not exist, some other way of defining who gets pushed to the bottom of the heap would have to be created. We need to incorporate this analysis of the effects of capitalism on women into our organizing. We must examine whether the above conditions of women are inherent to capitalism and then decide whether or not it is possible to eliminate these conditions without abolishing capitalism as well.


*All statistics for women workers have been obtained from U.S. Department of Labor (Bureau of Labor. Statistics and the Employment Standards Administration).


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