by Rami Kumar, Assistant Professor, Communications Dept, Central CT State University, member Talking Capitalism Collective
Lately I have been thinking a lot about health. Women’s health in particular. Given the recent political climate, we have read and heard many discussions batted around about women’s rights and religious freedoms among others. However, what has been increasingly missing in such a discussion is the role that our economic system can play in such crucial, private and vulnerable decision-making.
While it is easy to attack the notion of patriarchy as misogynistic and oppressive of women’s rights, ambitions and concerns, we need to further analyze closely the combination of patriarchy and capitalism. Since the industrial revolution there was an even more distinct demarcation of the labor in factories and labor at home. Since labor on the factory floor was paid for, it was recognized as formal labor, while the informal labor of the home resulted (results) in a vicious cycle where it was unpaid and thus unrecognized, but was needed to be kept in place to enable male participation in the formal workforce. While such traditional classifications are slowly being blurred, this has sunk women into the unenviable position of continuing to work in lower paid, more insecure forms of employment as they continue to be primary caregivers in the home. Women work around their spouses’ schedules and do so by engaging in piecemeal labor, or informal labor.
Such lack of participation in the formal labor force, which in the United States is expressly tied into the much-coveted benefits, leaves women’s health vulnerable to both economic dependence on their spouses and the marketplace. Here capitalism and the welfare state (often a negative word association) can either serve as stalwarts of women’s health or as oppressors. In the traditional corporation, whether it be McDonald’s or Walmart, stories abound of permanently part-time employed labor, often women working unusual hours around their spouses’ schedules, hovering painfully close to the full-time mark of 40 hours, denying them any substantive benefits. So while continuing to be employed in the capitalistic system, generating profit for large corporations, women continue to somehow still be either dependent on another individual for formal health benefits, or forgo them altogether.
Further, traditionally the realm of government intervention in many countries across the globe, health benefits for women specifically are either not discussed as being within the private realm of capital-labor relations, or in the current climate, are further decimated by governmental structures, unless protected by the capitalist structure. For example, currently the debate surrounding the provision of contraception to female employees can play out for a woman in the workplace in the following ways.
1. When working in a part-time job, a female employee can choose to purchase contraception out-of-pocket. (Another thread for discussion here is the cost of said contraception in the United States as a result of the free market policy towards medication manufacturing and FDA approvals) OR she may forgo such methods as a personal choice or due to an inability to pay.
2. If working for an employer who refuses such provision on religious grounds, she may again be forced into one of the options above, or continue to exercise her personal choice to not avail of such medications.
3. If working a full-time job with benefits (keep in mind this covers the gamut from being a warehouse manager for Amazon to being the Chief Financial Officer for a technology company like Facebook), most often she can avail of such medical benefits without dependence on another individual. Here the dilemma and opportunity presents itself to capitalist organizations of how to utilize their power over labor. This is the moment of reckoning for many corporations, since they often become the last bastion for women’s health rights against an onslaught either due to government intervention, or due to their own proclivity to a patriarchal structure traditionally in place.
In such defining moments, where women’s rights, women’s health, cultural structures, and the uber-rise of large capitalist pseudo-governmental bodies such as Google, Apple and Amazon are the realities of our lived existence, how do we as a society mold the amalgam of capitalism and critical inquiry? Do organizations which hold sway over our lives, serve as examples of the protection of its labor/citizenry, or do such organizations cloak their desire for higher profits under the blanket of governmental regulation? One thing is clear - whichever path these organizations and mega-structures choose, can fundamentally shape American capitalism as a desirable ally for women’s rights, or as a newly-fangled behemoth operating under patriarchal norms traditionally oppressive of women’s rights.