‘Women and Economics’ Sparks Debate

Amy Hirsch

“Women’s Survival Strategies in Hard Economic Times” was the subject of the 11th Annual Women’s History Month lecture series presented to an enthusiastic audience at noon on March 26 in Kreider Hall.

Lively discussion among members of the audience indicated a great deal of interest in this topic, particularly in relation to the effects of the current economic crisis.

The presentation, part of the humanities/social science lecture series, was moderated by Lisa Lubow of the Social Science department.
The speakers – Hazel Ramos (history department), Francine Rohrbacher (English department), and Fabiola Torres (ethnic studies) – gave individual presentations followed by an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience.

The talk was intended to focus on the challenge: “The current economic crisis means lowered expectations, fear of joblessness, concerns that basic needs including health care will be unmet. What are the pressures and challenges that a potential economic depression put on women? Are women particularly vulnerable in a worsening economy?”

Ramos began with a historical perspective focusing on the situation of women in the US during the 1930s Depression.

She observed that during the 1920s, women had made steady gains in the workplace although the route was difficult, similar “to climbing Mount Everest while having to negotiate deep crevasses.”

With the onset of economic depression in the 1930s, the social forces affecting class and gender brought the expectation that women should be home with the family, while men should be treated as the primary breadwinner and given priority to remain working.

Single women and women of color (still under a system of segregation) were particularly burdened during this period since government programs did not offer the same support given to men and white women with families. Eleanor Roosevelt worked hard to remedy such inequalities, but was only able to achieve modest success.

Ramos illustrated her talk with historic photos showing people in breadlines. She presented the famous photo taken by Dorothea Lange showing the prematurely wrinkled and worried face of a 32-year-old female sharecropper.

In conclusion, Ramos observed that although women continue to be vulnerable in times of economic downturn, nevertheless “there is hope. We have made a lot of gains.”

Rohrbacher followed by indicating that her perspective would be less optimistic. She stated “we now know that many people suffer economic hardship even when the economy is doing well.”

Rohrbacher stated that she would take a more global perspective by discussing issues presented in several works, examining how women are more vulnerable in times of economic hardship.

She referred to “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, which she called “a firsthand study on the question ‘is it possible to survive in the United States on living wage, not minimum wage’, – you can be pretty sure that her answer is ‘not really.'”

The second work discussed, “Daughters of Juarez” by Teresa Rodriguez, describes what is happening even today in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico just over the border from El Paso, Texas “where young women who work in American-owned factories are disappearing. their bodies are being found mutilated, tortured and sexually abused,” said Rohrbacher.

In the third text mentioned by Rohrbacher, an essay “Life on the Global Assembly Line” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Annette Fuentes, the authors “look at women factory workers overseas and how their jobs affect their lives simply because they are women.”

Rohrbacher went on to discuss several factors causing women to work in low-paying jobs, whether in the US or overseas, making them especially vulnerable.

Women with low-paying jobs “may often have to live in a place that is unsafe. where they are more vulnerable to being preyed upon.”

Another issue is the distance from work to home.

“Most likely you are taking a bus.working early or late hours.walking to a bus stop. many of the young girls working in the factories of Ciudad Juarez were abducted going to and from work,” said Rohrbacher.

Rohrbacher noted that “many women are the primary caretakers of their children. childcare is expensive. if you are late or don’t show up to work, you don’t get paid.. Staying home with a sick child can make the difference with being able to buy groceries or pay the rent. or the worker may be replaced.”

Rohrbacher concluded her discussion of women needing to work in such difficult circumstances by quoting Gloria Steinem, “women work because we have to.”

Torres then presented a more personal perspective, showing a video of her mother as an example of a woman dealing successfully with economic challenges.

She recalled as a child, “We had the luxury of my mother staying home.mothers were the ones who kept the family together.”

Torres noted that the tough economic times in which she grew up had made her mother “an extremely creative and resourceful woman.she was an environmentalist before this became popular.she used to save everything.and use it. A peanut butter jar would turn into a storage container” – as a result the family budget was stretched sufficiently to cover the necessities.

Although her mother had little formal schooling, Torres as well as her brother and sister were enabled to achieve a college education.

At the conclusion of the presentations, members of the audience had an opportunity to ask questions and contribute further to the discussion. Judging from the level of audience participation during the limited time remaining, the topic was felt to be of unusual interest for those present.