For the last five years, my professional work has been helping people get abortions. The work I do is not expressly political, in that it doesn’t involve working to impact policy 96% of the time. My job has been mostly to facilitate people getting abortions by raising money to pay for the procedure and building a base of folks who support access. Despite the fact that I don’t spend my time lobbying, though, my work is politicized. I’ve done this work for so long that there are whole days that go by when I don’t think about the political nature of the work I do for a paycheck. Then I’ll call a venue to book an event and be told that the venue “doesn’t want to be political” by allowing us to pay for their space, and I’m reminded that what I do every day is actually inescapably political.
The truth is that all work is political.
Despite being assigned female at birth and raised in a politically conservative home, it was never assumed that my sole purpose in life would be wife and mother. I would eventually one day go to work. While I hilariously identified myself as a Republican at 12, I always considered myself a feminist. As an upper-middle class white girl, I experienced some gendered microaggressions most certainly, but I grew up believing that any and all sexism one encountered in life could be defeated with a solidly assertive attitude. In the meantime, I also developed a standard neoliberal belief in how the world did and should function. If people have a lot of money, it’s because they worked hard for it. Capitalists deserve the spoils of their investments because they take the risks. Free markets, deregulation, privatization…the whole thing.
Predictably, my feminist politics and my beliefs about work converged around the idea that there needed to be more women in the board room. I graduated from college, started working, and eventually began forging an actual career path (after a bit of an alcoholic detour in my early adulthood).
And then I got a job at Websites R Us.*
I was in my late 20s and had proven my writing ability, so I was hired as lead copywriter, which meant that I not only produced content, but also managed the copy team. I worked with the account executives to ensure that members of the team were meeting deadlines, project-managed our shared projects, and offered support to the writers as needed. I was squarely middle management. I was also the “scary office feminist,” which meant that the owners of the small company paid me decently and gave me raises—an experience my coworkers by and large did not share. I’d been proven right; I could overcome the barriers of sexism (at least the material ones) with assertive (and occasionally aggressive) behavior.
All of this combined to to turn a light bulb on in my brain: the liberal feminism theory of more women in the boardroom was a lie, not liberation.
One day I’d just sat down at my desk when one of the bosses, Bob, came up to me and said, “You need to fire Joanie today. She’s 26 days late on a piece of copy.”
This was the first I’d heard of the overdue copy; none of the account executives had alerted me. Which meant that no one had taken the time to ask Joanie about it, and this meant my boss was essentially asking me to fire someone who hadn’t even gotten so much as a warning. I told him I didn’t think that was okay and pressed for permission to give her the warning and put her on an improvement plan. He agreed to that.
In the meantime, I’d become more active on Twitter. It was the summer of the Wendy Davis filibuster, and in the wake of that event I’d found so many folks on the site talking about social justice, intersectional feminism, critical race theory, white feminism, and white supremacy. I was coming into contact regularly with ideas that challenged my understanding of gender equity in the workplace and, ultimately, my understanding of work altogether. Work was political, but not in the narrow ways I’d understood the concept. I discovered the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” from bell hooks and started to understand the ways that all oppressions were laced together and inextricably linked with capitalism.
After this brief exchange with Bob, it started to dawn on me that I had made it up the ladder, but the price I had to pay was kicking other folks back down on behalf of the boss. It was the dirty work I had to do to earn my spot. I thought about the fact that my bosses couldn’t build a website themselves and were only able to even maintain the business because of the labor of copywriters, designers, and developers—people they paid a pittance and then asked me to manage against impossible metrics. All of this combined to to turn a light bulb on in my brain: the liberal feminism theory of more women in the boardroom was a lie, not liberation. This work was exploitative. I’d always thought of exploitative labor as people working for poverty wages, but the truth was that men with very few skills were gaining the majority of the profit from the fruits of my coworkers’ labor.
I, it turns out, was suddenly a socialist feminist.
If there’s one thing that’s been true for me since that day at Websites R Us, it’s that work is deeply and inescapably political. Not just non-profit jobs at agencies where workers advocate for a politicized issue, but all work done by everyone is political. My feminism was incomplete until I saw the holes in how I conceptualized work, and my politics were incomplete until recognized that capitalism can only ever put us in the position of exploited or exploiter – or both. And it acts as a regular reminder that if my politics are about liberation, then getting mine can’t be the ultimate goal, even if I experience some forms of oppression myself.
*The name of the company and all names of people have been changed.