Category Archives: Women

Dejobbing society

99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation

Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town. Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.

Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent… Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

I don’t know why the NY Times keeps finding women of a certain age to talk to. Maybe it’s because these women are truly desperate and agree to talk, and men won’t. But over and over, the profile is the same: fiftysomething, single/divorced, usually with more than two kids, in debt because of mortgages, vacations, new cars or pricey graduate degrees. They’re intelligent, well-educated, and have plenty of job experience, but no one wants to hire them.

I don’t know what to say, because chances are these women are never getting anything resembling their old jobs back. In fact, employers find them attractive layoff prospects even in good economic times. The closer she gets to the age she can take early retirement, the more apt the company is to dump her. And companies also don’t want to pay out the health benefits, so it’s easy to cut off the aging woman who hasn’t got young kids to raise any more. Is it a female thing? Maybe not, but women also tend to network less in the workplace and carry more of the water, which may get some of them to a certain point on the corporate ladder, but might not serve them well enough when cutting time comes.

What is troubling to me is how many women don’t get this picture. It’s scary how many nonmarried (single/divorced) women lose sight of how expendable they are in the eyes of society, though, and enter their last real earning decades amassing more debt than they should. I won’t comment on the mortgages and Caribbean vacations, but the bright shining lie of “more education” in the form of expensive post-baccalaureate degrees is something that needs to be shattered. The woman in this story now has $92,000 of non-dischargeable educational debt. She’s very probably never going to be able to pay that back.

There might be a serious lesson for the younger single (nonmarried) woman here: These are effectively your best earning years. Don’t squander them. Don’t waste your money on things that will have no long-term return. Strengthen your finances and especially whatever personal relationships you have. Prepare for what you know is coming. Always know what time it is. This is Logan’s Run, and forget your biological clock — that flashing crystal on your palm has to do with money.

Modern feminism ought to be speaking to this. I don’t pretend to know what happened, but in the beginning, feminism was about making it easier for women to make choices – not to “have it all,” which is what the message is today. Early feminism sought to liberate single women from servitude not of their own choosing. It sought to give single women the tools and confidence to live with dignity and self-reliance, if they so chose. It was about living smart as a single woman, not about living large. Early feminism also had much to say to the married woman. This is why the institution of American feminism is so beautifully represented by the statue in Seneca Falls, of the married Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the single Susan B. Anthony first meeting in friendship.

So what happened? It’s sad to see how alone these older women are in these anecdotal news stories. Many times, their children are not helping them. It isn’t too late for women of a certain age to make a better future for themselves, but it’s going to involve turning away from a society that has pretty much shown its true colors in a time of stress, and has rejected them. In the Middle Ages, widows had the same problems, and in some parts of Europe they banded together and formed lay communities. Some of these communities became surprisingly big “players” in the wider community, much to the consternation of the Church. In American life today, this is a missing institution (as is traditional feminism).

Has the institution of higher education grown too large and usurped other institutions in importance (real or perceived)? I’m inclined to say yes. It’s not that there is anything wrong about higher education. But American higher education now purports to be all things to all people — the Great White Hope that, morally and practically, stands all alone against our corrupt financial institutions and a democratic system that is largely pay-to-play now. It doesn’t pass on knowledge, quite so much as it dispenses “educational treatments,” as Ivan Illich pointed out in his radical book Deschooling Society – inoculations of frankly questionable value, rather than necessary healing; an obligatory sheep-dip through which all the wayward flock must be herded. (“Take this shot of Education, or you will surely wind up in an economic hell from which there is no escape. Dominus vobiscum, suos cultores scientia coronat, oolee oolee oo.“)

When you put all your eggs in one basket, and all your trust into one social institution, that’s a recipe for disaster. Our society isn’t there yet, but with the decline and stress on so many other institutions — K-12 education, religious life, labor unions, the military — it’s getting dangerously close. It certainly was a disaster for the lady in this story.

Maybe someone also should write a treatise on Dejobbing Society – since the jobs are going away for all demographics. Is it possible that in the end all our former institutions will have to be upended and alternative ones formed, or re-formed?

Upstate Girls

A powerful collection of photos of working-class women of Troy, N.Y., by photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally is very much worth viewing. I’ve posted a link to it on my newly relaunched photoblog, Illustrated. (This is a personal photo blog which I’ve now souped up with some slideshow capability via Flickr, and there are some other Syracuse-related collections by other Flickr photographers highlighted there as well, such as Carl Johnson’s massive Carl’s Old Photos collection of the Salt City of the ’70s.)

Working it out

Some weeks ago, there was a nice column by Sean Kirst in the Post-Standard about the lessons learned (and apparently forgotten) from the Great Depression. My grandmother (on my mother’s side) was in her early 20’s then.


Recently, I just happened to notice an old tablecloth that she made that’s been in the family ever since I can remember (it’s now on a table in my living room). I’m told she made it some years before she got married in 1941. It’s done in filet crochet, a style that used to be fashionable in the ’20s and ’30s. Rectangular, three feet by four. I look at it now and cannot believe the time and concentration it must have taken to complete: she used the finest gauge of thread, and you can barely see the individual loops that make up each thread of the netting. All by hand — no machines.

How long did it take? I can’t ask her now, because she passed away almost 15 years ago.

In talking of public works during the Depression, we point to all kinds of WPA projects that put people back to work — such as the fantastic stonework at New York’s state parks. But then there were the private works, that no one remembers now, unless they happen to notice the results. As an embroiderer myself, I know you go into a sort of alpha state when you are working on something. It is a great way to free one’s thoughts. I think about my grandmother and what she and her working-class family must have been going through during uncertain times, perhaps a lack of jobs or lost opportunities and a lot of time with nothing to do but worry… or work privately on something.

I don’t remember many Depression stories from her, but I know that after it and the war were over, she got a job at GE, entered the middle-class workspace, and scrimped and saved to buy a new house in Fairmount Hills — it was really her dream, not my grandfather’s — a house which is still in the family, as is the tablecloth she worked on so patiently.

I know what she was working on, but what was she thinking? I can’t ask her now.

A historic choice

(Bumped up, cause yeah, we’re still talking about her!)

No, I’m not talking about Obama, but rather McCain’s VP selection, Sarah Palin. Not someone who particularly appeals to me politically; as a woman, I don’t see her selection causing my finger to hesitate in the voting booth. However, I notice that even the Washington punditry doesn’t seem to know why she was chosen — to shore up McCain’s base in the Western states, the states that are central to Obama’s election strategy.

The political culture of Republican women, particularly in the Western states, is poorly understood by most of the liberal bloggers and pundits. For them to laugh at Palin for beginning her political career as president of the PTA, or as “mayor of a town of 9,000,” does not seem a wise move if they don’t want to offend politically active GOP or independent women in the West. Town governments and state legislatures in the West are populated, if not in some cases controlled, by hundreds of Sarah Palins — although, it has to be said that Palin is more the image of that process than the substance. Part of this has to do with a pay vacuum: legislative jobs simply don’t pay as much as real-world jobs in many of these bodies, so GOP men with press-the-flesh talents often seek more lucrative employments outside of government (not a high-value career in the Republican view anyway). This leaves women to do the less-high-paying, caretaking work of running town governments and county legislatures (while the rich GOP guys who don’t hold office make the major decisions). At one point, back in the ’80s, the low-paid Colorado legislature was mostly women.

A lot of these GOP women get into politics out of strong conservative beliefs, but it’s not what fires all of them into public life. Democratic commentators have a dim grasp of the political motivations of Republican women, assuming it’s all about Bible-thumping. I have to think that for them, Palin’s selection is an exhilarating vindication. Snarks about small-town government and school boards are only going to energize the considerable kitchen-table organizations these women have toiled to create over the last 25 years. If the Obama campaign really wants to win the West, they’d best worry about their own “PUMA’s” (Party Unity My Ass folks) and give the Palin rattlesnake a wide berth. It’s not about her… it’s the very real and specific bloc she might appeal to.

If I were Queen

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo is in a peck of trouble over infidelities committed with an Albany female, which has resulted in all kinds of tawdry e-mail-posting nastiness which I won’t bore you with (except to raise an eyebrow at how easily some Albany females can be bought with the promise of a parking spot), and an Assembly ethics investigation, which I will briefly bore you with in the form of a link. On TAP and elsewhere, the demeaning culture for women in Albany is debated again, as it was during Spitzer’s painful exit.

If I were Queen of all New York women, I would issue an immediate recall of any and all women from Albany — legislators, interns, activists (oh what the heck: all of them, including the barmaids). Not a person with a double X chromosome would be found in that town. I would direct all of my subjects to assemble forthwith at Seneca Falls, where we would have a massive closed-door meeting and straight talk session: Are too many women in Albany selling out their sisters for parking spaces? How much is the experience of women in Albany affecting the dignity and aspirations of all New York women? Is there a better way to power and influence? Are New York women getting the support they need in this endeavor?

Big questions. But if you can’t ask them in Seneca Falls, New York, birthplace of the American women’s political movement, where the hell can you ask them? If New York women can’t talk about such questions as they relate to democracy, who on earth in this country can?