Cloaking Gender: Women, Wal-Mart and the Supreme Court

28 Jun

For those who believe that feminism is no longer relevant, we’ve got some news for you.  The US Supreme Court recently struck down a potential class action lawsuit pursued by nearly 1.6 million female employees and former employees of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation by revenue. They stated that the women “did not have enough in common” to pursue their class action.

Institutional or systematic oppression normalises oppressive attitudes and behaviours, making them invisible. It’s true that things have changed somewhat since the overtly sexist 1950s: women are now (gasp!) “allowed” to work and study outside the home, can access contraceptives and abortion so we are not continually pregnant, and a few individual women have attained high-ranking positions in sports, entertainment, commerce and government.  But women are still the primary caretakers of children and the elderly, more likely to be single parents, more likely to work in low-paying service industry jobs, be overlooked for promotions, and be paid less than men for the same work, all of which are compounded by issues of racial discrimination and working-class oppression. The invisibilising of these conditions that takes place is perpetuated by Wal-Mart and other institutions of the same ilk. In fact, these are precisely the reasons why the female workers attempted to challenge the company in the first place.

That the Supreme Court is citing Wal-Mart’s size and scope as an inhibitor of bias and ignoring the fact that the 1.6 million claimants have femaleness in common effectively places a cloak of invisibility around gender, a factor that plays a vital role in the opportunities afforded to people in social settings, especially the workplace.  It is only due to the select advancements noted above that now, in 2011, the Court are able to say, essentially, “We don’t see gender!” These are the same advancements that have convinced many men – and some women – that the fight for women’s rights is a thing of the past; thus, the Gaga-esque desire to reject feminism and the charge to leave it by the wayside as outmoded and obsolete. Yet with this decision, the Court has used language (a most powerful weapon), to normalise the “erasure” of femaleness when it comes to issues of mass gender-based discrimination.

For the sake of argument, let us also consider the most visible, and least likely to become invisible, topic relating to the interference of the US Supreme Court into the lives of women –that of abortion.  If it is, as they believe, within the realm of the courts to regulate what a woman does with her pregnant body, then it follows that there is an unspecified social commonality –i.e., gender—joining women together in such a way that legal boundaries can be placed upon their actions once they reach a certain stage of pregnancy.  However, pregnancy is a very diverse state of being; it is not tied to any particular social class, religious, cultural, ethnic, or educational background. The only static commonality is a biologically female body, which the Supreme Court in this case seems to think is enough to justify particular legal restrictions.  

There is no doubt that 1.6 million female Wal-mart workers have more in common than the millions of pregnant women across the United States. We can start with the rural, poor, working class, and/or immigrant backgrounds leading them to seek work at such a company, with its reputation for pushing down local wages and grossly exploiting its employees.  We can end with the actual experiences of sexist discrimination that they compiled into a lawsuit against the world’s biggest multinational, experiences that prompted female justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kaden and male justice Breyer to comment on the gender bias that, in their words, “suffused” company culture.  And if the Court sees enough commonality among all pregnant women to dictate the legality of their abortions, it is simply ridiculous that the gender and working conditions of the female Wal-Mart claimaints are considered “not enough in common” to constitute a legal class.

Not only does this dismissal underscore the Supreme Court’s bias in favour of business, but it also sets a dangerous precedent for the future of class action against mass discrimination. It is imperative that we highlight contradictions like these in order to remove the cloak of invisibility around all types of  oppression, including the continued oppression of women which, in the light of this case, is glaringly apparent.

2 Responses to “Cloaking Gender: Women, Wal-Mart and the Supreme Court”

  1. Andy June 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    A great exposition of what structural oppression involves. When I used to teach feminism to first-years at Nottingham (back before they took it off the syllabus), the first reaction of (white, upper/middle-class) women students was that feminism is no longer relevant because of the victories since the 1950s. But the moment the men opened their mouths, they mysteriously changed their minds, having discovered that misogynist attitudes and practices were certainly *not* left behind by everyone.

    • sistaresista July 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

      Thanks, Andy. Glad you liked the article. What a shame that the uni no longer holds feminism courses for 1st years. But you’re still teaching Feminism all over the interwebz :)

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