Fresh, Feminist Voices are Exactly What Our Nation Needs Right Now

Paul Ryan’s advice to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on navigating Capitol Hill was to lay low and avoid ruffling any feathers. Thankfully, she didn’t listen to a thing he said—and neither did Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of many of AOC’s freshman colleagues in the most distinctly diverse and female Congress in American history.

Instead, they’ve scorched their own brilliant paths forward by doing the exact opposite: AOC has become a driving force, in just a matter of months in office, behind the Green New Deal; Omar stirred controversy, most recently, for speaking up against anti-Muslim sentiment in politics.

Both women are forcing much needed national conversations on complex issues never before thought possible—and whether you agree with their politics or not, it’s remarkable to see how they’ve fought to make their voices and perspectives matter and electrified and motivated a base of support which cannot be ignored.

“Clipped Wings,” a report on the millennial wealth gap for women, showcases just how important their voices are.

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The findings highlight the ways in which our economic and social policies are based on racist and sexist ideologies and practices—and calls attention to our dire need to update them. The research shows us that challenging the status quo and taking a different approach is exactly what we need right now to ensure a better future for millennial women and their families.

Millennial women are facing an entirely different set of circumstances than the generations before them—and they’re 37 percent more likely than women in Generation X to be living below the federal poverty line.

Predominant norms and policies still do not account for the impact of the diversity, the remarkable increase in women serving as the primary or co-breadwinners for their families or the rise in educational attainment of this generation of women. Despite important gains in higher education rates and career opportunities, the median wealth holdings of single millennial men is still 162 percent greater than single millennial women; along lines of race, the numbers only get worse, with single white millennial men possessing close to six times more wealth than single millennial Black women.

Nearly 40 million women, 44 percent of whom are women of color, are millennials. (That’s 31.5 percent of the female population in the U.S.) These women—who  came of age during the Great Recession, the push for mass incarceration, unprecedented student debt levels and changing workforce and family dynamics—are tired of living in a world with rules and cultural practices that were built to meet the needs of white men.

This is why AOC and Omar take a different approach to politics. They recognize that persistent barriers to economic security have lead to pervasive gender and racial inequality. Reversing this tide will require changing the rules of our economy, and the only way to ensure such change is to put policy interventions into place that take the actual lived experiences of the millennial generation into account.

Increasing access to affordable, quality child care and comprehensive paid leave would make a real difference for millennial women, particularly Black and Latinx Millennial women who continue to be overrepresented in low-paying jobs.

Millennial families struggle to find ways to pay for child care and make up for income lost during maternity leave, and their families look different than those of the generation before them. In 2017, close to 60 percent of millennial women who gave birth were single. Child care is an issue for both coupled and single mothers—but with only one income to draw from, single millennial mothers find themselves facing untenable choices between paying bills, putting food on the table or paying for child care.

The U.S is one of the only countries in the world that does not mandate paid leave for new parents and/or those caring for family members, in part because policymakers have insisted on adhering to the age-old mentality of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” rather than embracing the notion that people deserve support from their employers and government to take care of their families. This type of harmful narrative, perpetuated by the “old guard,” is getting in the way of our collective prosperity.

We as a nation will not survive if we continue to pass (or not pass) policies based on tired, antiquated thinking—and that’s why we need women like AOC and Rep. Omar to ruffle feathers, rabble-rouse and continue causing good trouble.

The data in “Clipped Wings” shows that the patriarchy is keeping economic security out-of-reach for millennial women—but we have the power to change this trajectory. It requires sitting with some hard truths, getting uncomfortable and moving forward in a totally different way.

The new feminists in town get it. Now it’s time for the rest of us to get on board.

About

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland. You can follow her on Twitter @Jhumpa_b.