Of the many groups rendered invisible by political stereotypes —liberal working-class men, conservative people of color, progressive Christians, and just about any instance of complexity within demographics viewed as monoliths — there is one I have long thought poised to be revolutionaries: low-income women in red states.
Public school teachers in particular — three quarters of them are women — have long held the line for democracy. While their state governments have swung right toward privatization, they have quietly forged ahead with the pragmatic work of educating children, while ideological lawmakers — three quarters of whom are men — cut their state budgets.
Today those women lead a labor uprising in places national media and Democratic politicians have erroneously written off as hopeless isles of angry conservative white men: West Virginia. Oklahoma. Kentucky.
In recent weeks, West Virginia teachers closed down every public school in all 55 state counties and won each of their five demands: stopping expansion of charter schools, preserving seniority, defeating a union-busting bill to block dues-collection from paychecks, a 5-percent raise, and blocking unfair and invasive means of calculating health-insurance costs.
Since then, a wave of red states have seen their teachers organizing to demand what their state governments have threatened or taken away: a livable wage, respect, adequate funding for delivering on their mission. Some may be surprised by those teachers’ stances in places currently represented by far-right politicians. But the fire in those women’s chants echoing through capitol domes is no surprise to this daughter of southern Kansas — where undervalued, uncompromising women in public school classrooms were my first heroes and models of principled defiance.
In fourth grade, Mrs. Coykendall said I should keep raising my hand whether future teachers called on me or not. In fifth grade, Ms. Dunn explained her breast cancer to the class before boldly removing her wig because, she said, she hated how the thing itched. In seventh grade, a blustering male administrator lectured Mrs. Strothman in front of her own classroom and stormed out. She turned to us, smiled, and rolled her eyes. Watching from my desk, I knew that someday I would roll my eyes when a male boss was condescending to me. Through their actions, these women modeled a strength that they might not have called “feminism,” but that’s for damn sure what it was.
Women like my teachers, from places misleadingly painted by cable news graphics with monochromatic strokes of red, have been “resisting” since before it was cool — if not in organized action, then by the very act of surviving under state and local governments that have remained hostile to women whether federal legislation like Title IX and Roe v. Wade passed or not.
Today, with their male allies, they are fighting back against extreme conservativism as Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. Nationally, they’re demanding higher wages through the “Fight for $15” campaign as service-industry workers and pressing for universal health care as unionized nurses. In Kansas, whose administration shifted from Democrat Kathleen Sebelius to far-right conservative Sam Brownback less than a decade ago, they are rising up as coalitions of lawmakers, first-time congressional candidates, activist groups, and underpaid public employees to push back against a government that would dismantle public health care, schools, and assistance for the children, elderly, and needy. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to decide a landmark case on dues collection by public-sector unions – a decision that could make way for union-stomping laws in states that have held them off thus far – millions more female public workers have cause to join this fight.
Women in industries overlooked by our narrow, sexist definition of “working class” are challenging this country to expand its vision of labor beyond white men with tool belts, and make good on the promises of democracy.
You wouldn’t know it from following national headlines for the last couple years, when safari reporting from the dangerous red hinterlands beget countless stories of backwards Bubba at the diner on Main Street. Those tropes have crystallized so thoroughly that blue-state liberals can’t seem to square that millions of people in Republican-governed states vote Democrat, and vice versa. CNN’s Joy Reid sarcastically tweeted during the West Virginia teachers’ strike, “If they start voting for politicians who actually support those things, look out GOP.” This simplistic take, like so many others, insulted the many West Virginians who do vote for such politicians. It’s a historically blue state, a seat of the American labor movement, and one of many working-class bastions where a socialist won the Democratic primary in 2016.
We overlook the history and nuance of “Trump country” at our nation’s peril. Every place that coastal media loves to assign a tidy red narrative has a complicated history and willfully obscured past that those who seek change today should remember.
In 1921, 200 Kansas coal miners died in two counties, while earning a a dollar a day. Miners went on strike, the company bosses brought in scabs to replace them, and the women of mining households — mostly German and Slovenian immigrants — took to the street. They marched to the mines carrying guns, babies, and American flags. They threw rocks at the scabs and beat the bosses with brooms. The governor called in the National Guard. A New York Times editorial wondered whether police officers should start clubbing these female protesters over the head. Labor tensions would continue, but the women of Kansas had ignited a national debate over not just union rights, but women’s place in society. It is a debate we can help settle by refusing narratives that cast all working-class people as conservative, white, or male.
Last month, a woman wearing a red shirt in Charleston, West Virginia, held a homemade poster-board sign declaring that her own teachers had taught her she should know her worth. The last line on her sign: “Today I lead by example.” Joining the teachers stopping work, she at once honored those who went before her and walked the line for future generations of workers.
Today’s labor movement among traditionally female occupations like teaching, nursing, and the service industry is not a ghost rising from the past, but a spirit that has always coursed through hard-working women by necessity, from a miner’s wife who threw a rock to a teacher who held a sign. This movement shows the country that the members of a mostly female profession are more powerful than a mostly male legislature.
Why? They have been underpaid by male bosses and overlooked in national conversation since the beginning. They have toiled in places where “feminism” is less a cultural badge of honor than a covert operation. They have been rolling their eyes for decades.