Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona probably didn’t anticipate becoming a meme last week. But the image of her rejecting a higher minimum wage for American workers was so indelible that it was bound to persist. With a jaunty little dip, Sinema gave an emphatic thumbs down to a measure that would have boosted the federal wage floor to $15 an hour nationwide.
Just in time for International Women’s Day, Sinema generated her own micro news cycle. Criticizing her gesture was sexist, aides insisted. “Commentary about a female Senator’s body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet,” her press secretary, Hannah Hurley, tweeted. Sinema herself said she does support a higher minimum wage and merely agrees with the Senate parliamentarian that the provision did not belong in the relief bill. But her flippancy is impossible to forget. So, too, is the manner of her self-defense. She had the opportunity to help millions of American women, and she rejected it, with a simple thumbs-down gesture. Now she’s playing the #girlboss card.
Obscured by Sinema, a very different kind of American woman begs for recognition. Federal minimum-wage earners are more likely to be women, and they’re more likely to be Black or Latina, too. The Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, would benefit at least 19 million women, the Center for American Progress estimated in February. Many are mothers. They are uniquely vulnerable to racial and sexual abuse at work. On Monday, three McDonald’s workers in Chicago filed sexual-harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, inspiring walkouts in area stores. The charges follow three January lawsuits filed by workers at McDonald’s franchises in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Kansas City, Missouri, all over sexual harassment. Delisha Rivers, who filed one of the January lawsuits and is a mother of five, says she had to quit her job when she couldn’t reach anyone at McDonald’s to report the constant sexual harassment she endured from a supervisor. Last July, McDonald’s workers in Florida filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit over a pattern of racial discrimination at work.
Women also make up most essential workers earning less than $15 an hour. For the past year, they’ve labored on the front lines of a deadly pandemic on an unlivable wage. They work in nursing homes, in fast food franchises, in Walmarts, in grocery stores; they’ve struggled for adequate protective gear, and, in some cases, they’ve died from COVID-19. When Anna Wynalda worked her regular graveyard shift at a Kennewick, Washington, Walmart, “people would line up at Walmart and line up at night,” a relative told local Komo News, “just for her to be their cashier.” By the time the great-grandmother lost her life to the virus last May, she earned more than the federal minimum wage; Washington state legislators passed a bill that, like the Raise the Wage Act, gradually hikes the wage to $13.50 an hour by 2020 and ties it to a cost-of-living adjustment every year after that. But that still means Wynalda was short a living wage by the time of her death. Inequality is a pressing crisis in America, and change is still too slow.
In a more democratic country, workers like Rivers and Jordan would already be able to live on what they earn. A $15 minimum wage is broadly popular with most Americans, yet on Friday, Sinema wasn’t the only Democrat to kill its chances for now. There are other major stumbling blocks on the path to a living wage for millions, and to concede one half-point to Sinema’s defenders, undemocratic intransigence has no gender. Joe Manchin of West Virginia can hardly claim to be a victim of sexism, so his vote, and the way he cast it, stands or falls on its own merits. Sinema wants to be excluded from the same narrative, and in feminism, she sees a cop-out.
International Women’s Day doesn’t matter. It has moved too far from its socialist roots and become a way for brands and politicians alike to posture. But women still need feminism. More specifically, women require a feminism that addresses their material conditions. Today’s professional movement, which too often conflates careerist ambition with authentic and liberatory power, is more a boon to Kyrsten Sinema than it is to workers like Delisha Rivers. That has to change, and a $15 minimum wage isn’t a bad place to start.