Speaking of Women's Rights: Women’s Work in the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Friday, September 21, 2012

Women’s Work in the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

by Amy Shebeck

The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) voted on Tuesday to end its historic seven-day strike against the Chicago Public Schools. Although the strike inspired a great deal of commentary nationwide, a few issues were often overlooked. For example, how 87% of the CTU are women, mirroring 76% of public school teachers nationwide. Or how commentators who vehemently opposed the strike characterized the CTU. Adjectives like “fat,” “lazy,” “greedy,” and “selfish,” were common, as were sentiments expressed in one Fox News editorial, proclaiming that the strike was “Exhibit A for what ails America...for why America is broke...why America is dysfunctional...and why our public school system is in a shambles.”

Given the demographics of Chicago’s public school teachers and the language used to undermine and scapegoat them, shouldn’t this be a bigger story?

It’s often true that when sexual or racial minorities organize and advocate on behalf of themselves, American public opinion can be swift to condemn, in which case maybe descriptions of the predominantly female CTU as a gang of conniving, lazy ingrates is hardly news. However, the CTU strike occurred during an election season in which both Democrats and Republicans have sought to cater to women by highlighting their contributions to the social and economic fabric of America. At both parties’ national conventions, held in the weeks preceding the strike, women were touted for their roles as moms helping with book reports, or hardworking members of the middle class, huddling with their husbands over the kitchen table to make a household budget. They were not portrayed as labor activists (led by a woman of color, no less), or as rank and file individuals who could unite in the face of extreme opposition and, to most observers, successfully achieve something better for themselves and their students.

Perhaps for that reason, some of the shrillest insults directed at the CTU strikers have an unmistakable note of fear in them. In contrast to the images of women as domestic, virtuous, and, most importantly, obedient that have become useful political currency in 2012, the CTU teachers subverted the traditional idea of teaching as women’s work, revealing how women workers who dare to challenge the status quo can transform it, no matter who’s running for office.

Amy Shebeck, a former Legal Voice legal intern, is a third year law student at the University of Washington. She lived in Chicago before attending law school.