Definitions and Disasters: What Hurricane Katrina Revealed about Women's Rights

Article excerpt

Abstract

The decisions made in the 1930s following the passage of women's suffrage reflected definitions of equality that had been accepted by both women's rights activists and labor progressives. These decisions constructed rights to government support in old age, unemployment, illness, or support of dependents by tying them to employment rather than citizenship. This construction both reflected the gender assumptions in a social model of a "family wage" for a male breadwinner with dependent wife and children and worked to exclude African-Americans. As a consequence, any sense of "dependency" or government support has been demonized by equating it with an unwillingness to work. As the American economy has transformed into an information and service economy these views have been further reinforced, since many of the service jobs are in sectors that are traditionally constructed as "women's work."

The impact of these policies can be seen in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There the economy was largely service and tourist oriented, the city overwhelmingly African-American, and the income levels considerably below the national average, and often below the poverty line, even for those working full-time. The interactions of assumptions about gender, race, dependency and the conscious under funding of government are evident in the federal response and reflect conditions that continue to hinder the development of women's rights in the United States.

Introduction

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in New Orleans rank as the greatest natural disaster in American history and is now an all too familiar part of the public record. What is perhaps less well known is the degree to which the situation in New Orleans reflected both the changes as the American economy has moved from manufacturing to a service and information base over the past century, and American cultural assumptions about the social compact, personal responsibility, and the lines between public and private concerns. These assumptions are reflected in how American social programs developed. What can seem at first an esoteric debate among public policy specialists and historians has an impact on the formation of the political debate among U. S. citizens.

In the 1990s, historical scholarship began tackling two issues. One was the development of the policies which formed the basis of what has come to be known in American politics as "the welfare state." The other issue was how the analysis of public policy had been consciously or unconsciously shaped by gendered constructions and metaphors. These issues of scholarship were driven by the political climate of the late 20th century as scholars sought to either explain away or protect government involvement in citizen's lives in the wake of the "Reagan Revolution". Scholars also were increasingly interested in comparative perspectives on the role of the state. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, differences between the United States and European nations such as Britain and West Germany seemed to demand an explanation. Works such as Diane Sainsbury's Gender, Equality and Welfare States, Koven and Michel's Mothers of a New World and Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers explored these differences. (1)

In the same time period another trend developed in historical and cultural scholarship. Emerging from the mix of the establishment of women's history as an area of study in the wake of the reemergence of the Women's Movement in the 1970s, and the postmodern attention to the importance of language in structuring consciousness, gender itself became a category of analysis, most notably in works by Joan Kelly and Joan Scott. (2)

These concerns merged into consideration of gender as a category in the construction of state responsibilities for welfare. The analysis was brought together in 2001 in Alice Kessler-Harris's In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America where she draws earlier work into a synthesis on welfare, gender, and government policies on economic citizenship and explicated how these constructs function in contemporary America. …