Coalitions need compromise. But it’s coalitions that win, writes Joan C Williams, the author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America
Joan C Williams
Wednesday 23 August 2017
Abortion rights are central to my identity. As an ambitious teenager, I wanted to have both a vital career and a vibrant intellectual life, and I felt that having a baby at the wrong time would doom me. I went on to a both a full career and motherhood. It all worked out for me, but only because I could control my fertility.
My life has centered around what the sociologist Mary Blair-Loy calls the “norm of work devotion”. Work has provided me with joy, social status, dignity, and financial stability. To me, the image of the stay-at-home mom epitomized oppression and thwarted self-fulfillment. Abortion rights are crucial to the logic of lives like mine, which is why I and about two-thirds of college grads support them.
But only about half of Americans without college degrees do. The logic of their lives is different. They fault white-collar professionals for unhealthy work worship and a failure to understand that “family comes first”. Elites think they are so high and mighty, but it’s we who keep the world in moral order, the working class believes.
The demise of blue-collar jobs means that many families face a daily scramble between two not-very-fulfilling or well-paid jobs, with Mom working one shift and Dad working a different shift, and with each parent caring for the kids while the other is at work.
Tag-team families are under such pressure, and these parents see each other so rarely, that they have three to six times the national divorce rate. In the light of this harsh reality, it’s no wonder they look back with yearning at the breadwinner-homemaker family, supported by the husband’s blue-collar job.
This helps explain why abortion rights look different to those with good jobs and education and those who are struggling. To women like myself, they are the bare minimum of human rights. To working-class women, who often see motherhood, not work, as the key source of social honor, obsession with abortion rights among well-off women is selfish, exemplifying lack of an adequate devotion to family. Seen in this light, opposition to abortion rights becomes, for high-school educated women, a way of claiming social honor.
That’s why research since the 1980s has found class differences in the levels of support for abortion rights. The fight over abortion becomes a fight over what it means to be a good person. That’s why things get ugly really fast. When elites dismiss abortion opponents as mindless misogynists and non-elites dismiss abortion rights advocates as selfish careerists, class conflict becomes acute.
Debates over guns and gun control are similarly visceral, again because identities are at risk. To me, the ready availability of guns is associated with killings among young black men without a future, struggling to find dignity in a society that offers them precious little. Guns mean Sandy Hook and other horrors, and living in a country where mentally unstable kids regularly murder their classmates.
But even as I feel so strongly, I understand how other Americans feel differently. If the abortion debate involves ideals of femininity, guns involve ideals of masculinity. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of women but less than half (43%) of men support stricter guns laws.