As we teeter on the cusp of Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that women in America are still not an equal part of the workforce. According to whitehouse.gov, full-time working women still earn 78 cents for every dollar men earn, and a typical 25-year-old woman makes $5,000 less per year than a typical man of the same age. It’s interesting to note that those figures are from the same White House where President Obama signed his very first bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, into law in January of 2009. Nearly seven years later, wage inequality still exists and globally acknowledged worker rights like maternity leave and universal child care are still a fantasy.
And so what’s the best way to proceed? The Republican-controlled Congress is likelier to engage in a mid-session Jell-O wrestling match than they are to proceed on workplace gender parity. It’s possible to move forward on these issues within pockets of liberal America — most especially our cities, which have become laboratories of democracy — but national progress, unfortunately, is glacial. The best avenue for average citizens to advance the cause of pay equity is to tell their stories, to talk intelligently and persuasively on the topic, to anyone who’ll listen. Narratives are still the most valuable currency in the political realm.
With this in mind, you might want to consider spending some of your Labor Day weekend reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace, an anthology of poetry by women about work, and passing on the poems to people who need to hear them. I know that some of you who read that last sentence rolled your eyes — a politically important book of poems? — but hear me out. This is a powerful book.
At over 200 pages, Ledbetter is pretty thick for a collection of poems. And it’s packed with 194 poems arranged into thematic sections: historical poems, poems about women working the land, poems about artists, poems about corporate jobs, and so on. Most of the poems run at a page or less, in all sorts of different styles and forms. When combined like this, in solidarity, they’re a meaningful work of advocacy and protest, a nonviolent action as inspiring and impressive as a human chain.
Using poetry as a medium to discuss women in the workplace, it turns out, is a genius move. Most of the poems in Ledbetter are narrative, and they can convey an entire story in a few dozen words. A poem can impart information in a far more economical fashion than a personal essay, which allows Ledbetter to cover much more ground than a prose collection would. On one page, Elayne Clift celebrates the sisterhood of the women who went to work on factory lines during World War II (at the end of the war, when it was time for them to return to domesticity, they “longed—/not for war, but for just a little bit more.”) and on the next, Andrena Zawinski reflects on how her mother’s desire to stay in the work force taught her how to “knuckle into my own fist, raise it high/for rights in rallies and marches for reason and right.”
Ledbetter happily serves double-duty as an excellent survey of a wide array of women in contemporary poetry. You’re certain to find some new favorites here, whether your taste for poetry runs to the airy or the journalistic. In a blank verse poem titled “Industry,” Melissa Kwasny writes about working in a plastics factory:
We waited for our two fifteen minute breaks and our lunch (a sandwich and a cigarette). No windows anywhere. American Plastics, it was called. American Plastics, American Rubber, American Home Foods. National Rubber. All those factories closed down now. Shame of plastic and the married salesmen. Burnt smell of it, perfume spread on toast. Men passing out in the foundry. Women with curlers, at work on the assembly line. No one suggested masks or ear plugs. What the American workplace did to everyone in the 1960s. Good place to get a job, better than fawning, for a girl, better than secretarying.
Victoria Chang’s poem is much more abstract, but it gets to the same point about the way employees are treated: “The boss rises up the boss keeps her job/the boss is safe the workers are not/the boss smiles the boss files the boss/throws pennies at the workers.” There’s none of the gorgeous specificity of Kwasny’s poem (that “perfume spread on toast” will bob to the surface of my brain the next time I accidentally scorch a plastic spatula handle while cooking) but in a way Chang’s abstractions, her boss hovering in the air mid-Rapture, showering her staff in pocket change, are somehow even more relatable. Together, the two demonstrate the elasticity of poetry.
Though Ledbetter is for the most part exquisitely curated — editors Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo created a fabulously readable book — its few flaws are noteworthy. I would have appreciated, for instance, fewer poems about the Dilbert-esque vacuousness of working in offices and more poems about sex workers. But that over-reliance on white-collar work only stands out because the book is otherwise so joyously overstuffed with diverse experiences.
The show-stopper of a poem in the collection for me, the one that batted me between the eyes like a rolled-up newspaper and made me reel back and read the whole thing over again five or six times, was “Vocation,” by Sandra Beasley. It reads as though every woman in the country is applying for a single job: “I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them/Help. Yes, I speak Dewey Decimal,” she writes. And the ending of the poem is the thing that stung most: “…Once I asked a broker what he loved/about his job, and he said Making a killing./Once I asked a serial killer what made him/get up in the morning, and he said The people.” That juxtaposition between one kind of human predator and another is so raw and wry and plain-faced that you can practically hear that last period being printed on the page, so intense is the silence that follows it.
But maybe “Vocation” doesn’t do it for you. That’s okay. There are almost 200 other poems in here, and I guarantee you that one of them will trigger your little string of internal alarm-bells as it creeps into your heart. The quality of poetry is high, the intent behind the collection is pure and good, and the subject matter — what we do all day, every day — is intrinsically fascinating. Woman or man, worker or student, you’ll find something here that moves you. Ledbetter succeeds because it emulates the truth of how politics is won: it wins its readers over, one story at a time.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant