Most women workers in the United States are not executives at tech firms or the co-founders of boutique perfume startups, though this simple fact is not acknowledged in the universe of #WomenWhoWork, a campaign for the “modern working woman” started in 2013 by Ivanka Trump.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Trump—who transitioned from using Lean In-style branding to sell sheath dresses to an official role in her father’s White House—talks about policies to improve women’s lives, she largely focuses on tax credits that would do little-to-nothing to extend paid leave or better wages to the women workers who need them most.
Most low-wage workers in this country are women, but women are rarely included in the popular image of the struggling working class. Instead, there exists a dual tendency to whitewash and masculinize the people pulling long hours to support themselves and their families, with lawmakers still fixated on coal mines and the factory floor while largely ignoring the cash register and American household as scenes of actual labor.
As an antidote to the multiple erasures that obscure what most women’s labor actually looks like, Splinter is running a series of interviews with women who work in industries —healthcare, service, education—that are common among and dominated by women. A failure to understand women’s actual work is a failure to understand the policies they need in place to better support themselves and their families. We borrowed from the questionnaire used by Trump’s #WomenWhoWork campaign—adding a few of our own questions about wages, hours worked, insurance, and savings—and used it to talk to real working women about their work and home lives.
Priscilla Smith, 39, home health aide
Life’s work: I’ve worked as a certified nursing assistant for the last five years. It’s a lot of physical labor and a lot of emotions. There’s a lot of lifting, a lot of physical work to take care of the patients, whether in-home or in a facility. In-home care work is more on a personal level: You cook for the patient, you make sure their house is clean, you make sure that the family is also able to take care of the client after you leave their home. It’s the same in the facility—you may not have to cook, but you feed them, you dress them, you make sure there are no skin problems if they’re bed-bound and you’re changing them. It’s a very demanding field, and it’s one of the leading work fields for most women here in America.
First job? Burger King. I was 15, 16 years old. It’s been quite a long time. I worked as a cashier, a dishwasher, I cleaned bathrooms, I cleaned parking lots. I did everything there.
How did you get your current job? I was unemployed for over a year and I had a best friend who knew I was looking for work. She told me about this field.
What are your wages like? I make less than $20,000 a year.
How many people do you support on your income? I have a family of four. My children are ages 15 to 23. I also have a granddaughter, and I help my son with her. You just pray to get by. You make other decisions, you donate plasma. I do braids on the side, I make wigs. Whatever ways you can make an extra dollar, then that’s what you do. Right now I receive supplemental assistance for food, but it’s not enough. I have boys, and those boys eat. They have friends who come over who also have to eat. These food stamps are not just for my family—I am a member of my community, I want my house to be a safe ground. You may not have any food today, and I may not have any food tomorrow. But if I help you, and you help me, then these food stamps can go as far as they can.
What’s an average day for you? The first thing on my mind is to make sure my daughter, who has a rare neurological disease, is OK, to make sure my sons have what they need for the day. I make sure there’s going to be something for dinner for the kids, since I won’t be home from work [until after midnight]. Then I have to make sure I get on the city bus on time, because that’s my source of transportation. You have to check that the bus is on time. There’s a lot of variables of just getting to work—if it’s pouring down rain, it’s too hot. It varies day to day, but I always try to go to work with a positive attitude. Some days, you don’t want to be positive, but in the field I work in, you need a smile on your face. They need to know you’re there to take care of them, not just for a paycheck. I work from 3pm to 11pm, sometimes 11:30. When I get home depends on what the patient needs—if they need a little extra care at the end of the night, or if they’re hurt, then I stay a little later. It all depends on what happens on the job. The latest I get home is about 12:20 a.m., after midnight. I also organize with We Dream In Black, which is part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It makes a difference to go to the politicians, speak to city council members, and talk about working class women—about black working women. We are out here, we’re protesting, we’re getting signatures, we’re going to the council board meetings. We are speaking out for our women. All of that makes a difference. I’m not able to make every meeting, but I’m there in my heart.
Are you able to save money on your income? No, I don’t have any savings.
Does it worry you? It’s a deep concern. Just this morning I had to ask someone for a ride so my son could go to the doctor. I didn’t have any money for a cab. If I was able to have a savings account, I could have something to fall back on. Every penny I get goes into my household or supporting my community. It’s not just my family that I support on this income. Having a savings is having a backbone—rainy day money, as my father would say. I want to make sure I can pay the doctor bill if my son has an emergency and not be scared about the bill that’s coming later.
Do you have health insurance? Right now my insurance is through Medicaid, it’s a family plan. We pay a certain percentage out of pocket and if Medicaid doesn’t cover whatever is going on at a particular doctor’s visit, they will bill you.
What do you think it means to be a woman who works? I believe most women are struggling. We are not respected as working people, most of us. They want to pay us the very least they can pay us, no matter what the job, from secretary to construction worker, because women work it all. There are so many variables out there being faced by working class women. We have to be able to properly take care of ourselves and properly take care of our loved ones.
What does success mean to you? For me to be successful, I want to be debt free. I want to own my property, own my own land. My taxes are paid, my children are taken care of. I want to open the doors to other young people, help them come up. I want to give back to my community. I feel like if I’m successful, then I can build someone else up. To me, being successful means being able to build.
Want to talk about your work life for the series? Email me: email@example.com