Taking on the Big Boys by Ellen Bravo

Taking on the Big Boys: Or Why Feminism Is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation
by Ellen Bravo
The Feminist Press

Protections like anti-discrimination laws, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the right to a sexual-harassment-free workplace seem like such sensible, necessary, no-brainers. So we often forget that it takes individuals like Ellen Bravo, and organizations like 9to5, the National Association of Working Women (which Bravo directed, and which inspired the 1980 film), to fight for and secure those protections.

After more than 30 years of educating people about equality in the workplace, Bravo’s still pissed off, and with good reason: “The majority of women in the United States earn less than $25,000 a year. The average woman loses nearly half a million dollars over her lifetime because of pay inequities. Cameroon, Brazil and India offer better maternity leave than we do. The percentage of female executives is down and the percentage of kids in poverty has gone back up. And feminists like me are the ones with a bad reputation?”

As Taking on the Big Boys makes clear, feminism’s “bad reputation” is due in large part to the titular baddies—the interests that go to great lengths to maintain such social and economic inequities. The Big Boys are the privileged and powerful few who exploit women, workers, minorities, immigrants, and so on, in order to maintain the status quo. Not all men are Big Boys—in fact, most aren’t—and not all Big Boys are men.

Bravo’s definition of feminism goes beyond the dictionary’s: “Feminism is a system of beliefs, laws, and practices that fully values women and work associated with women in order to help all people reach their potential.” That definition is manifest throughout the book, and is noteworthy in that by highlighting the value of “work associated with women” (or any exploited group), it brings consideration of race and class front and center.

One of the most valuable elements of this book its identification and illustration of the Big Boys’ tactics: minimize, trivialize, patronize, demonize, catastrophize, and compartmentalize. In each chapter of the book, Bravo demonstrates how these strategies are used not only to resist particular reforms, but also to sustain the many myths about women in the workplace. (Women are opting out of the rat race! Women like the flexibility of part-time/temp work!) She also shows how, in her many battles with the Big Boys, anticipating such tactics helped her counter them.

If there’s one weakness in the book, it’s that Bravo doesn’t offer more explicit examples of how reforms she’s fought for directly benefited the bottom line (e.g., X reform saved X company X amount of money), which of course is what really grabs the Big Boys’ attention. However, she does point to studies showing how workers who have a better work-life balance are more productive; and she points out that family-friendly policies benefit society as a whole through savings on social services. Such examples offer those engaging in similar struggles tips on where to look for such beneficial trade-offs. But inevitably, part of winning these battles is getting businesses to look at the bigger picture and or by simply shaming them into doing the right thing.

Bravo’s book makes it abundantly clear that feminism is indeed good for everyone. While she explicitly orients the policies she has fought for as part of a feminist vision, it’s not clear that when such battles are won, feminism gets the credit (although we know it gets the blame). Taking on the Big Boys is not only an enormously valuable resource for anyone wanting to contribute toward a better world, but a powerful and much-needed shot at combating the demonization of the F-word. This is a book to take into battle. —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Bitch Magazine.


Author: schenelle

Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Jersey City, NJ. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series. Doctoral student in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University.

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