How do I oppress thee? Let me count the ways.

With all apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her love poem, Sonnet 43, I was miffed by the number of ways that “blue collar women” were frustrated in their efforts to clean up toxic waste sites in their neighborhoods as described in Celene Krauss’s article, “Blue Collar Women and Toxic Waste Protests”.  Ms. Krauss graciously calls the resulting discovery and activist processes “politicization”, but the process that motivates this politicization is no less than oppression.


In her essay, “Oppression”, Marilyn Frye characterizes the experience of oppression as a life that is “confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction” (Frye, p XXX2).  She likens systematic oppression to a birdcage; one wire of the birdcage does not confine the bird, but the collection of wires, systematically arranged, keeps the bird from flying away.

Upon reading “Blue-Collar Women”, I was reminded of that birdcage.  Just how many systematically placed barriers do the “Blue-Collar Women” have to face?  Let me count the ways:

1.     A woman realizes that her child is constantly ill from a neighborhood toxic site.  She encounters the barrier requiring her to navigate through the local government agencies to find the appropriate one to receive her complaint.

2.     Upon registering her complaint, she realizes that the local government is indifferent claiming that “pollution was ‘the price of a better way of life’” (Krauss, p 111).  She navigates through the state government agencies to find the appropriate one to receive her complaint.

3.     Upon registering her complaint with the state, she realizes that the state government has “withheld information from residents because ‘they didn’t want to panic the public’” (Krauss, p 111).  She turns to activism, in particular, to protest activism.

4.     Upon engaging in political activism, she discovers that the “government that claims to act on behalf of the public interest … favors the wishes of powerful business interests over the health and welfare of children and their families” (Krauss, p 112).  She becomes more militant in her activism.

5.     As she continues her activist efforts, she discovers that “policymakers are traditionally white, male, and middle class” (Krauss, p 112).  She now must navigate through racism, sexism, and classism to be heard.

6.     Upon getting a hearing, she finds that the white, male, middle class policymakers tend to intimidate by “ignoring women, criticizing them for being overemotional, and especially by delegitimizing their authority by labeling them ‘hysterical housewives’” (Krauss, p 112).  She now must endure public humiliation and navigate through intimidation.

7.     Having endured humiliation, the “Blue-Collar Woman” now suffers from bruised self-esteem.  She must endure the beating to her self-esteem, keep her “eyes on the prize”, and try again.

8.     As she continues her activism, she must develop social organization knowledge and skills.  In many cases, other activist organizations, such as the Citizen’s Clearinghouse of Hazardous Wastes (CCHW), offer conferences that help women “learn to translate their skills as family organizers into the political arena” (Krauss, p 113).

9.     She must navigate around the incumbent power structure involving not only political organizations, but the “highly traditional gender roles characteristic of the blue-collar family” (Krauss, p 114).

10.  And, if she is successful, she must deal with the consequences of her activism on her marriage and her family.  The toll may be high as there is a “very high divorce rate among activists and that, following protest activities, CCHW receives a higher number of reports of wife-battering” (Krauss, p 114).

How many barriers must exist before toxic dumping is recognized as oppression?  Ms. Krauss offers hope in her essay as she does present ways that activists have overcome some of the barriers and achieved results.  It will only be through these continued efforts that the barriers will be dismantled and the bird will be free.



Frye, Marilyn, “Oppression”, Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology, ed. Ann Cudd and Robin Andreasen, Wiley-Blackwell, 2005, p 84 – 90

Krauss, Celene, “Blue-Collar Women and Toxic-Waste Protests: The Process of Politicization”, Toxic Struggles:  The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice, ed. Richard Hofrichter, University of Utah Press, 2002, p 107 – 117

  1. #1 by tdonato on December 13, 2010 - 5:43 pm

    First, I love that poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and second, your blog was captivating and chilling. It’s amazing how we go about our daily chores(taking out our garbage) and don’t even stop to think, “Where is this going?” It is oppression as you state. But to go a step further, what about all the other things we do in our lives that create oppression to our earth? Every carbon footprint we leave on this earth creates oppression, and every plastic bottle we don’t recycle creates oppression. While we may not see the effects of this now, future generations(our generations) will be the most strongly effected. However, as we can see through this article these “blue collar women”, stand up against it all, no matter what circumstance, humiliation, and barriers. It gives me empowerment, that these women are fighting against toxic dumping, now we need to be the ones to fight for something else that oppresses our earth.

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