Intersectional Feminism, Class, and Austerity

Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.

 

Introduction

The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.

The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender. These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.

‘Chav’ is a feminist issue

Over the past few decades, despite insultingly obvious and deepening socioeconomic divides, official political discourse has continued to insist that we live in a meritocracy. From this, it follows that anyone unable to gain a sufficient share in the wealth – since they cannot be structurally disadvantaged – must simply not be trying hard enough. In order to reconcile this almost charmingly insincere idea with the recent manifest reality of life under imposed austerity, with its falling wages, rising prices, and flatlining standards of living, we have seen the reanimation of Victorian and Edwardian ideas of the undeserving poor. In politics, media, and popular culture, class is increasingly identified by moral rather than economic or occupational indicators, with class-inflected ideas of ‘respectability’ the means by which morality is made publically visible.

This approach, a rhetorical and material triumph for the forces of neoliberalism, seeks to justify political attacks on the recipients of state welfare by subsuming them all into an underclass characterised as ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’, ‘workshy’ and ‘feckless’, despite the fact that a majority of welfare recipients are in work and still struggling with lower wages, higher rents and increased costs of living. In this remaking of the working class, the despised, mocked and hated figure of the ‘chav’ has been instrumental, as a class stereotype externally imposed upon what is a more complex and heterogeneous working class, to the exclusion of alternative identities. Significantly, this figure is very often female. The uses made of the female ‘chav’ in political and media discourse illustrate vividly how abstract meanings are articulated through images of women, and the particular strain of misogyny which ‘chav’-hatred can contain.

Over the past decade or so, the British ‘underclass’ has been presented in a heavily gendered and sexualised way, with images of pram-pushing and pregnant teenage girls, or slovenly and self-absorbed single mothers, used to express ideas of poverty, deprivation and dysfunction. These images crop up not only in the right-wing press but also across popular culture, and particularly in comedy, where they tend to be self-conscious or pastiche performances by those not identifying as a permanent part of the subculture – the prime example of this being Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard character. In a rant by James Delingpole, in the Times in 2006, Vicky Pollard is made to embody:

… several of the great scourges of contemporary Britain: aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye…

This kind of anti-‘chav’ rhetoric serves as a very thin veil for the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes of working-class women and girls – presenting them as sexually precocious and promiscuous, and their childbearing choices as the result of irresponsibility or scheming material greed. It also contains a tacit disapproval of the behaviour of women who exist outside traditional roles, deriving their support from the state rather than a male breadwinner. Alongside this cultural stereotyping, government rhetoric insistently seeks to validate its reduction or removal of state support from benefits claimants by playing on the stereotype of the idle and recklessly promiscuous single mother, and the moral decline, sexual depravity, and social disintegration her lifestyle choices are held to represent.

Anti-‘chav’ commentators in media and politics are often disquietingly obsessed with describing the presumed licentiousness of working-class women, whose irresponsibility, lack of deference, and refusal of traditional family and community hierarchies, must be politically penalised. All this happens with barely a glance at context or circumstance, with the working-class ‘bad girl’ understood not in terms of poverty or social exclusion but in neoliberal terms of individual moral degeneracy. The perceived inadequacies of single mothers or comprehensive schoolgirls are viewed as purely individual failings or pathology, rather than related to their demoralising circumstances or lack of financial and material resources.

The female ‘chav’ is further used in narratives of slut-shaming and taste-policing, where she represents unladylike promiscuity, lack of restraint, and vulgarity in dress, speech and behaviour. These qualities, already heavily class-inflected, are held to be especially objectionable in women, with sexual excess in particular seen as a central signifier of ‘disrespectable’ femininity. Intersections like this make explicit several implications of the discourse around the female ‘chav’, not least the conflation of sexuality and class to invoke the Victorian and Edwardian spectre of working-class women, with their hazardous lack of morality, taste and discrimination, and their unregulated sex drives, spawning hundreds of equally depraved and financially burdensome children. This trope also continues the historical representation of working-class women via their ‘deviant’ sexuality, as opposed to what the sociologist Beverley Skeggs has observed as the possibilities for ‘rebellion, heroism and authenticity’ which the working-class identity has historically held for men.

Exclusionary definitions of ‘working class’

In the left and liberal media there has been both recognition and confronting of the ‘chav’ stereotype as a method of class demonization. However, much of this has not paid sufficient attention to the gendered and raced dimensions of the term, and has sought to redress the idea of ‘chav’ by proposing equally inadequate and exclusionary models of working-class identity. These tend to either draw heavily on the historical figure of the noble and oppressed worker, who is invariably white and male – or to present the ‘white working class’ as an oppressed and neglected ethnic group on whom ‘chav’ is a slur. Within these parameters, the ‘chav’ becomes a figure of ‘borderline whiteness’ invoked in what Imogen Tyler identifies as ‘an attempt to differentiate between respectable and non-respectable forms of whiteness’. In the same way that anti-‘chav’ rhetoric can become a cover for misogyny, it can also work as an excuse to propagate racist or anti-immigration narratives. The ‘chav’ also appears as a modernised version of Marx’s lumpenproletariat – implicitly feminised by dint of being unable to express the securely masculine identity that comes with being a ‘respectably’ employed breadwinner.

These obviously dubious arguments, then, present whiteness and maleness as signifiers of what it is to be ‘authentically’ working class. In the short-lived Blue Labour project a few years back, Maurice Glasman presented the Labour Party’s history after 1945 as an emasculating ‘cross-class marriage’ of a put-upon working-class husband and a domineering middle-class wife. Similar sentiments informed the speech made in 2011 by the Conservative David Willetts, in which he attempted to portray feminism’s achievements, in enabling larger numbers of women to enter higher education and employment, as a process which had displaced and weakened working-class men. This kind of disingenuous dog-whistling criticises women’s emancipation while offering nothing to address the very real disadvantages and anxieties of working-class men. It also postulates some disciplined army of empowered middle-class feminists against an incoherently resentful horde of disenfranchised working-class men – while, in these scenarios, the existence of working-class women appears to go entirely unacknowledged.

The debate on ‘chavs’ is a significant arena in which working-class women are granted political visibility – only to then be discussed negatively through disingenuous stereotypes, and have their social and sexual conduct policed. But this gendered dimension to the debate has been surprisingly neglected by a mainstream liberal feminism which can fail to take account of other axes of privilege and oppression. Acknowledging that the discourse around ‘chavs’ can provide a cover for denigrating the social agency and sexual autonomy of working-class women, as well as for wider political attacks on the unemployed and working poor, would significantly enrich mainstream feminism and challenge the perception of it as irrelevant outside an academic and metropolitan elite.

Neglected traditions of working-class feminism

I will now contrast these presentations of feminism and of class with some aspects of my own experience. I grew up a feminist as well as a socialist, and both of these identities were rooted in my consciousness of class. Feminism and socialism seemed to go hand-in-hand when I considered things like the legacy of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the support groups formed by miners’ wives, partners and other women in communities like my own. Although such groups were primarily set up to distribute food and cash donations to the families of striking male breadwinners, as the strike progressed their female members increasingly found themselves taking more explicitly political roles as part of fundraising and outreach work, and becoming public figures and community leaders in what had traditionally been a male-dominated political sphere. Through these networks of mutual support and solidarity, working-class women, while on the one hand acting in support of what might be seen as a macho and patriarchal industrial culture, on the other hand gradually challenged the chauvinism in which this culture could be steeped.

Similarly, factory work, despite its immediate associations with industrial masculinity, has historically also been a potential hub of female working-class solidarity. This unfashionable species of feminism stretches from incidents like the 1888 strike by women and girls at the Bryant and May match factory to the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant. The Ford Dagenham strike saw female workers take on their male bosses over sexual discrimination, with several becoming radicalised in the process, and its success eventually resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

Awareness of histories like these can help to break down overly essentialist and unhelpfully narrow ideas of class identity, present on the left as well as the right, which characterise ‘the working class’, or even just its politically organised sections, as composed only of white, male, urban industrial workers. This latter concept of class, and its decreasing relevance, is frequently used to deny that ‘working-class’ is still a viable contemporary political identity, despite the continued existence of class relations and class inequality. These perspectives neglect the fact that over the past thirty years, deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, and the loss of skilled factory jobs have not only destroyed a former source of masculine status and self-respect, but also weakened what could be a source of political and social empowerment and consciousness-raising for women.

Today, the face of mainstream feminism is likely to be turned away from the bleak financial and employment futures facing women under austerity, and towards symbolically financial issues like the campaign to put Jane Austen on a banknote, or the low number of women attending this year’s World Economic Forum. It is instructive to compare the attention given to these issues – or to even more peripheral concerns – and the lack of attention given to, for instance, the current campaign by single mothers in East London to draw attention to their impending eviction following their local authority’s austerity-driven decision to reduce single-parent housing. The mainstream media’s preoccupation with ‘lifestyle’ or ‘Lean In’ feminism does little to engage with the material pressures experienced by a growing majority of women, or to draw meaningfully on previous industrial traditions of working-class feminism.

The trouble with ‘rebranding feminism’

Beyond the mainstream, a number of feminists on- and offline have made welcome attempts to integrate class into their analyses, and much of the revolutionary left has engaged positively with feminism as an expression of class struggle. However, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in some feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands on their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise ‘rough’ to be directly engaged with. The closest we seem to have come to attempts to alter this has been the recent debate on the need to ‘rebrand’ feminism as more inclusive, particularly of women who fall outside of its supposed white and middle-class power-base. Within these debates on how to make feminism ‘accessible’ to ordinary women, however, otherwise well-meaning feminist analysis has been vulnerable to reductive, stereotyping and patronising uses of the term ‘working-class’.

The idea of a divide between academic and populist ways of promoting progressive politics is not unique to feminism; a similar debate periodically engulfs much of the left. How can ‘ordinary women’, or indeed ‘ordinary people’, be appealed to in language which will resonate with their everyday concerns and not alienate them by using words of more than two syllables? The trouble with this question is that the first half doesn’t automatically imply the second. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. A feminist politics predicated on this false dichotomy, of ‘high theory’ middle-class feminist activists and disenfranchised, politically unconscious working-class women, risks buying into narratives which see working-class parents, schools and communities as unable to impart education or instil political consciousness in the same way as their middle-class counterparts, and which present working-class girls in particular as the helpless inhabitants of some kind of neo-Victorian netherworld.

The ‘chav’, crucially, is represented as uneducated and often actively hostile to the idea of education, negating the possibility of self-improvement. But the idea that there are no grey areas, no available identities, between the volubly ignorant Vicky Pollard and an empowered and educated middle-class feminist leads to the double-bind whereby political engagement and consciousness raising is seen as automatically conferring class privilege and upward mobility upon an individual, thereby barring them from identifying with or being categorised as ‘working-class’.

In reality, not only have many university-educated feminists come from working-class backgrounds, but working-class feminists form part of the long line of working-class autodidacts whose attraction to ideologies of emancipation partly results from the desire to articulate and analyse their own experiences. Women’s Studies, at least in the UK, was rooted to a large extent in attempts by women of generally less privileged backgrounds to question and critique the privileges of existing academia, and to draw attention to neglected perspectives and experiences, including those marginalised by virtue of class, race, age, ability or sexuality. The fact that feminism within academia can now be considered to be middle-class and irrelevant says more about the squeezing out of attention to and discussion of class-based analysis within it; as well as the erosion of empowering traditions of adult education and of self-education through libraries and community colleges; and the pricing out of poorer students, than it does about education’s intrinsic appeal to, and suitability for, anyone outside the bourgeoisie.

Conclusion: women, austerity and intersectionality

Advocating that feminism be ‘rebranded’ in simple words, however well-intentioned the argument, can entail falsely assuming that ‘ordinary women’ are unable to understand theoretical ideas like intersectionality – when, in fact, the lives of working-class women offer many practical examples of multiple systems of oppression, most obviously including, but not limited to, those based on race, gender and class. Under austerity, we are seeing the driving down of wages, living standards and working conditions; closures and funding cuts to women’s refuges and childcare services; the sale of council housing and removal of housing, child, and disability benefit. Where this erosion of the welfare state impacts on women, it does so from several intersecting angles: women are affected not simply as women, but as women of colour, as disabled women, as mothers, as carers, as low earners or unemployed – very often, several of these at once. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum. The problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional: material disadvantage amplifies, and is amplified by, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism, all experienced as real and immediate issues enforced by existing structures of power. Women’s grassroots organisations and actions, which analyse and oppose the impact of austerity, will be informed by an awareness of how gender and race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality – not intersectionality as it is often caricatured, as a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. The past and present experience of working-class women offers a real-life, intuitive and logical application of the ideas and concepts that are apparently considered too complex for the likes of them.

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