Every family has central values that help shape its identity. In my family those founding principles are Catholicism followed closely by Socialism. I once made a joke about joining the young Conservatives. It didn’t go down well.
So I grew up with a class consciousness and let me be plain, I hold no sway with any suggestion that today we live in a classless society. I make no apology that this post will talk about the middle classes and working classes in a way that can feel uncomfortable in modern Britain because we would like to think these were antiquated ideas.
|Indulging my liking for 1930s graphic design|
The more I look at the women’s movement, the more I notice a bias towards the middle classes. There is an intellectual focus that encourages a certain discourse, which, I fear, works to exclude anyone who hasn’t been to university. A quick look round the big players offers further evidence that the working classes are squeezed from the centre of the movement. Take a look at the board of trustees of the Fawcett Society and you’ll see what I mean.
Of course, it is natural that the middle classes, who are more able to take advantage of education and other opportunities that come their way, will rise to positions of power and influence. However, if I were struggling to make ends meet, perhaps working more than one poorly paid job, feeling the threat of being made redundant, facing class prejudice, I wouldn’t recognise myself in these faces and would perhaps assume that their work didn’t apply to me.
It’s easy to romanticise the working classes, especially when you come from a socially mobile, socialist family, proud of their (very) working class roots. It might be easy to imagine that poor women are DH Lawrence-esque matriarchs: hard working, tough, getting the better of the useless men around them. It’s easy to perpetuate the myth that poor women historically had more freedoms, that necessity drove them out of the home and into the workplace to experience an independence it took their middle class counterparts years to achieve. There is nothing empowering or romantic about poverty - this is as true today as it was in the 19th century.
It is also true that many women’s issues are universal. Rape, domestic violence, prejudice in the workplace, sexual objectification do not recognise class boundaries. All women need to be concerned about political, social and economic rights.
You might argue that these mighty middle class women are capable of acting on behalf of their working class sisters, who have less of a voice. Object is a decent case study on this point. It’s work focuses on the objectification of women, from advertising images to the opening of lap dancing clubs. Important stuff, I have no doubt. But is porn and prostitution really the main concern for most ordinary women? Especially working class women, who face all sorts of more immediate, more pressing prejudices.
As every good activist knows, real change comes from real empowerment; from grass-roots activity. Disenfranchisement from the movement and its campaigning will only lead to disenfranchisement from their rights for working class women.
Rather uselessly (yet again) I offer no solutions. What I’d really like to see is a more conscious effort from mainstream feminist organisations to get working class women involved in the debate and involved in activism.
United we stand and all that.