Revisiting Feminism and Working Class Women.

A couple of weeks ago I discussed the focus in the blogosphere as of late on feminism and the working class – Is Feminism inclusive of working class women? Do working class women feel included within Feminism? (I won’t say ‘included within the remit of Feminism’ as that gives the impression Feminism has a single aim adhered to by all people who identify as Feminists). How do working class women see Feminism? These were all questions I asked, and I related them to a study carried out by Pavan Amara about the relationship between working class women and Feminism. I came to the conclusion that there was a misinterpretation of Feminism by the subjects included in Amara’s study and that the misinterpretation is perpetuated by popular culture, amongst other things. I argued that this misinterpretation gives the impression that there is a single, unchanging remit of Feminism, and that the remit only focuses on academic issues, such as the politics of language. In this post, I am going to argue that I may have been a little hasty in that conclusion, and offer a variation.

Last February, London hosted the Go Feminist conference, which had the aim of making Feminism accessible for all. There were discussions and workshops at this conference as to whether debates had taken women such as those included in Amara’s study into account and whether those who considered themselves Feminists were not aware of an implied ‘privilege’ attached to the categorisation. Thus, the conference was not suggesting that Feminism wasn’t inclusive, rather it was offering a platform for people to discuss whether or not it was.

An interesting point was made during this conference about whether feminist debates treat identity as a woman as more important than other contributions to identity. For instance, Lola Okolosie claimed that:

“For me, this [focus on identifying as a woman] has resulted in leaving my identity as a working-class black immigrant at the door. Th[ere is a] lack of dialogue around how various forms of oppression act upon an individual, as well as how many of us, myself included, experience other areas of privilege we do not readily recognise”.

The idea here is that even when theorists argue that identity is made up of many different factors, feminists focus mainly on identity as a female without taking into account how different identities interweave with one another. Twisty, at I Blame the Patriarchy, has argued that the word ‘patriarchy’ should not be confined to discussion of the oppression of women as women, rather ‘patriarchy’ should always be discussed as part of a ‘culture of domination’ that keeps certain members of the populace at the top and others at the bottom (to put things very basically). Women’s position as lesser to men is part of a ‘culture of domination’, and thus ‘patriarchy’ should be discussed in tandem with other structures by which those at the top maintain their position.  Part of this is that those at the bottom contribute to remaining where they are. To quote two very different individuals, Simone de Beauvoir said in 1949 that for women to fight against their subordinate position to men “would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste” (The Second Sex, p21), and Friedrich Nietzsche coined the notion of the ‘last man’ who is so concerned with losing what he in fact has, even though he is in a lowly position, that he will not take the risk of improving on this position (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p46-47).

The ‘culture of domination’ ensures that those at the bottom maintain their position by either instilling in them fear or a false sense of happiness. And this idea should not just be confined to theorists of the past, before the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. In her usual elaborate language, Twisty claims:

 “We can’t exist outside or independently of the dominant culture — nothing can — so we’re stuck trying to invent a post-patriarchal world order from within patriarchy’s crapulent boundaries. Even as we’re relegated to the crapulent lunatic fringe, we’re enfoisted with the crapulent language of patriarchy, and its crapulent traditions and conventions, and its crapulent art. Every time we complain about some particularly crapulent aspect of all this crapulence, we get resisted, often by feminists themselves, because crappy though it may be, this is the only culture we’ve got. We’ve gotten kind of used to it. We forget, pretty often, to question its authority.”

As such, if feminism does in fact mainly focus on women’s identity as women, and women’s oppression as women, then it does not take into account how women are oppressed due to other facets of their identity. Thus, by only dealing with women being oppressed as women, the ‘culture of domination’ is not going to fall. At best it will only be altered. After all, the position of women in society has improved over the past one hundred years. Indeed, it has improved significantly since Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex. But has the situation of certain classes or races of women improved more than others? This is where the concerns of the women in Amara’s study come in, and the concerns of Lola Okolosie. In Amara’s study there seemed to be the idea that the female identities at stake were also middle class identities, and there is perhaps the implication by Okolosie that the female identities at stake in much feminist discussion are also white. This is possibly because it is thought that the female subject which feminist discussion takes as the norm is white and middle class. And it is highly probable that this is the case.

So how can we fight against this? There is no simple solution. Taking into account all the facets of identity that result in oppression in some form, some may call an impossible task. Feminism does need to consider more openly the existence of these other facets though – there is no singular category of women that all women fit into, hence the discussions at the Go Feminist Conference about how trans-gender women feel excluded from Feminism and how women of different ethnic backgrounds feel that feminist ideas and theories do not apply to them. One might argue that focusing on a single notion of ‘women’ is not exactly productive. If it benefits a certain class or race of women, then it has done nothing much to break down the ‘culture of domination’ – it has only altered it. Nietzsche wrote about ‘the last man’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the 1880s, Simone de Beauvoir in the 1940s, and a similar theme is still being espoused now by Twisty. The ‘culture of domination’ has not gone away, it’s just altered from how it was in the nineteenth century.

As such, it is possible that I was somewhat hasty in the conclusion of my earlier post on Feminism and the working class. Maybe the women in Amara’s study are not misinterpreting Feminism as much as I thought. It is true that popular culture and many authoritative figures espouse a view of Feminism that is not true – the idea of the man-hating femi-nazi is an obvious case in point. This espousal is part of what ensures women remain lower down than men in the ‘culture of domination’ and do not fight against it. However, we must not be under the impression that all women are on an equal playing field. There are women who are oppressed for other facets of their identity, for reasons other than their gender, and for these women, an incarnation of Feminism that only takes into account gender is not particularly helpful.

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