(Or, ‘When I Said I Grew Up On An Estate, I Didn’t Mean Downton Abbey’)
As a feminist issue, class is up there with race and disability – relevant, important, too frequently overlooked, and still a major factor in deciding who can access the movement’s positive message and who is excluded from it. Over the years a multitude of projects and initiatives have aimed to redress the shortfall, with varying degrees of success, and so we find ourselves in a bind: a movement that wants to be progressive and accepting, but is unsure of how best to approach the women it fears it currently excludes.
Caitlin Moran’s autobiographical account of growing up in an overcrowded Wolverhampton council house will have been an eye-opener for some established feminists and an unwelcome reminder for others. Caitlin achieved prominence by being intelligently angry, fearsomely eloquent, and engagingly accessible – having a parent on sickness benefits is no barrier to any of these things. Her high-profile success has provided an opportunity for feminists to discuss class without embarrassment or judgement. But have we done so?
While there have doubtlessly been some excellent efforts, the overall effect has been disappointing – projects like Elle magazine’s recent “rebranding feminism” feature reveal that the over-intellectualised aspects of the movement are still unwelcoming to women who don’t care to tackle reams of rhetoric in order to beat the pay gap. Feminism should be for everyone, and yet attempts to make it mainstream have been met with criticism.
The trouble starts early in Iife. Last year, The F Word ran an article concerning feminism and working-class women. The piece included a quote from a teacher in a senior school in Lincoln, “slap bang in the middle of one of the Midlands’ largest housing estates,” who was concerned about the lack of feminist influence her students receive.
“When they get older, middle-class girls know the talk, the language to use, and so they have louder voices when it comes to the feminist movement. They’re more educated, more confident, and feel they deserve opinions, maybe because their role models were professional women with assertive attitudes. You’re not going to be like that if your mum struggled on benefits. Girls from low-income families have had to struggle more so they can be excellent at debating, but not necessarily in the very intellectual way that debating is taught in private schools. It’s not deliberate, but our voices and issues can be drowned out, so we don’t relate to it all because we’re not part of it.”
The basic premise of the article was correct; yes, of course feminism should be open to women of all classes (duh). But to achieve that, we must shed our prejudices about those who belong to other classes. The patronising tone so often adopted when discussing working-class women bears an unpleasant aftertaste of the treatment disabled feminists and feminists of colour still resist – we are a subject to be written presumptuously about, rather than being a group from whom the establishment accepts contributions and insight. It seems they would sooner discuss us than listen to us; rather talk about us than to us. It’s precisely this attitude that lead disability rights campaigners to adopt the slogan “nothing about us without us.”
Rather than being limited by watching a mother “struggle on benefits”, some children are strengthened by it; they develop tenacity and resolve, and a precocious understanding of the workings of the world. While the teacher grants that “girls from low-income families have had to struggle more so they can be excellent at debating“, she still condemns the absence of “The Guardian’s women’s section lying on the coffee table, or political discussion ringing around their ears”, which she takes as an indication that “they are less likely to access feminist discussion early on.”
But why ought this be the case? Who is more inclined to espouse feminist principles; a single mother, struggling with underemployment, a feckless ex, a tiny income and no childcare, or comfortable middle-class couple with two jobs, two cars, and an after-school childminder? Who, more importantly, is this childminder that the middle-class mother in full-time employment is so beholden to? Even if they don’t know it, the girls in question will be absorbing feminist principles like background radiation – they might not discuss the works of Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia around the dinner table, but they’ve little doubt about their ability to hold their own in a world that’s set against them.
Furthermore, the teacher’s reference to “benefits” in general seems to expose ignorance of the system; are we discussing unemployment benefit, disability benefit, child support, or just working family tax credit? Or, to this woman, and myriad writers like her, are “benefits” just something that only poor people need concern themselves with, like puffa jackets, pound shops and ITV? In spite of her use of “we” and “our” in the quote above, her opinion of the girls in question seems unrelentingly poor; could we infer that she is still ashamed of her working-class origins?
In the interests of transparency, I should explain that the reason I’m so provoked by this is because that’s me they’re talking about; a writer for the F Word basically insulted my mum. Are my opinions worth less because I wasn’t dressed in Boden or sent on skiing holidays as a child? Because we had spaghetti on toast, not penne al pesto? Tesco Value rather than Waitrose? Were my lecturers at University correct – should I have taken voice coaching classes to eradicate the wide Essex sound? If the cut-glass vowels of the Fawcett Society fundraiser at the end of the line are anything to go by, the answer’s a well-enunciated “yes”.
What writers of articles like this seem to overlook is that anyone, anyone at all, can be compelled to claim benefits – an employment advice service in the next town over regularly sees doctors and lawyers claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance; even the most qualified and privileged can fall ill and require sickness benefits. What’s more, the authors seem to be missing a salient and important point: high intelligence leads to increased likelihood of mental illness, as do divorce, unemployment, and physical illness. Bouts of mental ill-health are statistically likely to lead to periods of unemployment, financial difficulties and longer-term incapacity – all factors that drive an individual to seek financial support from the State.
For too long commentators have disseminated the myth that only the working classes – ill-educated, understimulated, petty, ignorant, or deprived – need to claim benefits. For too long, also, have they ignored the improved social mobility that post-war society has facilitated. Does the education process make one middle-class? Maybe the increased earning power and career potential of a successful graduate do lead to a perspective shift, entry into a brave new world of mortgages, not housing benefit; dinner parties, not chips on the way home. But few people that grew up in an impoverished household will forget their early years – however much they might want to.
For many, those early experiences will be what drives them on through college and university, always pushing onwards to better results, more pay, a less uncertain future. And when they reach that point, if it takes two years or twenty, they’ll be proud; anxious for dignity and recognition, but nervous of being exposed as a fraud and a pretender. And after all that, someone who doesn’t know them, who perhaps has only a tiny window onto their experiences, belittles their struggle, repudiates their opinion, and – most heinous of all – insults their mum.
A version of this article was originally published here on Wednesday, 10 October 2012