Jane Collins explains how feminism can be alienating, and still seems to be dominated by priviledged women who frequently forget the plight of the working class.
I had the very good fortune, when about ten or eleven, of discovering feminism or at least discovering the term “feminism”. I had always known that inequality between the sexes existed and that this made me angry but finally I had found a word to describe myself and my feelings. I discovered this through talking to my mother. She was unusual from my friends’ mothers, in being an educated working class woman, and so was able to teach me things that were totally alien to my friends’ mothers.
She was a young woman with a thirst for knowledge in the seventies. She left school without many qualifications and had to go to work and so, after a few menial jobs, she started training to be a nurse. My mother should have had an academic life but given her background and the times she was denied one. She didn’t enjoy nursing but it was a profession and it allowed her to escape her parents and the slate mining town she grew up in. When exposed to the bright city lights of London (where she nursed) she discovered Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. The book changed her life in the sense that her feelings were vindicated and she became a long-life fan of Greer (she actually borders on the obsessed, bless her). So through her reading she was able to teach me.
Unfortunately my mother ended up back in the slate mining town that she had tried to escape. She had me, married an idiot, subsequently divorced him and landed herself in a poverty trap. When my father left she couldn’t continue working because she had to raise me and ended up on income support and living in fear of bills and lack of money to buy food. This situation was not uncommon in the town I grew up in. Most of my friends came from single parent families, most of them lived in council houses and survived on benefits. The situation was incredibly depressed because the slate mine had closed down and many many people were out of work. Businesses do not want to open in a semi-rural welsh town in the middle of nowhere.
Thus I grew up with inequalities surrounding me, situations that oppressed men and women. However being a girl, surrounded by women the prejudice that most effected me was that against women, to be precise poor women. I didn’t feel an outcast because, as I said, everyone was in the same position. However I felt alienated by my thoughts. But when my mother spoke to me about feminism and socialism I felt a sense of belonging. Of knowing that I wasn’t alone in how I felt. I was a pretty miserable child so these things gave me a lot of comfort.
I turned into a very angry teenager. I was pissed off at what I had to face, what my mother had to put up with despite her intelligence. I saw my friends descend into drinking on street corners, smoking, drugs (glue, aerosols, weed – anything cheap). I was severely angry about the situation of poor people or working class people in this country. I hated the way that the likes of me and my mother were overlooked by society. It is very easy to blame unemployed people, why don’t they get work, It’s their own fault, etc, etc. But until you have faced years of being in a poverty trap, you can never understand how difficult things are.
I had always been quite good at school, despite long bouts of truancy, and was thrilled by gaining knowledge, reading etc. My passion for learning alienated me from my peers whose only interests were drinking and fucking. However through my love of punk/alternative music I got involved with riot grrl and zine writing. I can’t describe how amazing I felt when I read feminist zines, and listened to feminist music. I felt I belonged. I started writing to other girls who felt like I did and made some great friends. However pretty soon I started to feel alienated here as well. A lot of riot grrl just didn’t appeal to me. The affectations of riot grrl, hello kitty, little dresses, cartoon girls replacing real heroes, started to grate. It was something that really troubled me which I have managed to resolve. I’ve come to the conclusion that riot grrl preaches the feminist message and if people want to dress that up with pretty dresses and lipstick, who am I to complain? After all, we all have our own way of expressing our feelings, and all ways are valid.
Over the last couple of years there seems to have been a resurgence in riot grrl and feminism with the rise of Ladyfest and the eagerness of young girls to find something that speaks to them, given the media’s total lack of information or role models. I felt that this was incredibly positive and still do. But as a working class women I feel incredibly alienated by feminism. I hate to admit this and It’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time but I have to admit to myself that this is true.
The majority of feminist literature is written by privileged women who I feel have no real idea of how I live my life or what situations I have to deal with. I feel left out, not catered for by feminism today. A lot of feminism seems to be about philosophising the whole movement, talks about theory and not much action. Or discussions about how the media portrays women, which is totally valid but I think there are other issues of importance that get sidelined. I feel that working class women have been overlooked by feminism. Inequalities exist for all women but from what I can see the inequalities facing poor women are a lot more pressing than those facing middle class white women today. A lot of feminism is incredibly academic and is not accessible to women who have not had a university education. I hope to go to University next year but this is very unusual amongst the people I went to school with. I am a twenty year old and am in the position of being at college but the majority of my old school friends are either on benefit, having children or working low income jobs. Some are at college but most are pursuing vocational courses. This situation doesn’t seem fair and needs to be remedied but I don’t see much debate about these issues amongst feminists.
I’m in the position that I don’t really fit in with any group. I feel alienated by feminism because of my background, but I feel alienated by people from my background because of my beliefs. I have tried to speak to friends of mine who are working class but they don’t want to listen. They associate feminism with man hate and posh girls. And I can’t blame them. The reason that women feel like this isn’t because they are stupid or obtuse, it’s because feminism isn’t doing its job, us feminists just aren’t trying hard enough.
Over the past year I have found myself increasingly disillusioned by feminism and more inclined towards my socialist beliefs. Feminism won’t help my situation as it now stands. I also have to keep in mind that many working class men face more discrimination than any middle class women regarding their situation, monetary worries and unemployment etc. It really doesn’t make me happy that this is how I feel. But I don’t like the feeling of being oppressed by a working class patriarchy that is oppressed itself. I feel confused and completely alienated. I’m incredibly proud to call myself a feminist but I can’t say I?m too proud of a lot of feminism today.
Things have come a long way in a hundred years of feminist action, things are a lot better for women, but things still need changing. I truly believe that the women most in need of feminist action today are poor women. But sadly this opinion doesn’t seem to be shared by a lot of other feminists. I don’t want to criticise feminism, because it has enough detractors as it is, but I can’t keep quiet about how I feel. Feminism has given me a lot over the years and I don’t want to belittle that. In fact it is because I feel so passionately about female liberation that I feel like this. All women need feminism in their lives, and maybe it will be more of a struggle to inform poor women, but has a struggle scared feminism in the past? I think not, and I just know that things can change.