Working class women talk to Pavan Amara about feeling excluded and patronised by a classist feminist movement where middle class voices are still dominating the debate
If Razia Yilmaz nudged passed you on London’s Edmonton Green estate, you probably wouldn’t look twice.
She’s average height, even with her four inch heels on, her hair scraped back since 7am – when her baby daughter Tara woke – a silver puffa jacket, and jeans so tight they dig painfully into her hip bones.
She’d like to work, but doesn’t know where she’d leave the kids. She’s not sure who would give her a job anyway, or where she’d get the time to fill out lengthy job application forms in peace.
She wants more money, but the Child Support Agency rarely pick up the phone. She’s 21, and not gagging for a night out, but a full night’s sleep.
When Razia had five-year-old Sonja and seven-month-old Tara, neither father turned up for the birth, and she rarely hears from either.
“It’s tough being a woman,” she jokes.
But when asked if she’s a feminist, she’s hesitant. She goes on to compare the women’s movement to voting for a political party “you know don’t care about you anyway”.
Deeper into conversation she refers to a friend’s treatment at Downview women’s prison.
“That’s a women’s problem, but feminism… it’s severe… it’s always talking about how short Rihanna’s skirt is. They’re quick to shoot you down if you don’t act their way. [Feminists] remind me of the women who gave me dirty looks when I was out with my daughter, and for no reason. I know life’s a lot tougher as a woman, but I don’t relate to them.”
Perhaps, it all sounds a little too rigid and regulated to correspond with her everyday surroundings. She’s proud of her body. She articulates, eats and wears what she wants, if she likes it. That’s colourful language, burgers and high heels. For those freedoms, she is indebted to the tenacity of countless women who fought for those rights decades before she was born. But it’s possible some of today’s feminists would squeeze her into the ladette box, a victim of patriarchy, or the ignorant oppressed.
If she did change anything, it would be more time, more money, help with child care, more support. Not her outfit.
In 2011, nearly a third of single UK women lived in low-income households, and two-thirds of the UK’s low-paid workers were women. More striking, out of 38 women who identified as working-class and were interviewed for this article, all agreed with the statement that working-class women’s voices were not adequately heard within mainstream feminism. Some still considered themselves feminists, others refused to identify as feminists because of a perceived glass ceiling of class and education within the movement itself, and a few admitted feeling patronised when Oxbridge-educated women discussed ‘our’ issues complete with the crisp vowels inherited from a private education.
“It reminds me of the ’70s when they discussed black people’s issues within all-white panels,” says Samantha Grover, who grew up in East Ham, London during the 1970s.
“The privileged felt good doing their bit for equality, but they didn’t really want to engage by having a black person there speaking. You hear talk of working-class women, but of the feminist conferences and meetings I’ve attended I’ve never seen them get a teenage mum up on stage or talk about why female crime is rising, or anything outside of that white, middle-class remit.”
Many interviewees agreed that could only change by attracting diverse women to the movement in the first place, but there too lay disregarded barriers.
In Lincoln, Tracy Powell teaches English at a comprehensive school slap bang in the middle of one of the Midlands’ largest housing estates. The product of a 1980s Birmingham upbringing – her mother worked in a light bulb factory and her father was a shift worker at a car factory – she says she relates with many of the girls she teaches, and attempts to teach them a “little feminism every day”.
“When I was a child the unions were strong, my mother was a working-class woman and she related to feminism in a practical way. She didn’t need the right words, or to be well-versed. She saw it as female workers standing up to the male bosses who owned the factory. Now, unions are weaker and feminism has become increasingly academic, meaning you have to be educated to be taken seriously. Put that together and you’ll get a lot of working-class females out there who feel they have no voice.
“Issues that may be important to feminism, like the politics of language, seem very abstract to working-class girls in Lincoln. It’s not real to them, the ideologies and analysis that are priceless to middle-class women aren’t practical to them.”
Tracy points out the majority of her students grow up reading no newspaper. The ones who do, read tabloids, which during the ongoing Leveson inquiry have been singled out for fierce criticism concerning features and photos that objectify young women. There is no copy of The Guardian’s women’s section lying on the coffee table, or political discussion ringing around their ears, meaning they are less likely to access feminist discussion early on.
Discussing her years in a state school with a higher socio-economic catchment of pupils, she said: “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.”
Supporting Tracy’s suggestion that some working-class women can grow up with less self-assured role models, is a 1990s US study for Cornell University called ‘Reconciling Family and Factory’ by Louise Lamphere and Patricia Zavella. It found working-class women in blue collar jobs were significantly more likely than middle-class women to view themselves as “secondary providers”, despite earning as much as their husbands.
Feminism fought hard for legal equality with men. Decades later some rose through the economic ranks to sit where the men used to be, while others remained in the bottom rungs of a capitalist system. The worlds of middle-class and working-class females sped further apart. According to a 2006 article in Propect magazine by economist Alison Wolf, 13% of women have ‘careers’, compared to 87% who have ‘jobs’. But, practically it’s the high-ranking 13% who tend to dominate the face of the feminist movement and steer the discussion.
When undertaking research for their book Reclaiming The F-word, lecturer in sociology Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern, founder of this site, discovered that higher education was the single most important factor in people calling themselves feminists.
“Often, the place people first encountered feminism was at university, so if people don’t attend university they’re less likely to encounter these discussions,” says Aune.
“Higher education still remains, to at least some extent, more accessible for those from more privileged, middle-class backgrounds.”
In 2009, 49% of female school leavers did not attend university, and only 8% attended a Russell Group university, which represent the country’s leading 20 institutions. Meaning this key point of access was unavailable to nearly half the female population.
Of undergraduates at Russell Group universities, only one in five men and women were from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The exclusivity of the feminist movement means it has inadvertently tailored itself to certain social groups, with terminology that is rarely used outside of those circles.
Natalie Dzerins, 22, studied law at Leeds University, but grew up in a two-bedroom Bradford terraced house. She identifies as working-class but also as a “proud feminist”.
“There’s an ideological exclusion taking place within feminism,” she says. “I hate the insidious mocking of some the posher girls. I’ve been to feminist debates where I’ll say something, and I’ll hear ‘Oh you mean the this and that theory.’ I’m thinking ‘What theory?’ I thought I just meant what I said, but obviously that’s not good enough. I don’t want to turn my words into a scientific equation, I just want to talk about it.
“I’m often the only one who isn’t from a middle-class background, and I do notice it. On occasion, I have made points and there has been a pin-drop silence. Not because they’re being malicious, but because they don’t know what to say about issues that are important to working-class women. When I first started reading feminist books, it took me years to understand what they were saying because they would use a cryptic language that’s not used in the real world.
“Feminism poses a big barrier to working-class women, but most feminists don’t even realise it.”
Jenny Turner, a journalist and book reviewer, discusses the ‘books as bombs hypothesis’ in her December 2011 essay ‘As many shoes as she likes’, published in the London Review of Books.
She writes: “Feminist ideas circulated in the 1960s and 1970s through books… every since, this book-as-bomb model has come to stand for the progress of feminism in general.”
Again, a primary point of access excludes women who have little time or energy to read due to working hours or child care. The books circulating among UK feminists are also likely to pass over those who are illiterate, or refugee and immigrant women in the UK who speak little English. It doesn’t engage the many who were failed by the education system and lack faith in their reading abilities.
After all, current figures tell us 5.2 million of the UK’s total adult population is functionally illiterate, and one third cannot add up two three-figure numbers.
If feminist books are important markers of progression, the movement is beyond the scope of many of the 4,400 female prisoners in the UK – a group with probable insights, considering over half have experienced domestic abuse, and one in three sexual abuse – yet 80% of prisoners have writing skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old and 60% have literacy problems, making books fairly inaccessible.
Research by Maureen Perry-Jenkins and Karen Folk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that only a decade ago “working-class employed wives did a significantly higher proportion of traditionally feminine chores than women in middle-class occupations”. If this figure still remains accurate, it means significantly less time to read the latest books.
The same research found working-class couples were more likely to work opposite shifts. So, working-class women were less likely to have a second-pair of hands with child care, making it increasingly difficult to snatch 10 minutes reading time.
24-year-old Rachel Owen grew up as one of five children on a housing estate in Blackeley, Manchester. When she studied at Salford University, she became the first in her family to go into higher education.
“I found [feminism] to be so highly academic that I couldn’t pick it up without a prior knowledge,” she said. “I really shouldn’t be feeling that – I have a degree.
“It’s not accustomed to the everyday woman on my family’s estate. When you have everyday worries like most mothers do, especially if you’re single, you won’t have the stamina to understand something that’s not written in plain terms. You are tired at the end of the day, your kids are screaming, they want their dinner. For educated mums it’s different, they have those pressures but they already have the knowledge base that’s needed.
“I’m not saying feminism should be dumbed down, but even at feminist groups and conferences people try and outdo each other with academic debate and facts. That’s not Blackeley.
“What would do really well here is a women’s group where you can bring your kids and talk to each other in a personal way, and then slowly feminist discussion could be brought into it which focused on experiences. A bit like a support group. It’s grassroots, and if you are going to drag yourself and your kids out after a difficult day then you’re not going to go somewhere that’s more hard work. It’ll be somewhere where you can unload.
“It’s as feminist as the middle-class version, it would just fit the average working-class woman’s life much better. If you want to challenge feminist issues in all women’s lives, you have to do it in a realistic way. If most working-class women brought screaming kids to academic style feminist groups, they’d be looked at in horror, and they’d be put off.”
There are some brilliant exceptions to the perceived rule. The recent Go Feminist conference was attended by 350 women, with professional signers in workshops, a sliding scale for ticket prices, and a broad range of speakers. The organisation was formed in 2010, and hoped to “dismantle interlocking hierarchies” including “class privilege”.
Camden’s Crossroads Women’s Centre is a shining local example, with more than 15 groups catering to single mothers, disabled women, trans women and prostitutes.
Issues considered important within the feminist movement are reflective of the women active within it. Inevitably their personal experiences will dictate what’s central to the values of 21st century feminism. But the daily experiences of women at the top of the social ladder couldn’t be further removed from those at the bottom.
For example, a lone 18-year-old woman with a child is more than five times more likely than the average victim to suffer from crime.
1% of the population suffers 59% of all violent crime. 2% suffers 41% of all property crime.
Considering most criminals commit their offences within 1.8 miles of their front door, and overwhelmingly live in areas of lower rents, the six million living on UK council estates experience a different daily reality to those in middle-class areas.
Lorraine Tebbit, 33, is a single mother from Warwickshire. She has been homeless twice due to domestic violence and is now an ardent campaigner for Mums Against Cuts.
“It’s fine to be talking away on Newsnight. It might get feminism taken more seriously in certain circles, but that’s not real life. When do you hear feminists talking about girls in care, refugee women, girls becoming addicts? They don’t see it, that’s not their experience, that’s why. It needs to connect with our problems and experiences as they are, not as they are with the top 20% of women in the country.”
Ingrid Dzerins, 50, from Bradford refuses to call herself a feminist because she “found it to be a very classist movement without meaning to be”. She tried to involve herself in 1980s feminist groups and conferences, and eventually stopped identifying with the movement at all.
She said: “I went to involve myself in a few groups in Liverpool and Yorkshire, and everything about me felt alien to them – my strong northern accent, my history, my experiences, there was no common denominator. I remember once me and a friend from the same area rocked up in mini-skirts, high heels and red lipstick. We went because we felt strongly about women’s place in society, but as soon as we walked in they stood there gawping at us like ‘Why are you here?’
“We were instantly made to feel unwelcome, but we dressed like that because that’s what all the other girls in our area were wearing at the time. They spoke to us like we wouldn’t understand the political issues they were talking about, and we didn’t really know the vocabulary they were using anyway.
“We tried another one in Liverpool, but felt totally fish out of water there as well. Even when we were deciding where to meet, me and my friend said down the pub over a few pints, and they looked at us with horror. In the end we ended up down the harbour eating hummus. Hummus wasn’t sold in the supermarket back then, and we didn’t even know how to eat it, so that made us feel embarrassed instantly.”
Ingrid suggests teaching neutral politics and debating skills in schools to level out the playing field long-term.
“Mind you, it feels like levelling out feminism is more like a mountain than a field,” she adds.
“The feminist movement talks about professional women facing sexism in the work place, since when do they talk about the way female bar staff are treated? It’s rare you’ll get a middle-class woman working behind the bar long-term, so it doesn’t feature. How about girls’ toys? You don’t hear about that as a mainstream issue. Maybe because middle-class girls are going to be encouraged into aiming high anyway, so it won’t matter what toys they play with. It’s offset by other things. For working-class girls it has a much bigger effect.”
But Leigh Brigden, 21, from Liverpool says a self-imposed glass ceiling prevents working-class women taking action.
“There’s always this niggling voice inside my head that says ‘Oh shut up, let her speak, she went to Oxford. My dad’s just a painter so she knows more.’ That’s a confidence thing.”
Anastasia Richardson, 17, organised London Slutwalk, as part of an international feminist movement open to all men and women. Receiving national and international press coverage, it was probably the most talked about feminist event of the year. An estimated 5,000 women attended, with speeches from the English Collective of Prostitutes’ Sheila Farmer, Cristel Amiss of Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Muslim student and activist Sanum Ghafoor, and Claire Glasman of the disabled charity WinVisable among 16 speakers.
She says the conflicting views don’t surprise her.
“In practice it is a very privileged movement that’s very influenced by academia,” she says. “Academia means a certain sort of education, and more often than not that’s a heavily middle-class arena, so it can reinforce the class system.
“The effects can be seen in feminist discussions. They’re often not anchored in reality. When we talk about sex work, so many women talk about it objectively. They never consider why women become prostitutes, it’s all about sitting on your high horse and saying what terrible people prostitutes are, and how they’d never do it.
“That shows what a privileged movement it is. Most women discussing it would probably never have been in contact with someone who’s considered it. That’s why they feel prostitutes let the side down. But for many women it’s a job they can fit around child care, it pays more than many jobs, and with cuts to benefits it seems like a viable option. It enables a lot of women to have a comparatively better financial life, and that makes many things easier.
“When it’s a choice of putting food on the table, or thinking about your morals, it’s easier to say you’d think about your morals, but only if you’ve never faced that decision. They say you need to be able to afford to live by your morals, and that’s the problem we have in feminism. There are a lot of women who can afford that, so we never hear the ones who can’t. That’s not an inclusive, representative movement.”
First image an original piece of art by
Bethany Lamont, second image is of a woman operating a hand drill in a factory during
World War II obtained from Wikimedia Commons, and the third image is a photo of a sign propped behind a wall, which reads “Classism
Sucks, uploaded by Flickr user HollyWata.