People will always judge you when you’ve got two kids and no job,” Donna, a 21-year old single mother tells me in Brixton library one afternoon. “Especially because my eldest is mixed. You can see their faces making up ideas about you before you’ve barely said anything. And they’re like “Well why did you have kids then?” but they’re here now, so now what?” Donna's point chimes with much of the discussion of the working class, and especially working class women, in the media.
Poverty, we're told by our political betters, is a result of laziness and a lack of “aspiration”. The Daily Mail's front page following the conviction of Mick Philpott, a photo of Philpott with some of his children, emblazoned with the headline “Vile Product of Welfare UK” provoked outrage for making a cheap political point from the death of six children. But this was merely the culmination of years of vilification and monstering of the British underclass, at the hands of politicians and the media, keen to use the welfare system as an easy target to score approval points amongst voters.
Much of the debate around reproductive rights centres around the right to abortion, and the affordability of childcare. Increasingly, media and political narratives have singled out women like Donna, and any families who choose to have children on low incomes. The language used to describe large working class families, especially those (read, all) who rely on benefits to make ends meet, is more akin to farming than discussing your fellow man. The middle class “have children”, whereas the working class “breed”. For many working class people, the poisonous invective against “dependency culture” leaves them fighting to justify their existence, and their right to start a family. Working class female sexuality is similarly depicted as bovine and boorish, the “wrong” kind of promiscuity, while a glitzier, posher sexuality, bound up in consumerism, is sold to us constantly through the media as liberation.
Earlier this year, the IPPR published research into feminism and class and how many working class women felt feminism has failed them. Dalia Ben-Galim, the IPPR's associate director said “While feminism has delivered for some professional women, other women have been left behind. Many of the advances for women at the top have masked inequality at the bottom. The 'break the glass ceiling' approach that simply promotes women in the boardroom has not been as successful in changing family-friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance. Gender still has a strong independent impact on women's earnings prospects – but class, education and occupational backgrounds are stronger determinants of a woman's progression and earnings prospects.” Higher education has a much higher impact on raising pay for women than men - as the IPPR report points out, and this is borne out in how pay, and quality of life has improved dramatically for middle class women, in a way that has been markedly slower for working class women.
And austerity is an intrinsically gendered issue. It hits women far harder than men, as research repeatedly confirms. Cuts to tax credits, caps on benefits, the introduction of the bedroom tax, the squeeze on jobs and wages, and pay cuts of 6% in real terms over the last five years hit women disproportionately, as the lowest earners and primary caregivers. The glass ceiling isn’t absolute: the poorest women find their earning potential stalls at a far lower level than their university educated and middle class counterparts. And while cultural feminism may up click-rates on a headline, it is economics that affects women’s lives day in, day out, stunting life chances and locking people into poverty.
The tendency to focus on vocal self-definition as a “feminist” has become a distraction, with campaigns to encourage those who don’t self-identify as feminists to do so, whilst simultaneously overlooking ordinary women’s concerns, and ignoring the work and campaigns these women are doing to fight back and improve their lot. The most publicised campaigns, as Lola Okolosie points out, “do not reflect the most pressing needs of the majority of women, black and minority-ethnic women included. The problem is not that these campaigns exist, but that they are given a focus and attention that overshadows other work feminists are engaged with”. In the biannual lifestyle spreads on “the resurgence of feminism” media savvy campaigns, especially if they feature young, photogenic women in slogan t-shirts or costumes, are routinely name-checked in these stories, but grassroots campaigns on benefits, low pay, housing and childcare, campaigns that tend to attract working class, older women, find their activities confined to the back pages of their local papers, if they don’t upset the applecart too much.
An obsession with individualism and personal choice is costing the movement at large. The tired debate on “rebranding” feminism, personally identifying as a feminist, and pigeonholing different campaigns as “waves’ smacks of a movement that prizes “awareness” over action. Lucy Mangan argues “"Rebranding" – like all forms of marketing – is the ultimate in dickering about at the edges. It's so much easier than actually creating something whose worth people will come to recognise”. Much of the discourse around “rebranding” feminism focuses less on the universal problems that structural inequality causes, and more on, to borrow Rhian E Jones words, reaching out to “the thick and theoryless”: women who are mischaracterised as unenlightened and othered due to their class and socioeconomic position. The idea that there isn’t a working class feminist movement until it defines and speaks of itself in terms the middle class approves of is tiresome and reductive. The recession has caused a political resurgence amongst women in some of our poorest communities - people who for years were cowed by the media narrative that demonised them and bemoaned their very existence.
Many community campaigns against the cuts, or for better work and conditions are led by women - women who are vocal, politically savvy, and have an understanding of economics informed by the fact that every aspect of their life is underpinned by the smallest cuts to benefits and wages. Talk of how feminism can “reach out” to women who are often active, but who don’t consider their gender to be separate from their class, ethnicity or economic status misses the point and condescends. Working class feminism is alive and well, even if it doesn’t focus on “brands” and selling an idea.