Sisterhood at the Intersection

Rhian E Jones is the author of Clampdown: Pop Cultural Wars on Class and Gender. She also wrote a hard-hitting, and incredibly popular, piece for our Summer 2013 issue entitled Kill All Hipsters, so we were keen to feature her again in the Feminist Issue.

This her article on intersectionality, as well as an appeal: don’t dumb down feminism for ‘ordinary women’ – include them…

Illustration by Suzi Kemp

Sisterhood at the Intersection by Rhian E Jones

I grew up a feminist as well as a socialist, with both of these identities rooted in class. Feminism and socialism seemed to go hand-in-hand when I considered, for instance, the legacy of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the support groups formed by miners’ wives, partners and other women in communities like my own. Although such groups were primarily established to distribute food and cash donations to the families of strikers, as the strike progressed their female members increasingly found themselves taking more explicitly political roles as part of fundraising and outreach work, and becoming public figures and community leaders in what had traditionally been a male-dominated political sphere. Through these networks of mutual support and solidarity, working-class women, while on the one hand defending what might be seen as a macho and patriarchal industrial culture, on the other hand gradually challenged the chauvinism in which this culture could be steeped.

Similarly, factory work, despite its immediate associations with industrial masculinity, has historically also been a potential hub of female working-class solidarity. This unfashionable species of feminism was commodified in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, a dramatization of the 1968 strike by sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant. The strike saw female workers take on their male bosses over sexual discrimination and the right to equal pay, with several becoming radicalised in the process, and its success eventually resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Awareness of this history also helps to break down overly essentialist and unhelpfully narrow ideas of class identity, present on the left as well as the right, which tend to characterise ‘the working class’, or even just its politically organised sections, as composed only of men – or, more specifically, of white, male, urban industrial workers. The decreasing relevance of this concept of class is frequently used in the denial of ‘working-class’ as a viable contemporary political identity, despite the continued existence of class inequality. Over the past thirty years, deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, and the loss of skilled factory jobs have not only destroyed a former source of masculine status and self-respect, but also weakened what could be a source of political and social empowerment and consciousness-raising for women.

All this is desperately unsexy stuff, of course. Today, the face of mainstream feminism is likely to be turned away from the bleak financial and employment futures facing women under austerity and towards symbolically financial issues like the campaign to put Jane Austen on a banknote, or the low number of women attending this year’s World Economic Forum. It is instructive to compare the attention given to these issues – or to even more peripheral concerns, like the representational value of Lena Dunham’s Girls – and the lack of attention given to, for instance, the current campaign by single mothers in East London to draw attention to their impending eviction following Newham Council’s austerity-driven decision to reduce single-parent housing.

The mainstream media’s preoccupation with ‘lifestyle’ or ‘Lean In’ feminism does little to engage with the material pressures experienced by a growing majority of women, or to draw meaningfully on the traditions of working-class feminism. The closest we seem to have come to attempts to alter this has been the recent self-conscious debate on the need to ‘rebrand’ feminism as more inclusive, particularly of women who fall outside of its supposed white and middle-class power-base. This has been, in some ways, even more frustrating, as attempts to explain why feminism should be relevant to the working class have invariably focused less on content than on form, on the need to make feminism ‘accessible’ to ‘ordinary people’. What this apparently meant was that feminists, when attempting to bring the gospel to the working class, should be careful to use words of less than two syllables – you know, lest their proletarian interlocutors become discombobulated to an irretrievable degree.

It’s fine to argue against a feminism which you see as too theoretical, remote and academic to gain mass appeal. The idea of a divide between academic and populist ways of promoting progressive politics is not unique to feminism; a similar debate periodically engulfs much of the left. How can ‘ordinary women’, or indeed ‘ordinary people’, be appealed to in language which will resonate with their everyday concerns, and not alienate them by using long words and abstract concepts? The trouble with this question is that the first half of it doesn’t automatically imply the second. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. Too often, in debates within feminism – often well-meaning, valid and necessary debates – over how best to engage working-class women, these women are implicitly othered, there to be appealed to and won over by more enlightened middle-class feminists rather than considered capable of engaging in the debate on their own terms and by themselves. This idea of an absolute binary of ‘high theory’ middle-class feminist activists and disenfranchised, politically unconscious working-class women involves buying into narratives which see working-class parents, schools and communities as intrinsically unable to impart education or instil political consciousness in the same way as their middle-class counterparts, and which present working-class girls in particular as the helpless inhabitants of some kind of neo-Victorian netherworld. Whereas, as we have seen, working-class communities, notwithstanding their lack of access to resources, have historically been capable of responding to their circumstances with resilience, solidarity and innovation.

Advocating that feminism be ‘rebranded’ in simple words, however well-intentioned the argument, can entail false and counterproductive assumptions about the ability of ‘ordinary women’ to understand, for instance, theoretical ideas like ‘intersectionality’. A term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women of colour from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression – most obviously including, but not limited to, those based on race, gender and class – and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people – but, in fact, the lives of working-class women offer many practical examples of intersecting oppressions.

Under austerity, much of the burden of analysing and opposing the impact on women of rising unemployment and the erosion of the welfare state is being shouldered by women whose identities mean they are under attack from several intersecting angles: not simply as women, but as women of colour, as mothers, as carers, as low earners or unemployed – very often, all of these at once. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum. The problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional: material disadvantage amplifies, and is amplified by, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism, all experienced as real and immediate issues enforced by existing structures of power. Women’s grassroots organisations and actions, from the Ford Dagenham machinists to Women Against Pit Closures to Southall Black Sisters to Focus E15 Mothers, are informed by awareness of how gender and race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality – not intersectionality as it is often caricatured, as a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. The past and present experience of working-class women offers a real-life, intuitive and logical application of the ideas and concepts that are apparently considered too complex for the likes of them.

There is a difference between wishing feminism to concentrate on material matters relevant to ‘ordinary’ women – the driving down of wages, living standards and working conditions; closures and funding cuts to women’s refuges and childcare services; the sale of council housing and removal of housing, child, and disability benefit – and assuming that the people affected by these concerns cannot recognise, analyse and talk about them for themselves, in language which can be sophisticated as well as rudimentary. I believe that a lot of working-class awareness of disadvantage and oppression is already informed by a feminist impulse, even if the women in question wouldn’t necessarily call themselves feminists. The type of feminism visible in the mainstream media has, unsurprisingly, been dominated by women whose race and class allows them greater access to the channels of mass communication, but this does not reflect the variety of women to whom feminism can be relevant. In this debate, as in so many others, liberal condescension which pays lip-service to issues of race and class is less meaningful than attempts to address both structural inequality and the many failings in cultural and political representation which make it difficult for non-privileged voices to be heard on their own terms.

Rhian E Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is a co-editor of New Left Project and author of Clampdown: Pop Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, available on Zero Books. Her blog is Velvet Coalmine.

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