Feminism: still excluding working class women?

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

, 7 March 2012


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.

They’re quick to shoot you down if you don’t act their way

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.”

Out of 38 women who identified as working-class and were interviewed for this article, all agreed that working-class women’s voices were not adequately heard within mainstream feminism

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.”

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

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.

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

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.”

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

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.

Books don’t engage the many who were failed by the education system and lack faith in their reading abilities

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.

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

“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.”

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

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.”

When we talk about sex work, so many women talk about it objectively. They never consider why women become prostitutes

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.

Pavan Amara is a newspaper journalist who frequents the pubs of Camden Town and tweets about Coronation Street a lot

Comments From You

Rhianna // Posted 7 March 2012 at 9:02 pm

I think some really excellent points are made here – especially around how alienating academic language can be, and the observation that sometime women might use feminism to criticise what another woman is wearing or doing, when really they disapprove because they see it as ‘common’ or tasteless.

I have to say though, I’m really, really surprised at the experiences of the women who contributed regarding certain topics not being discussed in feminist circles. This couldn’t be further from my experience. I had a working class upbringing, but my feminist friends come from all sort of backgrounds and we all well educated. Regardless of those factors, no feminist I know is more concerned with sexism in offices than sexism for bar workers. Refugee women, single mothers, and gendered toys have always been major issues for all the feminists I know. And I have certainly never, ever encountered a feminist who considers sex workers to be bad people or gets on their high horse about such things.

It makes me very sad that some people do have this experience of feminism, and makes me feel very lucky to have not encountered this even though I have so many well educated, middle class feminist friends.

anywavewilldo // Posted 9 March 2012 at 6:13 pm

I tried to read this article generously but, aaaagh, since when does a feminist article need to describe what a key respondent is wearing, and how she is wearing it? when would a group of middle class women be referred to by what they had chosen to put on that morning? do middle class women never have ponytails? do they not have hipbones? Goodgrief.

I can’t stand how even in writing supposed to be advocating for working class women we are still set up like this – like a different species with our ignorance, our screaming kids and our poverty of aspiration.

Yes, middle class feminism, especially ‘hightheory’ academic feminism, excludes working class women. But we don’t need to be portrayed in this way. Yes, middle class women often find it difficult to listen to us – but this doesn’t mean we aren’t there speaking.

Specifically I don’t need Crossroads to be eulogised as saviours of working class women when they have a history of trashing out grass roots feminist activism with their entry-ism and guilt politics. English Collective of Prostitutes, for example, is neither a collective nor prostitutes and never has been.

Most working class women I know are anti-prostitution precisely because we understand how poverty is implicated – I find it’s the uni educated middle and owning class ‘gen-dur’ studies girls who like to romanticise sex work.

Feminism can’t be taught, books change lives but so does activism. Sometimes books just excuse you thinking the classist ridiculous things you already believe. My house is full of books, so was the house of my grandparents. Working class feminists are part of a long tradition of working class autodidacts. We don’t need feminism to change because feminism is what we made *too* – we just need middle class women to get out of our way.

Lillian // Posted 9 March 2012 at 10:41 pm

Facsinating read. As someone from this background myself I can relate to these experiences. My mum was on benefits and died when I was seven. I’ve always known what these women are saying which could be why I don’t go to meetings.

Some very good points made but I wish the author had addressed race issues. Because that’s another thing. That said, a brilliant piece of feminist writing. About time people began talking about class in feminism. Good to see the fword is leading the way.

DarkestAngel // Posted 10 March 2012 at 12:19 am

I know a couple of working class feminists online. They talk about the things I’ve experienced, the things I worry about etc. I’ve never been to a conference. I can’t afford the travel. I don’t work because I can’t afford the childcare yet. I might understand some of the elaborate language used even though I didn’t get as far as university but I much prefer to be spoken to in plain english.

Would any well educated, financially secure, conference-attending feminist like to swap lives with me for a moment? I think its the only way they might gain an insight into how it really is for working class and poor women. A 6 month stint of stigma, prejudice, being pointed at when it becomes obvious you’re single with kids (noisy kids too lol) and constant stress would open some eyes.

Taamara T // Posted 10 March 2012 at 1:41 pm

Lillian, agreed. Feminist writing at its best. It’s ashame the writer didn’t mention ableism or race much. Another one about these?

Taamara T // Posted 10 March 2012 at 8:36 pm

Lillian, agreed. Feminist writing at its best. But its ashame the author didn’t mention disability or race. Would’ve liked to see these important topics mentioned.

IronFly // Posted 10 March 2012 at 11:01 pm

anywavewilldo – respect your views but have to disagree that the writer has portrayed working class women in a negative/stereotypical way. Did not get that impression at all. The author needed to explain what a respondent was wearing because it was an interesting observation that had relevance to the topic at hand (issues of feeling different, like an outsider).

Lillian and Taamara T – sure, it would be nice if this article mentioned all the possible ways in which certain social groups feel left out of the modern feminist movement but that’s asking a lot. This article focused on classism and did it well, can we not just be satisfied with that?

Anyway, yes this article is great. Good job. More like this please editors! Not sure why people feel the need to pick holes in it when it was saying something that has been silenced for too long. :/

Taamara T // Posted 11 March 2012 at 12:08 am

Ironfly – As I said in my previous post this article is feminist writing at its best. Its a groundbreaking piece of work but I think we all know that. On social networking sites and fem circles its had alot of praise already. Thats why as a disabled woman I would’ve like to seen it fight my corner too. I’m not picking holes, just would have liked to be included.

I feel the same way about anywavewilldos comments. I come from a very working class backgound where education was not encouraged. The way she talks about books in her grandparents house makes me think she is from a working class tradition but not a disadvantaged background. There’s a difference. Anyone whose from disadvantage will be screaming with joy at this. Why I wish disabled women were included. Even if the author had included a paragraph on ableism.

Dan // Posted 11 March 2012 at 10:27 am

i agree with anywaywilldo’s point: ‘a silver puffa jacket, and jeans so tight they dig painfully into her hip bones’ please! i

Nobodysmissis // Posted 11 March 2012 at 11:20 am

Ironfly – it’s been called groundbreaking, brilliant, excellent, fascinating, feminist writing at its best? How is that attacking it?

I think most of the posters seem to want a piece of it for themselves. Wowie.

That’s not picking holes.

Anywavewilldo’s comments – I don’t understand them either. Methinks she missed the point, but like you I respect her views…

Alice // Posted 11 March 2012 at 1:43 pm

What a thought-provoking article. I like the sound of the Camden centre. Too many women are marginalised as “Thick” “feckless” “Single parent” ‘chav,’ and guess what? They are all working class, disenfranchised and despised. , especially by “their own” e.g. other (educated) women, the tabloid press and their (working class )readers,social commentators and assorted clever Dicks. A great deal more could be done for ( for example) single mums and their offspring, to nurture and support them. After all they are the future.

IronFly // Posted 11 March 2012 at 5:59 pm

“Anyone whose from disadvantage will be screaming with joy at this.”

Yes! I am one of them. I am also from an ethnic minority and do understand that class, race, disability, sexuality and various other issues do link in very closely to various gender issues. I’m just so happy that someone has spoken about classism in such a forthright way that I think we can use it to build momentum and kick start a dialogue about it and related issues, rather than focus too heavily on negatives at this stage. Maybe the author can address the other topics in the future for us since they have done such a good job here.

Annika // Posted 12 March 2012 at 12:35 am

Brilliant article.

Becca // Posted 12 March 2012 at 8:43 am

This is a fab article that illustrates the insidious effects of classism in the UK and this is probably my top gripe when it comes to feminism.

If equality is to ever be achieved in any sphere I feel that classism must be dealt with first before any of us are able to move on. If we don’t the result is that we will always have a privileged few speaking on behalf of the majority, and that’s a majority with whom they have little empathy with.

I come from a middle class background and I was frequently told by my parents, my Mother that we were better than people on housing estates. I guess this just made me rebel, as to my mind, what I saw was my mother competing for social status that she didn’t need, in order for her to impress people she didn’t actually like very much. This is way of thinking effects us all and I would say that it is probably more pervasive among the middle classes. It is utter folly! This must stop if we are ever going to have a society that is fair, just, inclusive and pleasant for us all to live in.

I can totally relate to the points made in the article about middle class feminists and the language of academia. If something can be explained or a point can be made in straightforward language why embellish it? Perhaps this is a sort of intellectual keeping up with the Jones’s? I don’t know about anyone else; but I am not impressed by people exercising their privilege in order to bolster their own fragile self esteem, but this is just my own interpretation.

Which brings me on nicely to another gripe; I have had it up to here with the ‘aspirational’ middle class attitude. Being working class or having less money is not something that should devalue someone. Lots of highly intelligent people are working class despite not having gone to University. The only difference is that these working class women don’t know the lingo; many of them are probably more intelligent than University graduates. And I’m sure many of us have to admit (if we are being really honest) that it doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence and critical thought to get through a degree anyway. You do the work for 3 years, jump through the hoops (oh, and having affluent parents makes this loads easier) and voila, you are now the proud owner of a bit of paper that proves to important people that you ‘know stuff’. Why that would make someone superior to another person is something I will never fully understand!

Your job, income, where you go on holiday, what you wear, what paper you read, what you own does not define you as a person, neither does it does it define your value as a person. It’s high time that some feminists opened their eyes as well as their hearts and minds to this pernicious institutionalised classism in the UK.

A working class person isn’t some other breed, someone to pity and theorise about, same with any minority. Those who do adopt these attitudes are, quite frankly, only proving their own intellectual inferiority, underdeveloped sense of compassion for others and lack of common sense. They should actually feel rather embarrassed and ashamed of themselves, plus they need to do something about their ignorant attitudes!

lipsticksocialist // Posted 12 March 2012 at 8:46 am

Really interesting article! I come from an irish workingclass background and was the only one to go to uni. I had some of the experiences of feminism at Uni ie middleclass women wingeing but also some really positive ones ie campaign for nurseries, NAC etc. Always being involved with trade unions I have found similar women to me and been active in really important campaigns around sexual harrassment,pay,maternity etc. In the Irish community I was active on miscarriage of justice campaigns as well as anti-Irish racism etc etc. My father was a building worker and socialist so I had a privileged upbringing (particularly when you throw in Irish republicanism!) and my Mum (factory worker/domestic) has been a good influence in wanting me to be independant and do well.

I have a Mancunian accent and can see the advantages of it – I belong somewhere! Also my education from my parents and community has been a much bigger influence on my life than any Uni education! See my website for really positive things about being feminist and workingclass!!! lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com

Feminist Avatar // Posted 12 March 2012 at 11:18 am

I have a bit of an issue with the dichotomy that is being set up between working class people and university educated ‘high-theory’ feminists. Plenty of university-educated feminists come from working-class backgrounds (32% of uni students are working class, out of a social class that makes up 37% of the population) and I suspect from the women I know that being working-class attracts them to feminism because their life experiences highlight its value. Certainly what attracted me as someone from that background was that it gave me a language to articulate my experiences.

I also agree with anywavewilldo that this post and many of the comments set up a ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy. So that ‘we’ should do more to help ‘them’; ‘we’ should change ‘our’ attitudes about ‘the working class’. This all presumes that ‘we’ are all middle class, which automatically excludes any readers who are not from being part of the ‘we’. This is part of that very process of alienation that is being complained about.

Having said that, I am also concerned that there seems to be a disjunction between what middle-class feminists are said to be talking about and what is talked about. Does the FWord not regularly talk about refugees, children’s toys, poverty, benefits, single parents, and even classicism? And to be honest, discussions on the FWord are fairly typical of what I’ve experienced elsewhere. This is not to discount that some people are clearly experiencing feminism as discussing things without relevance to them, but it makes me wonder why this disjuncture is happening? Clearly something is going wrong here and that is worth talking about.

IronFly // Posted 12 March 2012 at 11:44 am

Nobodysmissis – I don’t remember using the word ‘attack’ I find that quite a strong word which is not really appropriate to what I am describing. I am just so happy an article like this has been well received, and am so terrified of a certain breed of middle class and/or academic feminists who have snubbed me my whole life to come along and silence this opinion…again! So I didn’t want any ‘negativitiy’ to go unchallenged, even if it was coming from people who “got” the idea behind the article. But your way of phrasing it (“I think most of the posters seem to want a piece of it for themselves”) frames it in a much more positive way. :)

Becca – Wow I’d always wondered if people secretly felt that way [about council estate families] but never imagined it was said explicitly. I’m glad you rebelled!

Even some of my working class childhood friends who went on to become affluent, middle class adults, even they harbour some classism thinking “If I could escape poverty, why can’t they, all they need to do is work harder! Get a degree! Move house!” When the reality is clearly not that simple…

Regarding university I don’t doubt the hard work needed to get a degree but I don’t think that a *lack* of a degree signifies a lack of intelligence. It’s a shame uni is peddled as the way forward by many people and therefore seen as the one and only benchmark of intelligence, esp. amongst intellectual types but even moreso in working class families where pushing one kid to go to uni is seen as a triumph. Especially as someone who has a degree herself, I question the intelligence behind someone who explicitly feels as if their qualifications make their opinions more worthwhile than those with lower qualifications or none at all.

“I can totally relate to the points made in the article about middle class feminists and the language of academia. If something can be explained or a point can be made in straightforward language why embellish it? Perhaps this is a sort of intellectual keeping up with the Jones’s?”

Agreed. I am so tired of feeling left out of feminist discussion because of the jargon used. I’m sick of article after article analysising the movement itself instead of instigating an open dialogue between people about challenging issues. Yes, studying women’s rights is great but it should NEVER be a pre-requisitive to getting involved in a democratic dialogue about our personal lifes.

It sometimes feels as if some people use that language subconsciously to keep people with dissenting viewpoints out.

Feminist Avatar – I think the F word is one of the only places online that does talk about working class issues so well! When I feel left out of feminist discussions I’m thinking general feminist forums online like blogs or discussion boards, and even face to face feminist groups – which I tried once over a decade ago in London and hated so much I’ve never been back to one again.

Becca // Posted 12 March 2012 at 12:42 pm

@ironfly – Yes, there are lots and lots of middle class people who really do feel this way and they genuinely do look down on people who live in social housing, earn minimum wage etc. It’s just not trendy and acceptable (in a Guardian reading kind of way) to openly admit to this.

I think this problem of classism stems from our capitalist consumer culture and it’s all to do with people seeking status. In reality constantly chasing these aspirations does not in fact make one happier, it does just the opposite, people will always want more and they’ll never be happy with what they have. What an empty and futile existence it must be for a person who bases their self worth on whether society perceives them as successful. Why are any women, any people in fact, playing along with this? The only people who benefit are the banks and corporations (mostly owned by men I may add).

Also, since consumerism pretty much a creation of the patriarchy, it would serve all women well if they were to distance themselves from such overly materialistic and shallow concerns regarding their social and/or economic status.

Never let anyone make you feel ashamed or insecure about who or what you are.

Pavan Amara // Posted 12 March 2012 at 11:12 pm

Hello all! I wrote this article, so I thought I’d come on and respond to a few of your comments.

Anywavewilldo and Dan – The description of Razia was mainly so you could visualise who I was talking to. I wrote she had a ponytail, a silver puffa jacket, and tight jeans….because she did. I’m not sure why you’ve assumed that’s to do with the ‘class’ issue, rather than what it is, which is a bit of descriptive detail of who’s talking. In fact, I think that description could apply to many people – average height, heels, puffa jacket, jeans digging painfully into hips, hair in pony tail.

It is interesting that the two posters who have mentioned Razia, have discussed the description of her clothes, and not at all what she is actually saying, or the description of the issues she faces. It’s ironic, considering she says ‘feminism…it’s severe…it’s always talking about how short Rihanna’s skirt is’. Yet, the two comments that discuss her revolve around her physical description, and not at all on the fact that she has huge trouble finding a job, with childcare, and with getting any response at all from the CSA. Aren’t they the more pressing issues here? Did they not grab attention more than the description of her clothes did?

Anywavewilldo says: ‘We just need middle-class feminists to get out of our way’ – I don’t agree at all. I don’t believe anybody should feel they have to get out of anybody else’s way, in what should be a movement about equality. The whole point of this article was to emphasise that feminism needs to be more inclusive and more accessible. Nobody can help where they’re born…so why should middle-class feminists get out of our way? Middle-class feminists, feminists straight out of aristocratic families, it doesn’t matter, we’ve all got as much right to be part of a fundamental movement. I don’t believe in classism at all, whatever direction it works in.

Taamara T, Lillian, and Ironfly – Issues surrounding disability and race are very significant. I didn’t want to muddle these subjects up, as they deserve to be focused on properly. Taamara, I don’t feel a paragraph on ableism would do it justice, it’s far too important for that. I will certainly bear in mind that you want these topics discussed.

Feminist Avatar – I don’t feel an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy is being set up. A lot of working-class women feel this way. I interviewed 38 women from across the country, and expected at least a few to say they felt working-class women’s voices were heard adequately within mainstream feminism. None did. I was surprised by that myself. But it’s all too easy to dismiss those feelings by saying an ‘us’ and ‘them’ is being set up. In fact, whenever anyone analyses issues that affect a group, be it a racial group, class group, religious group, ableism etc, an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy always materialises to some extent. It’s very hard to overcome these issues, if we don’t accept that different groups have different experiences of the same movement.

There are far too many interesting points made by lots of you, to comment on each one. One of many that stood out to me, was by Becca, where you talk about how your middle-class mother taught you that you were better than people on housing estates….I always suspected this happened haha! But I never had any way of knowing, so, like Ironfly, that was insightful for me. The language of academia being a sort of keeping up with the Jones’s – also a really good point. I think Taamara T mentioned that there is a difference between coming from working-class tradition and a disadvantaged background. I think a whole article could be written on that point alone!

Well, anyway, I’ve already written lots, so I think I’ll be off now. But it’s great reading all your comments.

Dan // Posted 13 March 2012 at 9:39 am

the depiction of clothing i took umbrage at because it was far from flattering. it made her sound ‘common’ and ‘hard’. why are the working class never depicted as beautiful? ‘they’ or we are always being looked at from outside and told we are our own worst enemy. we can’t even put a pair of jeans without harming or hurting ourselves! it is no surprise razia can’t find work, that is a economic matter rather than a feminist one. work is not the be all and end all anyway, poverty is.

Jess McCabe // Posted 13 March 2012 at 9:43 am

@Dan Just to respond to this:

“it is no surprise razia can’t find work, that is a economic matter rather than a feminist one.”

I think it’s fairly clear from Pavan’s feature that’s not the case – as Razia explained the lack of childcare support means she doesn’t even have time to apply for jobs!

Dan // Posted 13 March 2012 at 10:19 am

@jess most long term unemployed people understand that it is in the interests of the ruling classes that they stay jobless; i think razia implies she knows this when she expresses that the process of filling out forms is ultimately futile, even if she could find half an hour, because ‘She’s not sure who would give her a job anyway’.

Pavan Amara // Posted 13 March 2012 at 8:58 pm

Dan – Heels, puffa jacket, jeans, pony tail – is that all it takes to label someone as “common” or “hard”? I find that amazing considering this piece is meant to be all about classism.

There is no mention of those words anywhere in this piece. In my opinion, you’ve interpreted her clothing to see what you want to see.

If you ask me, personally: a puffa jacket is sensible to wear in late January (when I last saw her). Heels are worn by a lot of people. Too tight jeans, I’d say a lot of people have that going on after Christmas (me included!). Pony tail, it’s very common to put your hair up, especially with young children because it stays out the way. Do you see what I mean about interpretation now?

You say: “Why are the working-class never depicted as beautiful?” – does it really matter if she’s beautiful? Especially considering beauty is such a subjective notion. Considering what she’s saying is vital, is it significant if she’s beautiful or not? I’d love to hear your opinion on what she’s saying, rather than on what she looks like.

“Work is not the be all and end all, poverty is.” It would be interesting for you, to say that to someone who’s currently out of work. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been out of work, but you’ll soon find yourself spiralling into poverty and debt very quickly (unless you have support elsewhere or savings). That will escalate to impact your mental health, diet, sleep patterns, the way you interact with your children, and the way you think about yourself. It’s pretty evident that there’s a strong correlation between poverty and being out of work.

“It is no surprise Razia can’t find work, that is an economic matter rather than a feminist one.” Don’t agree with you. True, there are many men out there who can’t find work. There are also many women who would find it a lot easier finding work if they didn’t have the sole responsibility of child care on their shoulders. Compare a single man’s job search, compared to a woman with a child…the man fills out his application forms when he wants to, the woman waits for her child to get to sleep first. The man in this case doesn’t think about doing homework, getting the child in the bath, making food, the woman in this case spends hours doing that. The single man doesn’t listen to the child’s problems at school first, or filling out forms for school, the woman will, leaving her with less energy when it comes to anything else. We haven’t even got to filling out the application form yet, or even getting the job. In which case, be prepared to engage in a catch-22, where a woman may desperately want to work but there’s no one to pick the child up from school or look after them. Convincing people to do this is another issue altogether. The list goes on. It applies to single fathers as well as single mothers, but given that the Office for National Statistics found (in January) that there were 1,958,000 single parent families in the UK, and 92% of those were mothers, it’s a very feminist issue.

MarinaS // Posted 14 March 2012 at 11:59 am

I think this is an excellent article and a very important issue to tackle; class dynamics unnecessarily divide and diminish our movement and we should definitely do everything we can to make it more inclusive, inviting and accessible. Middle class feminists (such as myself) should check our privilege and always be mindful of the fact that we may be excluding someone without being aware that we are doing so.

But we should NOT change the language of our movement. Over and over in this piece the issue of elitists, specialised, exclusionary language and jargon comes up as a barrier to entry into the movement – the fact that when you first come into a feminist space, you don’t understand what anyone is talking about and that makes the whole thing off-putting.

Well, yes. Every social movement or grouping worthy of membership has its own specialised language. Ever tried reading a gardening magazine? I have to do it with a dictionary! Or how about the Sun football supplement? Nobody is born knowing what a free kick is or the rules of qualifying for the World Cup (PS I tried to write this sentence about five times until I came up with enough football facts to make it make sense).

Women’s gossip magazines and reality shows are no different. Women of all classes and levels of education are perfectly capable of learning specialised medical terms like cellulite and botox, not to mention the frankly intimidating ins and outs of the benefits system (explicitly designed to be too complex for people to figure out fully). Why not patriarchy and rape culture, then?

I’m not making some patronising “bigotry of low expectations” argument about whether or not working class women are smart enough to learn this stuff. We’re all smart enough to learn this stuff if we want to, full stop.

What I’m saying is that the fact that anyone, of any class, is put off by feminist jargon is mostly a factor of internalised misogyny. We don’t expect “mere women’s” concerns to be important and complicated enough to require this level of learning. But why expect feminism to be easier to understand than cricket or patchwork quilting? We need to respect our movement more, if you ask me. And that means proudly demanding that people learn the correct terminology and language to engage in it.

Pavan Amara // Posted 14 March 2012 at 2:57 pm

Hello Marina,

Some interesting points you make there. But I have to say, I disagree on a few. Yes, gardening, football, patchwork…it all has its own terminology, but none of these topics are essential to the way half the world’s population is treated. Feminism is.

It is about women in the developing world, women in this country, of every class, race, religion, who still aren’t treated in the way they deserve to be. It should be accessible to every woman and girl out there, because it’s about every woman and girl out there.

It’s fine to say all women should learn the correct terminology, but is that realistic? In an ideal world, perhaps every woman would, but then again, in an ideal world would 5.2 million people in the UK be illiterate? In my opinion it’s about being realistic. If we’re truly committed to caring for every woman of every background, feminism should be assessible to all.

Terminology makes that difficult. Not because certain women are intelligent enough to pick it up and some aren’t (many of the most intelligent women I know, with the most common sense, don’t read a word of English). But if you look at the real world, how many women out there have the time to dedicate to learning (what they see as) an entirely new subject matter? (Many of these points are made in the article, read what Razia says, and many of the examples given). Especially the ones who don’t know much about the movement already?

Do we expect illiterate women, women in prison (60% of whom have literary problems) to just get on and learn new terminology….despite the literary problems….a bit of a catch-22 perhaps? Or widen the net to engage all women? I think the second option, if only because feminism should be about all women.

MarinaS // Posted 14 March 2012 at 4:23 pm


I’ve just realised that all the examples I gave were of learning new languages through reading; perhaps I had been anchored in the written word by mentions of books, academia, literature etc. in the article. In point of fact it’s not necessary to learn the language of whatever new environment one finds oneself in via reading alone, and a lot of people have all kinds of specialised terminology that they’ve learnt by interacting with others (learning to cook in a family environment springs to mind).

To me, if we want to really talk about “the real world”, then the problem is not that working class or minority women don’t speak feminist language, it’s that we don’t interact. Break the social and physical barriers between us, and we’ll all quickly settle on a feminist patois that suits us all. In any case, I think very few middle class feminists are qualified to make decisions on what will and won’t make feminist discourse easier to relate to; to my mind it’s best to leave language to develop organically over time.

Harriet R // Posted 14 March 2012 at 5:06 pm

MarinaS I agree to an extent, there is no reason why we can’t learn. I think, though, that learning is easier when it happens gradually and maybe the problem is more that newcomers are overwhelmed by new words. Maybe we need more Feminism 101 events and people putting themselves forward as a point of contact for those interested in getting involved but who are nervous?

Pavan Amara // Posted 14 March 2012 at 5:45 pm

Marina, “a lot of people have all kinds of specialised terminology that they’ve learnt by interacting with others” – if women aren’t already involved in feminist thinking or discussion, where are they meant to interact with others who use this specialised terminology? As mentioned in the article, the place a woman is most likely to engage in feminist discussion is at university, yet 49 percent of women don’t attend university. So it’s not quite as easy to access feminism, and feminist terminology, as it is to access a cookbook (I mention a cookbook because you compared it to learning cooking terminology).

True, women of all classes need to interact more. I think that would help the country as a whole, but for it to happen there’d have to be greater opportunities for social mobility.

However, you say: “we’ll all quickly settle on a feminist patois that suits us all….to my mind it’s best to leave language to develop organically over time.” – Only if feminism is diverse in the first place will we develop a language that suits us “all”, at the moment, it’s not engaging everybody (as stated in this piece), that’s the problem.

If like now, feminism is something that continues to draw graduates, more than other sections of the population, then that language will continue to be the language of the highly educated.

The question this article asks is, how do we engage women who feel they don’t have a place in the movement, but should have a place in the movement? Something many of them state is that the language alienates them. I don’t believe it’s possible to deny those experiences.

Mary A // Posted 14 March 2012 at 8:00 pm

Pavan A you have some good views

Marina S you have some good intention. I do not think you know about where I live. I am on langley estate. I have no children but we do not talk about feminism because people say you are a lesbian even if you are not. On the internet I see other women who think the same. If I cannot understand the words how can I be part of you. I ask you that. There is not as much class in England as where I am from. But it is there all over the world.

Ben Davis // Posted 14 March 2012 at 8:46 pm

this article was very interesting and a good way for me to learn what is going on in the world with the feminist movement

keep up the good work and the information coming


S.D. HelloOo // Posted 14 March 2012 at 8:47 pm

where middle class voices are still dominating the debate

MarinaS // Posted 15 March 2012 at 12:30 pm

Harriet: We’ve run a Feminism 101 event with BFN, there was little attendance but it was a good event. I would be absolutely delighted to help organise & participate in more of those. Feel free to tweet me (@marstrina) if you’ve any ideas, *especially* on how to draw a more socio-economically diverse crowd.

sianandcrookedrib // Posted 15 March 2012 at 12:37 pm

i really agree with a lot of this article and believe that we need to make sure feminism is an open and inclusive movement (and i think that making it inclusive to all women should be our actual priority – i often find we talk about being open to men whilst still excluding women!).

I do have a few points of issue though and that is that yes, feminists are talking about refugee women and poverty and women addicts and why women end up in the sex industry and girls’ toys and sexual harassment in all work places. But these issues aren’t ‘sexay’ and don’t get a lot of media coverage. Why talk about how the govt didn’t sign the EU directive on having gender based hate as a form of persecution for claiming asylum when you can have two middle class fems chatting about vajazzling on Newsnight!

So i would be wary in saying that modern feminism isn’t caring about these issues. these are issues i’ve campaigned passionately about but believe me, trying to get press coverage on some of them is a brick wall.

I really enjoyed hearing Carlene Firmin talking about these issues more at Fem 11 and it has really made me think a lot about how we make feminism relevant and welcoming to everyone. Feminist issues are universal and feminism must be universal.

anywavewilldo // Posted 15 March 2012 at 7:15 pm

i’m sitting in a bus station absolutely shaking with anger that somebody has had the gall to question my ‘class credentials’ because my grandparents had, shock, BOOKS. This is a raw gaping hole of a wound in English class strugle, historians have quietly documented how many working class people were self educated and valued book learning like my grandparents. The myth that working class people don’t read is recent and malicious. We have to stop this poisonous idea that as soon as someone gets any kind of education they are not disadvantaged. Divide and Rule even within feminism.

Other points: yes middle class women do need to get out of the way, feminism is everyone’s but there is a world of difference between standing blocking others and being beside each other in struggle.

This discussion is not groundbreaking, but it is revealing many readers think it is, class and feminism debate is as old as feminism itself. Learn your herstory/ourstory

On Razia and clothes, I was not discussing what she was wearing I was commenting on it’s irrelevant inclusion. It wasn’t just background detail and it’s disengenuous to say it was.

And finally about me, I’m sitting here without a spell check. Despite 2 first class (vocational) degrees gained in my 30s and 40s I am still burning with shame that MC women will read my ignorant outpourings, you have no idea! What it’s like to have read foulcault and not be able to pronounce his name, what it’s like to steal food at feminist buffets in my 20s, what it’s like to be left behind when your MC downwardly mobile sisters move to nice towns in the country. Listen… We’ve been saying this a looooonnng time.

Stewey // Posted 15 March 2012 at 8:12 pm

First off, I’m a bloke, but I read this article because I’m interested in class issues – and take umbrage at the way the middle class seem to dominate all discussions – and of course I have every sympathy for feminism.

My comments on the comments are that the writer had every reason to describe what Razia looked like, it adds colour, makes her real. And it’s in context with the point that women are often judged by how they look and what they wear. Dan describes her has being ‘hard’ from this description – a value judgement about someone s/he’s never met which proves the point.

On the language issue (Marina) I’m a journalist and the first thing I was taught was that the reader is intelligent but knows nothing. In other words they are capable of understanding anything, as long as it is explained in a clear way. Big words exclude people, which is why newspapers (and journalists in general) don’t use them. There’s never any need for specialised language unless people want to sound clever.

CarolineFletcher - Bristol // Posted 16 March 2012 at 12:47 am

This is becoming something of a cult piece on the internet, well done F-word and hats off to Pavan Amara. I wondered what all the commotion was when I saw my MP twitter this. Women’s parliamentary labour party should be discussing this article.

Middle-class and working-class women grow up in very different environments but our society doesn’t cater to this. As this article mentions there are aspects of feminism that do, but a lot of it doesn’t. I didn’t grow up on a housing estate but do come from a working-class area in Rochdale. I can relate to a lot of what this article says.

Maybe we should be taking action about this issue? I’m not sure how. Harriet suggests feminism 101, which is a good idea. I’d want to be involved in that. I’m pleased to see it’s finally being talked about.

Thank you to the writer for this. I do go to a feminist group in Manchester and some of the women there said this was a very radical piece of writing. I don’t think it’s radical to say classism has no place in feminism. But I do think that’s a radical concept to be discussing because it hasn’t been discussed before. Not in such depth. I can’t find more of Pavan Amara’s feminist writing on the internet, does anyone know why? I’d like to read more. This is one of the best things I’ve read in yonks.

Harriet R // Posted 17 March 2012 at 5:21 pm

I wish I had ideas for how to make events appealing and accessible to a wider range of women but I’m afraid I’m one of those uni educated middle class feminists who lives in a bit of a bubble (not sarcasm – it’s a blessing for my mental health but does mean I’m not much use for important issues like this!).

My comment on having a point of contact is from my experience in the university’s LGBTsoc, where we stress on our website and elsewhere that the committee are there to talk to, one-on-one, and will happily meet up with members before events if they’re nervous. It’s not so practical if you’re not a student, I know, but having someone you can email or text to say you’re interested but nervous can be a great way of sticking a toe in the water. I don’t know if this would extend easily outside the university environment, but might be an idea?

Thomas // Posted 20 March 2012 at 6:37 pm

@MarinaS “What I’m saying is that the fact that anyone, of any class, is put off by feminist jargon is mostly a factor of internalised misogyny.”

I don’t think it’s just feminist jargon though. Most people, of either gender, are put off by jargon full stop. What matters to most people? Their family, their friends, their work, their hobbies. And that’s fine, feminism can change people’s lives without them having to learn a new arcane language.

anywavewilldo // Posted 20 March 2012 at 7:05 pm

I originally tried to reply here on 15th March but my comments seem to have been lost. I do not think I will be able to recreate how angry I was, but I sat shaking for 20 minutes in a draughty bus station thinking up what to say – anyway it some of it goes something like this:

I cannot believe that somebody had the gall to dismiss me and call out my class credentials because I mentioned BOOKS. You cannot believe how angry and shamed this makes me feel – it is based on the idea of a stereotypical working class ‘deprived’ babckground which sets us up as lumpen proles without a voice – in this scenario anyone who is working class & educated; or articulate; or interested in current affairs etc. becomes *not working class enough* to speak for themselves. This means only the *voiceless* working class can speak – how convenient!

what hurts me the most is that many working class women have come to believe this ourselves.

I refuse to play class cred chess and go into the entirety of my upbringing – however I will say that I an over 40 and I was raised by my grandparents who were born about 90-100 years ago in a time when working class self education was not thought unusual. You cannot believe what a relief it was to me whan I found the book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose which meticulously documents how working class people have an amazing history of self and peer education – from shepherds who left books in walls for each other to find; weavers who read out loud to others as they worked; or the people who saved from their wages to set up mobile libraries and mechanics institutes.

I was taught most of my feminism round kitchen tables by other feminists who also lent me books – I bought books second hand, used the local library and occasionally stole them. Mostly I learnt through activism and what would now be called zines. University has naff all to do with my feminism and by the time I took my first of two (vocationa!) degrees I was far more educated about feminism that anyone in my college – including the lecturers.

This idea that working class women are not able to find time or interest for a feminist self education is pernicious – it’s part of the ‘discourse’ (meaning the almost universal buzz of a dominant way of hearing about things)that working class people are ignorant and cannot speak for ourselves. To tell me I’m not working class because I’m bookish is one of the worst things you can say to me, because it denies one of the greatest struggles of my life [particularly as I’m dyslexic and can read with ease but cannot spell).

As a working class dyke feminist I am not unusual – we are big on self sufficency and bookishness is common. It is also common among working class Jews, Irish Catholics and Methodists heritage women among others. I am not denying that working class people are horrendously disadvantaged in education – but we also have this tradition of fighting back.

I do think that middle class women need to get out of our way – we need you *beside us* not always taking up room at the front. I despise how university is teaching middle class feminists an arrogance in theory where they will often use secondary sources to contradict me about events and movements I was actually involved in. Accademic feminism has been poisoned and without a grass roots feminism to keep it grounded it is worse than useless.

Feminism, especially in the second ‘wave’ was about self education even for middle class women – it was about training yourself to percieve ‘double’, to percieve the oppression society was telling you was ‘natural’. This cannot be learnt in a university, it can only be learned in struggle.

Dee // Posted 9 April 2012 at 9:50 pm

I have to say, I do agree with ‘anywavewilldo’ to a large extent, that

‘based on the idea of a stereotypical working class ‘deprived’ babckground which sets us up as lumpen proles without a voice – in this scenario anyone who is working class & educated … becomes *not working class enough* to speak for themselves.’

This article does seem to do the opposite of what is intended if you look at it in one way – it separates the educated middle class from the uneducated working class, when in reality things just don’t work like that – it’s a sliding scale where we should all feel comfortable! The article does make me feel excluded, as someone from a single-mother family from a council estate, who has two degrees from a Russell group university. For people like me, where is our place to speak? And we are not the exception to the rule! Personally, I find that debates like this further the gap, where I find that I can’t stand with the educated middle class girls as they look at me as working class, yet I can’t stand with the working class girls, as they look down on me in their own way – why are we creating these divisions?

Rachael // Posted 26 April 2012 at 10:54 am

Just wanted to mention that even as a graduate (studied physics, & I’m from a working class/lower middle class family), I find the use of academic jargon in feminist discussions seriously offputting and it does make me feel a bit like I’m not quite welcome or not quite the kind of person who the writers were intending to address. Or that I can’t make a contribution to discussions myself and be taken seriously. It’s not just non-graduates who are excluded by this, it’s people who haven’t got a very specific background in the humanities.

Joe // Posted 30 April 2012 at 2:10 pm

Great debate here. Wanted to add one thing about language. It depends what you are doing — outreach, discussing in your group, etc. Eliminating jargon completely from outreach work makes sense to me. But sometimes you need new words for new ideas. For instance, patriarchy is a key concept here, it would be hard to do without the word. So I agree with MarinaS about that. However (not that this contradicts those comments) introducing some helpful terms is a different thing from littering discussions with needless academic post-modernist (or whatever type of) jargon. Nine out of ten times when someone says “dialectic”, for instance, they don’t mean anything difficult or subtle, and could easily have said something else. I agree with the “keeping up with the Jones'” comment there. When exclusive expertise and knowledge equals money and privilege, people will protect that privilege from others by creating an in-group lingo. So jargon is not there to help understanding all of the time. That’s what is happening in academia (I’m an academic scientist by the way). In activism that sort of overuse of jargon can be pointless, unwelcoming and harmful to the cause I think. And yes, classist. I don’t know to what extent this is a problem for feminist organizations first hand but this fits with some of the experiences mentioned above. The comments here so far are free of it anyway, and really thought-provoking as well!

Lala // Posted 1 May 2012 at 3:38 pm

I am currently writing a dissertation on feminism and youth work and found the article very thought provoking and challenging. I myself still struggle with identifying with my working class roots or my now middle class surroundings. That said after much thought I can definitely relate to the differences between working class and middle class feminism. The women I know who can talk about feminism are educated middle class women, most however don’t live out feminism in their lives but are good at talking about it. My 82 year Nan, single parent family friend and all the other amazing working class women in my life don’t ever talk about being a feminist, after recent conversation I know some don’t even know what feminism is yet these are the women who live out feminism in their everyday lives.

JH // Posted 9 May 2012 at 4:04 pm

This is an excellent article and addresses some key issues regarding the ‘accessibility’ of feminism to working class women.

The feminist message has become very cloudy, with academic or militant feminism making up most of the general understanding for many people. I think the issue is also to do with what one expects as a ‘member’. For example, as a mature student covering Social Policy and Sociology on my course along with 25 other women, only 3 considered themselves a feminist. The backgrounds of the women are all very different and range from very affluent to working class. The reasons highlighted for not considering themselves ‘feminists’ was, however, very similar. They discussed issues which relate to stereotypes created decades ago, including dungarees, cropped hair and hairy legs/armpits. These three descriptions came out top in what a feminist ‘is’ in my group.

I have also worked in education with 14-16 year olds considered to have ’emotional and behavioural issues’. A very illuminating group to work with regarding socio-political issues.

I have noticed that there appears to be an overall lack of desire to label oneself with a cloudy term laden with difficult questions to answer, lack of cohesion and a perception that remains of those ‘ball breaking man-haters’ created decades ago. Feminism is still regularly discussed purely in terms of women and rarely includes a male perspective which I think is also a problem.

With all this to deal with, how can younger women see it as anything other than an anachronistic realm of the educated, which demands they exclude their partners if they happen to be male? I’m not suggesting no feminists include men in their dialogue, it’s the message being received, as in the article, which is the issue at hand.

Areas which should be more openly addressed, for example, housing, employment, childcare responsibilities/reproduction issues get lost in the mire as the message melts into the academic overintellectualised aspects of real life. Perhaps if the discussions were based more on what directly affects women socially, rather than focusing on the ‘top jobs’ and numbers of women in parliament, younger, working class women could begin relating to the message. Once again, I’m not suggesting the former are not important issues, they are simply not of immediate importance to women being hammered by the austerity cuts for example, or having to move away from friends and family because of the recent housing bill.

Lesley // Posted 14 May 2012 at 11:55 am

I am from a very poor working class background, although I am now probably what would be called lower middle class.

I agree that sometimes arguments and theories are written in such a way that they are difficult to understand unless you are an academic. I don’t think feminism should be dumbed down in terms of ideas, but it is wrong to make it unnecessarily difficult to understand. And I actually do think feminism does discuss a lot of the issues that affect working class women such as childcare, reduction in welfare benefits, maintenance issues, etc. Perhaps there could be more of this though?

I do object though to the way in which articles like this often portray all working class women as not able to understand more difficult language or theories or more abstract arguments. I think this is totally untrue and does set up a them and us dichotomy. There are plenty of radical feminist bloggers for example who say on their blogs that they are working class or poverty class and often barely scraping enough money together to pay the basic bills.

In discussions of feminism I would like to see more women talking about their experiences and hwo patriarchy affects them – a kind of online consciousness raising thing. This is a more accessible way to begin to understand feminist ideas for anyone for whom these ideas are new.

lil1 // Posted 15 May 2012 at 3:09 am

Two things corrupt the understanding/image of women’s movements, and create alianation.

1. Pernicious anti-woman caricaturing (ending in the ‘man-hating’ ‘ball breaking’ tropes) from male-centric resistance – not the movement’s fault. This gets fed and circulated round under the sweeping ‘feminist’ label quite conveniently.

2. Acedemia’s increasing theorizing of the women’s movement – which I try to see as separate from the movment itself – I believe the jargon and speculation comes from academia, even though the movement has had to navigate a classist system such that the main voice was book-read and middle class. Not middle-class women’s fault.

This is why the working class can’t relate. They get fed lie after lie and get no chance to hear that the movement is not made up of a few women’s opinions on what they wear and is not one exclusive ‘feminist’ think tank but very multi-faceted.

The movement itself isn’t failing to reach out. It’s ‘shortcomings’ are just a symptom of its misrepresentation by the resistive and classist world in which it had to evolve.

Lindsey Spilman // Posted 12 June 2012 at 12:21 pm

My experience of present day feminist groups is that they have become a product of internalized sexism, at a group i attended i found the women there to be stuck on ideas from ages past, not interested in any new ideas opinions and perspectives. The issues of focus again were objectification of women, lapdancing etc. I think that in times gone past working class women and middle class women have experienced sexism in different ways. Working class women have had more freedom to dress in a way that is considered by many middle class women as over the top in terms of showing too much. Since victorian times middle class women have been taught that sexuality is degrading, But this concept cannot be applyed to all women. Many working class women have had other concerns, had to do jobs where they get dirty and have to wear overalls and uniforms. They have had less money to spend on clothes so instead might want to dress up at the weekends and glam up more. Middle class women might be more inclined to dress formal in the week and smart casual at weekends. Middle class women may still be in the old box of repression in terms of modesty. My observation of feminists is they often are more sexist and more restricted then the average working class woman. Single women on benifits with children are looked down on, but lets not forget there the head of the household. Feminists are academic but often lack the common knowledge of life experience. Todays middle class women are all about competition against other women, to the point where women no longer trust other women. The feminist group i attanded was so full of internalized sexism they were happy to say that the best feminist writings are often written by men. I could not comment on this being new to the academic side of feminism. I dont think there will ever be another wave of feminism because in reality there is not much to fight for. The things that are holding women back now are there selves and each other, any new wave of feminism has to start in your self, and it has to be about no longer caring about what other women think of you as the second you look for female approval you will find in its place some one ready to put you down. Women are no different to men, theres no sister hood just like theres no brotherhood. Its every man for himself and he is taught that from being a kid. Women are taught that we must stick together, this may not be human nature. People only tend to come together when theres something to fight for, sad but true.

Mijanou // Posted 2 February 2015 at 4:50 pm

I found it a very good article, but was only very sad when I came to the part of Anastasia Richardson, who refers to prostitutes as Sex workers. I have known and been friends with many prostitutes over the years , and the inhumanity I saw in the way they were treated by their pimps and /or customers still makes me sad until today. Maybe she should go and befriend some before she speaks fairy tales. I’m a feminist, but I never found any group that did fit with me, sometimes it was because I’m low schooled, sometimes it was because I’m straight. I do, however, believe man and woman are equal, and that that’s all that matters.

Tam // Posted 24 August 2015 at 6:40 pm

Quoted— ‘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’

I have a different take on this. As a working class woman who struggles with money, accepting status as “secondary provider” is a luxury I can’t afford. I don’t earn as much as my boyfriend but I have to do what it takes to make sure I provide my proper share, regardless of what else is going on in my life. Because it would make me feel insecure not to and as a working class man my partner would never accept me not pulling my weight.

More work means less time for feminism and I wonder if financial partner support is why middle class women dominate the movement so much. For e.g., I sometimes go to a feminist group, and I know at least two highly pro-active members who choose their own work hours but openly say they have no problem telling their partners to pay lion’s share of bills as he’s a higher earner. They don’t feel bad about this maybe because of confidence and priviledge. The rest of the group benefits from their higher input but also feels beholden.

My obsevation is that some middle class men on high’ish earnings are willing to at least partly support a woman if thats what she requires. If she needs need extra time to train, study, volunteer, campaign or blog lots, so be it. Wheras working class men… the ones I know anyway… seem to want things on their own terms. Whether its a wife at home, so he can feel like the provider, or a woman who gets her nose to the grindstone and isn’t a burden for him, so he doesn’t feel like he’s working the grind to serve a lady.

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