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25 March 2012

How feminism excludes working class women

By Pavan Amara

You might wonder what stops Razia Yilmaz getting a job.

The single mother-of-two spends most of her day alone, half way up a tower block on London’s Edmonton Green estate. She needs more money but the Child Support Agency rarely pick up the phone, she needs more support but there’s no family to speak of, and she needs more time but neither five year old Sonja or seven month old Tara’s fathers are around to help her.

The 21 year old wants to work, if only for the adult company. But she doesn’t know where she’d leave the kids, where she’d find the time or peace to fill out lengthy job application forms, or who would give her a job anyway.

“Give me a choice in the next life, and I’ll be a bloke,” she laughs. “It’s easier.” I ask her about feminism but she’s hesitant. She goes on to compare it to a political party “you know don’t care about you anyway.”

“[Feminism] doesn’t make any difference here,” she says.”None of them live round here.” By “them” she means feminists, because none of the women she knows would define themselves as such. She talks about feminists “going out shouting and waving signs up, talking about how short Rihanna’s skirt is, saying you don’t like men.”

Yet, for decades, countless women fought for the rights Razia was born with, under the proud banner “feminist”.

When undertaking research for their book Reclaiming The F-word, lecturer in Sociology Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern found the single most important factor in people calling themselves feminists was higher education.

But in 2009, 49 per cent of female school leavers did not attend university, meaning that nearly half of the female population did not encounter this key point of access to a movement that’s criticised — perhaps as a consequence of this bias — for being mainly middle-class.

In her December 2011 essay “As many shoes as she likes”, published in the London Review of Books, journalist and book reviewer Jenny Turner discusses the “books as bombs hypothesis”. She writes: “Feminist ideas circulated in the 1960s and 1970s through books…ever since, this book-as-bomb model has come to stand for the progress of feminism in general.”

But, if feminist books are markers of progression, then current figures tell us that the movement is beyond the scope of 5.2 million “functionally illiterate” adults in the UK. It also surpasses 4,400 female prisoners — a group likely to have insights considering half have experienced domestic abuse, and one third sexual abuse. Eighty per cent of prisoners have writing skills at or below the level expected of an eleven-year-old, and 60 per cent have literacy problems, making books fairly inaccessible. The books enthralling UK feminists will pass over many refugee or immigrant women who speak little English, and won’t engage the many who were failed by the education system and lack faith in their reading abilities.

Research by Maureen Perry-Jenkins and Karen Folk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that only a decade ago “working-class employed housewives did a significantly higher proportion of traditionally feminine chores than women in middle-class occupations”. If this figure remains accurate, it means less time to read the latest books or go to feminist conferences usually held away from residential areas, in the centre of major cities.

Natalie Dzerins, 22, grew up in a two-bedroom terraced in Bradford, and studied law at Leeds University. She considers herself a “proud feminist”.

“You go to feminist debates and they’re all talking in theories,” she said. “When I first read feminist books it took me years to understand the cryptic language they would use, because 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.”

24-year-old Rachel Owen grew up as one of five children on a housing estate in Blackeley, Manchester. “Most women here won’t go to feminism meetings, they’re tired at the end of the day, and don’t want to outdo each other with academic debate. If you are going to drag you and your kids out, then it’ll be somewhere more grassroots, supportive.”

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 on the bottom rungs of a capitalist system.

Practically, the face of the feminist movement tends to be dominated by highly-educated women from middle-class backgrounds. But issues important to 21st century feminism reflect the women active within it, yet the daily experiences of those at the top of the social ladder couldn’t be further from those at the bottom.

A lone 18-year-old with a child is five times more likely than the average victim to suffer from crime. One per cent of the population suffers 59 per cent of all violent crime. Two per cent suffers 41 percent of all property crime.

Considering most criminals commit their offences within 1.8 miles of their front door, and tend to live in areas of lower rents, the six million living on UK council estates experience a different reality from those in middle class areas.

Feminism needs to tailor itself to all women, not just those found within university corridors and libraries. If it doesn’t apply itself to the women who don’t know they need feminism, it will continue to preach to the converted, and its message deserves to be understood by any woman — illiterate, with breast implants, or not.

Click here to read more on Feminism: Excluding Working-Class Women

Pavan Amara is a 24-year-old newspaper journalist with a particular interest in feminism, class and race issues.

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