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Equality Feminism and class politics today

BRITISH feminist Michele Barrett asks: “To what extent are we justified in regarding the oppression of women as an ideological process?” 

In Women’s Oppression Today (1980), Barrett argues that gender divisions in society are not an essential element of capitalist modes of production.

Her view is that divisions of sex — what she terms “gender” — preceded the capitalist mode of production and, as capitalism developed, it adapted and used this existing division between men and women to further entrench material alienation.

From there, women’s subordination became part of capitalism to the extent that it is is considered mandatory for the “success” of the free market.

Still, gender divisions are historically established and largely integral to — but not necessarily a condition of — capitalism.

Posing the question of women’s oppression as ideological, Barrett explores the “material base” of oppression and addresses ideology as a possible source of oppression. 

She points to radical feminism as not being sufficient to “provide an adequate analysis of the oppression it denounced with such certainty and its parallel silence about an adequate political strategy for change.

“In posing women’s oppression simply as the affect of male domination, it refuses to take account of the widely differing structures and experience of that oppression in different societies, periods of history and social classes.

“Most importantly, in so far as women’s oppression is inevitably embedded in relations between men and women, the strategy of separatism sometimes advocated by this current is no strategy at all, for it can never change things.

“Even in the areas where it has contributed most, such as the analysis of sexual politics, radical feminism refuses to attend to issues that cannot be incorporated into the elemental model of male supremacy.”

I have thought quite a bit about this quote by Barrett and how feminists might address the condition of women’s oppression from the strategies drawn up to challenge the various forms of oppression within social relations to the examinations of the language and narratives we employ in these discussions. 

Barrett’s cogent critique of women’s domestic work and social segregation of labour is a central focus of this book and it demands that feminism never be divorced from questions of class in examining women’s oppression and the role of capitalism. 

Yet many invested in women’s rights view class discussions as disruptive to feminism, even if they might acknowledge that class is important.

How do we square class as lip service versus class seriously considered by those who view it is an integral, inseparable part of feminism. 

These are questions that are simply not easily answerable given that questions of “bad faith” so easily come into play that few are engaging seriously in this most important debate.

Add to this the fact that, even strident anti-capitalists like myself are still subject to the pull of capitalism — this computer that I use, the software I purchase, my glasses, my transport tickets and so forth.

Indeed, social facts have been perfectly incorporated into capitalism such that today the measured statistics of male and female driving habits and risks of collision, for instance, have determined that females of a certain age range pose a lesser risk, so most females comparatively have cheap car insurance compared to males.

Similarly, most healthcare products and procedures for women are far more expensive than for men — on average, 7 per cent more. 

Even services for women like haircuts and sanitary products are more expensive, compared with men who have Viagra funded on the NHS.

So women as an oppressed subject are caught within the spectre of capitalism and that of societal sex-based discrimination.  

According to Barrett, the understanding that capitalism necessitates the separation of home and workplace and thus women’s relegation to the home and their exclusion from the workforce is a tacit acknowledgement that biological reduction is inevitable.

She shows that in Britain the relegation of women to the home and to low-waged labour has involved negotiations with male trade unionists where the questions of which skills are deemed more socially viable. 

Not unrelated to this discussion is the questioning of which sex undertakes childcare since the balance of what is valued in terms of monetary retribution and what is assumed upon the female body are considered largely as natural repercussions of the female body and not socialisation, all of which benefits males.   

Barrett is clear on the dynamics between the relations of gender and labour — women’s oppression in any capitalist society is characterised by a particular notion of family that is informed by both ideological and material structures.

And it is this formation which has a fundamental effect on the relationship between women's wages and the domestic labour they perform. 

In Britain, this relationship forms what is understood as “class” and class is a discourse of how individuals are earmarked within society. 

Class markers are everything from haircut to dress, to accent, neighbourhood, material wealth, employment or lack thereof and education. 

Yet class also explains these very relations which Barrett undertakes in her critique of certain feminist analyses that negate the basis of class altogether.

I have been involved in some very fruitful discussions with women in recent weeks about class and I have learned volumes about how the British conceive class differently from people in the US for whom class translates largely to economics such that you can have a  president with a strong Queens working-class accent who also happens to be a multimillionaire and the collision of these facts does not make Donald Trump read at all as working class. 

Money in the US subverts many, not all, questions of class since green is the lingua franca there.

In Britain, however, class is far more pernicious and is, for many, a mark, an unconscious element of one’s identity that is unshakeable. 

Because of this complex construction, class within feminism is often perceived as a wrench in the machinery since every woman has her story and the voices considered representative of any movement, regardless of mandate or actual composition of the group,— tend to be middle to middle-upper-class and white.  

Even when women want to discuss the reality of women in the present day of discrimination, sexual harassment scandals that read like lottery number announcements on the nightly news and the roll-out of new budget cuts that inevitably effect females more than males, women are inevitably trapped within the reality of class.

Certainly, since the Weinstein scandal broke this past autumn, almost all voices elaborating sexual harassment tend to be those of women who can afford to take the economic hit for speaking.  

Yet many questions remain. How might we discuss class when it is as autobiographically informed as it is socially inscribed?

How can we constructively address class when some regard class as social stigma while others view economics as its central signifier?

How might all voices be heard on class concerns while remaining in solidarity with one another where disagreement does not translate to division? 

And how can we define class today without falling into the trap of identity politics that either rests upon narratives of “who suffers the most” or those that deem structural oppression as tertiary to women’s reality?  


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