On becoming a working class feminist and ‘choice’: a personal reflection

history is history of class struggles

I’ve been to two feminist events this year where the issue of class was presented by women who were not working-class or of working-class background. Each woman (three women, two events) was an articulate speaker who raised interesting and valid points but that isn’t the issue, as feminists there is no need for us to make class an anthropological issue.  Sure, feminism has a class problem, but that does not mean that there aren’t any feminists who are able to articulate class issues from a position as anything other than ‘other’.  It’s only as I wrote this that I realised how much I talked about ‘choice’ and how my own story is about the ways that class and sex influence and limit choice.

I’m not going to even try to define class here, I’ll leave that to the sociologists; but rather than continue to gripe about middle-class feminists commandeering class, I thought I ought to talk about what being a working-class feminist means to me.

My mother and biological father met working in John Crowther’s Mill, a textile manufacturing mill in Milnsbridge, West Yorkshire. It was 1967, the year that the Abortion Act was passed in the British parliament.  Pregnant at 17 to a married Sicilian immigrant who didn’t speak very much English, my mother married her on-off boyfriend,  I’m not sure how much ‘right to choose’ she really had.  She doesn’t recall knowing that abortion was an option –“I never even thought about it,” –  and the same with the pill, which had been available since 1961 “I never even thought about that either, I might’ve heard of it ….”.  There was perhaps a 50-50 chance that she was marrying the father of her soon-to-be child, but she wasn’t; the best-man, not the groom was the daddy, though it was  much later that I became aware of this.  As far as I was concerned, up until my early 20s, I was the daughter of an ex-mill worker/factory packer/auxiliary-nurse/shop-worker mother and a plumber/builder dad.

Class is not simply about poverty.  We weren’t poor. My mother had been, she’d grown up as the third child and oldest girl of 12 siblings.  I’ve heard stories of six-mile walks in winter by children to borrow coal from relatives; the need to get home early to get the best pick of clothes for a night out; shared beds, not just shared rooms; coats that doubled as blankets and lying to friends about birthday presents that never transpired.  I never went hungry and most of our meals were home cooked, the smattering of convenience foods being more about exciting 70s fashions than anything else.  My ‘dad’ was controlling (tight) with money, though I’d say this was more about control and power than poverty, he drove a flash American imported sports car, but my sister and I grew up in a mixture of new clothes, family hand-me-downs and jumble-sale bargains, but if that was poverty or disadvantage, I was barely aware of it .  My mum’s youngest sister, my aunt, was less than four years older than me and I looked up to her, growing into the clothes that she was growing out of was a welcomed rite of passage,  The annual jumble sale at my primary school a much anticipated event among all my friends.  Memories of a new coat from C&A (for anyone who doesn’t know, by no means an expensive brand) are bittersweet, my mum cutting the price label out and telling me to pretend that it had cost less than it actually had because she wasn’t supposed to spend that much on clothes. Years later,  she told me that one of the reasons she’d returned to work was because ‘she wasn’t given’ enough money for clothes for the children. I remember walking to school with a friend, I would have been any age between 8 and 11, and her telling me that her dad said ‘if he had your dad’s money, he’d spend more of it on his children’, and trying to argue my way out of the stinging indignant humiliation.

I was educated at local state schools, attending one of the country’s first purpose-built comprehensives, long before the concept of choice was widely used in free education.  For whatever reasons, I did ‘well’ at school.  My secondary school was large, I think approximately 1,800 pupils;  some classes were streamed according to ability, so in time, though I wasn’t conscious of this, my peers became increasingly (but by no means exclusively) those doing well at school  and, therefore,  not coincidentally, increasingly those from relatively privileged backgrounds.  Looking back, class meant my subject choices at ‘O’ and ‘A’ level weren’t hampered by the parental influence of the need to build a good career foundation, less pressure to revise and no pressure to stick at learning to play an instrument, things that I experienced as freedoms and which were sometimes the envy of friends from more advantaged backgrounds. So, I picked ‘O’ levels based on a mixture of what I wanted, which teachers I wanted to avoid and some minor school regulations based on what was deemed appropriate –or not – for a bright kid. (Therefore a language and not typing or the wonderfully named ‘office practise’, and physics not general science.)

I didn’t really choose to do ‘A’ levels but picked some because that’s what my peers were doing (again free choice so: Sociology, Geography and Art) and a further education college rather than the  small school sixth form because I’d snogged and was avoiding too many of the boys that would have been in the sixth form.  I wasn’t sure that I’d end up at the sixth form college anyway, I applied for jobs over the summer holiday and remember receiving a lovely hand-written letter from  Batley’s Cash and Carry telling me that I had ‘far too much going for me’ to leave school and work there.  My ‘dad’ asked me why I was bothering, I’d only be having babies, so I was just wasting time.

‘A’ level college was the first time I recall experiencing class making me feel different.  The main intakes were from local fee-paying schools, or so it seemed, maybe it was just that I knew only a handful of similar stragglers from my old school and they were a slightly larger,  but much louder,  pack. I felt silenced by their confident chatter, although also from Huddersfield their accents were different from mine.  I didn’t mix with them. I couldn’t like The  Smiths, ‘cos they did. I dropped ‘A’ level art because I couldn’t find my voice amongst theirs, I had a nagging feeling that I was as good as most of them, better than some, but I knew that after college, if this was what I had to compete with, I would be lost.

Around the same time, I started doing an evening class in psychology.  I hadn’t chosen biology ‘O’ level, so this was my introduction to dominant and recessive genes. The tutor of my class must have been relieved when I decided that my impossible ‘dominant gene’ brown eyes from parents with recessive gene blue and green eyes and my blond and blue-eyed younger brother and sister meant that I must be a ‘genetic throw-back’.  I remember coming home and talking about it, and what now I might call the sound of tumbleweed.

Through sociology, I found a name for the feeling of being different: class.  It was 1984/85, although Huddersfield was a mill not a mining town, the miners’ strike felt alive around us and anyway the job losses were echoed in the decline of the mills.  I discovered Billy Bragg and pop and politics merged in my teenage identity. Sometime after ‘class’, sociology introduced me to the concept of feminism.   “How stupid!”, I thought, how could I ever have more in common with the posh girls from the private schools than a man who worked in a pit? Luckily though, as we moved on to socialist and radical feminism, the ideas of women like Shulasmith Firestone and Sheila Rowbotham showed me how class and feminist politics needn’t be mutually exclusive – and honestly, since the exposure to ideas through ‘A’ level sociology,  nothing has been the same.

I drifted into university much in the same was that I drifted into ‘A’ levels.  My mum had left my dad.  I was the first of my family to go to university, though my grandparents’ twelve children have had twenty-five children between them and several of my cousins and one of my aunts have also since attended university.  I was in the South at the University of Kent. Northern, working-class, from a broken-home, back-combed hair, second hand 50/60s dresses and old men’s coats.  I felt different and I wanted it that way, but when the daughter of a doctor (she was studying law)  told me I was lucky, that I had a credibility that she could never have, I knew she was talking shite.  I stuck with sociology, read more about Marx, about domestic and sexual violence, about patriarchy.  We marched for miners, we marched against Thatcher, against Clause 28 and against the Poll Tax.  I learnt the truth about my parentage and those dominant gene brown eyes.  I wasn’t a genetic throw-back but half-Italian. What I saw in the mirror now made sense. I met my biological dad (if I was expecting Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, I got Danny De Vito) a handful of new half-brothers and sisters and my Sicilian/Italian family.

Having the benefit of a degree (through a free education) and a working-class background places me on a class margin, add to that a sense of always feeling ‘a bit different’ in the home I grew up in but not knowing why.  Neither one thing nor the other, always a bit too much of ‘something different’ to truly feel in place anywhere. If I’d ever doubted it, my work history in women’s refuges and hostels means that I have met countless women and children whose backgrounds and life chances make my own look steeped in advantage and privilege.  I can compare my own life to that of my mum, to my sister and brother and know that I have had opportunities that they have been denied.  But still, attending meetings with people whom I don’t know, especially ‘higher-ranking’ professionals means that when I first open my mouth and speak and my working-class Yorkshire accent comes out, I frequently detect a quick flicker of surprise in their eyes.  Being a woman and working-class means that I am no stranger to hearing an ignored suggestion that I have made earlier,  later  repeated by a man, or in a different accent or both, accepted and valued.  Being a woman and working-class means that only very recently, I stopped telling myself that long-haul holidays, talking on the radio, writing a blog, buying the car that I wanted were not for ‘people like me’.

Unlike age, disability, gender reassignment, disability, marriage/civil-partnership, pregnancy/maternity, race, religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation, class it not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 which sought to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, replacing previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act.  It means that the analysis of class, of poverty, of the importance of access to education and their impact on life chances is missing from most equalities training and equality policies.  Its inclusion could potentially have created a tool with which to fight the policies of class-hate, the welfare reforms that disadvantage the poor  and stigmatise poverty,  the erosion of free education pushed through by recent governments of all persuasions.  Many of the accidental and fortuitous ‘choices’ that I made, are now denied to children who are like the child I was.

My mum has told me that she doesn’t know where I got my ‘strong opinions’ but I do: free education, a sociology degree and feminism.  Choice doesn’t exist without the limits of social context.  My life experiences and my education have made me the woman that I am, the choices that I didn’t have are as much part of me as the choices that I made.  Professor Liz Kelly recently made what seemed at the time to be a passing comment, that class was about access to ideas.  Looking at myself, this was absolutely critical.  The thing that changed me was access to ideas.

To those through history who fought for free and compulsory education for all children, for equality for girls and women, for every feminist, class warrior and teacher who shaped my ideas, and my mum –  accidental teenage parent without the choice of the pill or abortion and with a baby to ‘the wrong man’ – thank you for giving me somewhere to grow ‘strong opinions’.  To organisers of feminist events who, rightfully want to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of life opportunities according to class, let us working-class women with strong opinions speak for ourselves. We can, you know; and we have things to say that are worth listening to.

9 thoughts on “On becoming a working class feminist and ‘choice’: a personal reflection

  1. Amazing reflection. Sociology is a brilliant discipline. There’s something for everyone under the sociological umbrella. Class, race, disability etc. It talks to people about themselves;who they are and what they can become. Also, looking after each other.

  2. great piece… as a black academic who grew up in detroit in and out of the middle class… it’s always tricky to figure out what my positionally is regarding my right to speak to working class feminism, etc… i appreciate having another perspective to really give some thought

  3. Thank you for writing this. I am very stereotypically middle-class, so it isn’t my experience, but I am thinking at the moment about the state of HE and there couldn’t be a better argument that we need to sort it out than this.

  4. l puzzle over notions of class. It is a useful concept for understanding history and social stratification but it now rests on so many assumptions that it appears to me a meaningless term. I attended the nearest Uni to home (Poly) after completing an Access course to do a sociology degree when I was thirty. As a mature single parent I found the issue of class problematic unable to fit myself clearly in to either working class or (lower) middle class categories. Poor, female, poorly educated (notably from secondary school onwards) with a selection of manual jobs on my CV l was very much drawn to the idea of being part of an underclass. This may possibly sit alongside current conceptions of the 99%. What is class anyway? Just proof that your family were top of the tree for exploitative bullies? Roll on the republic!

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