What the Hell kinds of Feminists are you Reading, Alison Wolf?

In today’s Guardian, Alison Wolf wrote a piece entitled ‘Feminists today are too obsessed with their own elite, metropolitan lives’. She points out some important facts:

“Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of nursery assistants, care assistants, dishwashers and housekeepers – armies of women doing traditional female tasks. Nurseries and care homes are big sectors, and we outsource most of what we once did in kitchens at home: fewer and fewer meals are prepared at home. Workers in these sectors are low-paid. They are part of the 24/7 service economy which underpins professional lives. They are also overwhelmingly female.”

But with this valid point (though I’ll come back to that repeated word ‘we’ in a minute), she launches an attack on feminist writing itself.

“Sisterhood” is dead. Different women have very different lives, and interests. … I wish that feminist voices spent more time speaking about the millions of low-paid female employees on whom elite lives depend, and less about boardrooms and Westminster.”

This is a remarkably ignorant conclusion, one that could only be reached by ignoring feminist writing almost entirely. It’s a cheap, badly researched piece, that deserves a short answer, but it does deserve an answer, if only to celebrate the many, many feminists who spend time and effort writing about everything but elite, metropilitan women’s lives.

Wolf’s basic argument is that capitalist patriarchy screws over poor women. It’s not a remarkable argument, nor is it the fault of feminists, but it’s – apparently – something we’ve all been ignoring. Or have we?

I cut my blogging teeth backed up by the wonderful Louise Pennington, who I think would not mind me pointing out she’s not exactly rolling in banknotes, and who consistently draws attention to the gendering of poverty, and to the stigma poor women face.

In the Huffington Post, she writes on ‘Women Against Feminist, Privilege, and Feminist Activism‘. In ‘Trashing Boxing Day Sales Ignores Structural Poverty‘ she shows how a seemingly simple, knee-jerk response to consumerism covers nastier guilt-tripping of poorer women. In her posts about her own family (which are extremely brave posts), she explains how the stigma against disadvantaged working-class women’s mothering feeds into the patriarchy’s need for cheap labour, and how the denying women the support they need fuels whole generations of difficulties.

Karen Ingala Smith likewise offers a personal perspective, writing honestly (and a darn sight more profoundly than Wolf) about feminism and her own working-class childhood. A single glance at her groundbreaking project, Counting Dead Women, makes Wolf’s attempt to make feminist writing look elitist seem not just misguided, but downright offensive.

Marina Strinkovsky writes about the intersections of feminism and poverty repeatedly, showing how the gendering of poverty links to other oppressions. Glosswitch crunches the numbers behind the gendering of poverty in the West,and discusses how child benefit caps stigmatize a particular image of lower income families, while Sarah Ditum writes in the Guardian about the need for affordable childcare, lack of which is pushing women into unemployment and onto benefits.

I could go on and on, and I may come back to this to add more of the huge number of brilliant pieces I’ve read on this subject (or you could link to them in the comments). But I wanted to finish with what I think is the most worrying problem with Wolf’s writing. She misses the point that, for many women, poverty is not a stable state, but a stage through which and into which women pass for multiple reasons – childbirth, disability, age, discrimination, abuse, and many others. Wolf’s casual assumption that she and her readers form a secure class of the elite – the ‘we’ who do the employing and exploiting of poor women – is incredibly precarious.

Many of the women whose work on feminism I read, and value, and learn from, know about this precariousness. There are women who have university degrees and middle-class childhoods, and women who struggled up from prostitution on the streets or family abuse to relative financial security, women who never expected to be poor or marginalized, and women who never expected to be anything else. And the key thing that is the same in each situation, is that the structure of society is designed to catch these women and trap them. Different women have different lives, yes: but we all live in the same capitalist patriarchy.

This is what feminism helps us to fight against, and it is the broader awareness of this oppression, which these feminist writers I’m quoting here so brilliantly display. And which Alison Wolf seems, somehow, to have missed.


15 thoughts on “What the Hell kinds of Feminists are you Reading, Alison Wolf?

  1. Personally I’ve yet to encounter a feminist who isn’t involved in publicising the economic structures that inhibit the ascension of women from poverty, keeping them bumping along an economic bottom.

    Who are these women? Wolf is guilty of perpetutating the very ‘us and them’ mentality she purports to criticise in the way she implies that poor women are separate from the boardrooms of Westminster. Since when were poor women exempt from the effects of the decisions made in those boardrooms?

  2. Boldly written, and I couldn’t agree more. I would only add that the capitalist patriarchy also sets out to impoverish (in some sense) every soul on the planet, irrespective of gender, apart of course from those who are part of the club. Our entire planet is in their hands, and we can daily see (if we care to look of course) how they abuse it.

  3. Boldly and brilliantly written. I suspect Alison Wolf represents another instance where a woman can be published if she’s willing to turn on her sisters. I certainly read with hope and often anger the women you mentioned who tell my story, and the stories of millions who never expected to be poor and marginalized, in ways that are both painfully true and emotionally honest. Thank you.

    • No, thank you – I so appreciate your support (and the way we all support each other). I feel very lucky to be part of that kind of feminism.

  4. I often have a somewhat related discussion with my husband – he keeps insisting that feminism is full of unreasonable, extreme man-haters. I always ask him, “Which feminists?” “Why, internet feminists, of course.”

    And I ask the same question you just did – which feminists is he reading? Because they are NOTHING like the feminists I read.

    • It’s so difficult, isn’t it?

      But all the feminists I know have men in their lives. Most of us have brothers or fathers; many of us have male partners and friends; some of us have sons or nephews. And these issues are important for them, too, and we know that. We want things to be better for all of us.

  5. I think Wolf’s point is that capitalism is no longer patriarchal, because women now make up “50% of ‘class 1’ higher managerial positions” in the OECD. I think that’s what you have missed out on here. Her argument is that there is no real need for ‘feminism’ at the middle class, professional end of society, that battle has already been won, in other words. The real battle for feminists now ought to be focused on those women who work in the service sector, propping up the more elite end of the social spectrum (which is made up more or less equally of men and women). It makes very good sense to me.

    • No, I don’t think that is her point, and if you look, you will see that even she admits the inequalities in what you’re seeing as ‘capitalism’ (ie., highly paid business). I also don’t think you can sensibly separate out ‘capitalism’ from the state of lower-paid workers. That’s part of capitalism too, and it remains shaped by patriarchy.

      Her argument is that there is need for feminism, but that feminists are somehow to blame for failing to draw attention to obvious examples of gendered poverty. The issue I have is that 1) she might have chosen to write about those examples and 2) feminists are writing and talking and campaigning about these things.

      By blaming feminism, she’s ignoring the fact that we have less power to change things than society as a whole (and especially than certain powerful men), and she’s belittling the very hard work many women are already doing.

      If you want to join in, please do follow the links and get involved!

  6. Thank you for writing this. I agree with you that Alison Wolf in her recently published article in “The Guardian,” is denigrating women and feminism in her generalized statements. That’s how the article impacted me on first reading.

    However, reflecting on her provocative piece, I’ve come to a different outlook. Why would “The Guardian,” a paper that has always been left of center, in support of feminism and the values and ideologies of the Left, publish a piece that is critical of women?

    Instead, I’ve come to appreciate her piece as a cri de coer, much like Machiavelli passionately wrote “The Prince,” in an effort to inspire Lorenzo to obtain honor and power in uniting the disparate states that once were part of the territory, which is now Italy.

    Wolf has seized, albeit in an opportunistic way, on a photo op, where the Government is trying to show how progressive it is by appointing women to positions of authority, to show the inequality that still exists among and between women. In essence, Wolf is metaphorically throwing down the gauntlet ( a challenge) to her readers, stating that if feminism is about equality for all, then, the lens of the media and political elite must be focused on the majority of women that are still struggling, rather than those who are doing well. IE, “A rising tide [should] lift all boats,” and yet it hasn’t. How come?

    I would imagine that Wolf is well aware of the authors that you have so eloquently listed. I sense what Wolf is trying to say is that if feminism as a political ideology, which values equality, is going to succeed, that it has to succeed in a way that is in opposition to the way that patriarchy values success.

    So I now see this article deliberately written to galvanize and inspire all those who care about feminism and the plight of disenfranchised women, regardless of gender. It doesn’t need to be specific or written as a balanced, well reasoned, well argued paper. The context and audience is not an academic one but the vox populi–the voice of the people. And in that sense, it’s a brilliant article. It’s stirred heated debate and brought attention to issues that are substantive. And in that light wouldn’t you say it has been successful ?

    • Well, I am not convinced the Guardian is particularly supportive of feminism, and I’d question the assumption that left-wing politics is always that way, too.

      Unfortunately, I lack your optimism about Wolf’s familiarity with the authors I’ve cited, and I think if she is aware, and simply wished to misrepresent their contributions, this is in no way a good thing!

      I’m afraid I still think it was a cheap, trite and lazy piece.

      Oh, and thank you for clarifying to me that throwing down the gauntlet is a metaphor for challenge.

  7. OK! I hear that you think her piece was cheap, trite and lazy, as well as an unremarkable argument. How would you reframe it and what do you think her motive was in writing the piece?

    Your welcome about the clarification, and I figured, given your background in medieval literature you would understand what I was alluding to.

    • I wouldn’t ‘reframe’ it as such. I would write about gendered poverty, instead. She could have done that – ideally, by creating a dialogue with women who are already working in this area. Or, if she feels that the major issue is that the people who’re in a position to make changes simply aren’t listening and acting (which I get the impression she does), she could have addressed them, instead of targeting straw feminists.

      I couldn’t speculate on her motives, but I do think it sells papers to write articles attacking feminism, especially if they’re written by women who claim they only wish feminism were better while simultaneously taking pot shots at it. It’s designed to appeal to a very wide audience, that.

      There is a danger in writing ‘down’ to women when you disagree with them, I think. It’s unappealing.

      • Thanks and I will look into some of the authors you listed.
        I completed a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology in SF, a few years ago, which satisfies the requirements to train as a psychotherapist in California. We touched on feminist issues in the readings that were assigned throughout the program, and I ,personally, wished that we could have had more informative debate without polarizing around gender lines.

  8. Pingback: In the Media: 25th January & 1st February 2015 | The Writes of Woman

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