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.