From Revolting Housewives to Big Problems: Women, Class and Politics
by Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones) on March 8, 2019



In an otherwise useful and interesting recent report on the gilets jaunes, the authors stressed that the movement included a “high proportion of often working-class women”, who are apparently “a social category traditionally not very mobilized politically”. The average reader of this piece is no doubt already marshalling their own battalion of working-class women to whom this assertion would come as some surprise, from the several thousand Parisiennes whose intervention at Versailles was a turning-point in the French Revolution, to the two-year strike in late-70s London of mostly migrant women organised by Jayaben Desai. The baffling but depressingly common assumption that working-class women don’t ‘do’ politics – aside from a few exceptional individuals who achieve iconic status within party or parliamentary structures – rests on a number of assumptions about what we class as politics (and what we class as class).

1795 in Britain was the year of what historians termed “the revolt of the housewives”, in which women across the country reacted to food scarcity by seizing and redistributing the stocks of bread and grain available. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, as enclosure of land and the imposition of the free market had an immediate material effect on the lives of working women, they took a significant and often leading part in the riots over food supply, quality and cost which swept Europe during its transition to industrial capitalism. Women’s involvement in social and economic protest drew on their gendered place within families and communities, which lent legitimacy and authority to their involvement and meant their domestic position was itself politicised. Women’s role in obtaining food in a proto-market capitalist economy, their consequent prominence in local networks of communication and their presence in social centres like market squares as part of their daily routine, meant that they were best suited, and best able, to collectively mobilise, plan and lead riots against high prices or unfair distribution. (Insert your own no-deal Brexit joke here.) The presence of women among gilets jaunes protestors, as the authors of the 2018 study go on to acknowledge, is similarly a function of the movement’s “strong social dimension” and its concern with living standards.

The further development of industrial capitalism shifted the focus of protest from food procurement in the marketplace to calls for improved wages and working conditions in mines and factories, with an accordingly bigger role for male workers. But there were also still celebrated struggles like the 1888 strike by women and girls at the Bryant & May match factory, and women continued to take part in social and economic protest along with working – or unemployed – men, walking in hunger marches throughout the 1920s and 30s and campaigning against the means test. But away from the arena of overt political and industrial conflict, working-class women have had an equally political prominence in collective community action, based again on their association with – or their relegation to – the domestic realm.

In Britain, this type of activity stretches from the 1915 rent strike organised and led by women from Glasgow tenements, to the activism and support of Women Against Pit Closures in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, to the anti-austerity actions of Sisters Uncut and the 2013 occupations at a Newham estate by young single mothers denied access to adequate housing.1 Politics of the street, neighbourhood or community, although lower-profile – and far lower-rewarded – than institutional politics, is politics nonetheless. In cases like the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program, or the local collectives providing food and healthcare in Brazil’s favelas, community action can form part of more permanent consolidated networks of struggle, support and social reproduction.2 There are few things more political - or more liable to politicise - than attempting to hold together a fraying social fabric, and women’s unpaid labour in doing so often provides a solid base for more visible, more conventionally ‘political’ work by individual activists.

The low visibility of working-class women in politics is due not only to overlooking this grassroots layer, and to a frequent lack of interest from historical and contemporary commentators in anything other than the political deeds (or misdeeds) of great men, but also to the fact that being a politically active working-class woman is, and was historically, a risky, fraught and above all thankless task. Women as well as men were and are subject to state prosecution, arrest, harassment by opponents and police brutality. Political and media discourse around the place and properness of women in politics has long portrayed us as hysterical, deviant, or deranged. Sheila Rowbotham, in her historical study of women and protest, writes that:

It is at the point when the revolution starts to move women out of their passivity into the conscious and active role of militants that the mockery, the caricatures, the laughter with strong sexual undertones begin.3

The particularly vicious alarmism and mockery historically generated by women’s involvement in reformist or radical politics, with which female Jacobins, constitutional reformers and suffragists found themselves contending, focused on warning women away from public political participation, lest their reputation and moral standing be impugned. Wives and daughters of the ruling classes with political opinions, though often also unwelcome out of their domestic role, could draw on the respectability of their status or connections to stave off the worst repercussions. Working-class women were afforded no such protection, and those entering the public arena could be insulted with impunity, with the default mode of attack focusing on their presumed sexual immorality. Political cartoons of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were rarely noted for their subtlety, and tended to emphasise the disorderly nature of political women, as well as imputing to them an ‘unwomanly’ loose or aggressive sexuality. George Cruikshank in 1819 depicted ‘The Female Reformers of Blackburn’ as vulgarly spoken and blowsily dressed, distastefully dominating their political platform with demands for popular democracy. (It’s anyone’s guess how such dehumanising portrayals of pro-reform men and women fed into the indiscriminate violence towards demonstrators at Peterloo in the same year.)

Many women, notably within the Chartist movement, responded to attacks like these by developing a family-based rhetoric through which their radicalism could be ‘respectably’ channelled – framing, for example, their calls for adequate wages and living conditions for working-class men as a necessity for themselves as mothers, wives and daughters, and requesting the vote for their male relatives while framing it as a bid to help the family as a whole.4 Although successful within its particular context, this strategy also risks invalidating alternative political roles for women outside the nuclear family, as well as cementing the rough/respectable divide which still works to fracture the working class. The past few decades’ debates on welfare reform and benefit cuts, in which the supposed fecklessness and immorality of single mothers was instrumental in positioning them as the ‘undeserving poor’, have seen politicians and commentators display as disquieting an obsession with working-class women’s sexuality as Regency cartoonists.5

In Parliament, women MPs from working-class backgrounds are less visible today than even thirty years ago. The same, of course, is true of working-class men – both subject to the same structural erasure by selection committee, both affected by the collapse of trade union-based paths to political access.6 The most viable routes into Parliament now require an amount of independent wealth, time and energy often unattainable for working-class people, plus the culture’s long working hours conflict with the residual expectation that women’s time and attention will at some point be divided between work and children. The decline in working-class women MPs is of a piece with the decline of political representatives drawn from outside the independently wealthy or careerist technocrats, but it is not a sign that working-class women themselves are somehow less politicised. Laura Pidcock in her maiden speech described the alien and overbearing nature of Parliament for those not brought up with an expectation of or entitlement to power:

This building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power. Its systems are confusing. Some may say archaic. And it was built at a time when my class and my sex would be denied a place within it because we are deemed unworthy. And I believe that the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental.

Parliament’s intimidating atmosphere was similarly described sixty-five years earlier by Aneurin Bevan, who went on to observe that: “The classic parliamentary style of speech is understatement. It is a style unsuited to the representative of working people because it slurs and mutes the deep antagonisms which exist in society.”7 The mockery with which Pidcock’s scaldingly earnest speech was received in some quarters demonstrated how little has changed – the languorous, knowing, chummy nudge-and-wink of parliamentary convention is unsettled when representatives make it clear they are there to antagonise rather than accommodate. Working-class representatives, tasked with conveying the urgency of their constituents’ dissatisfaction and the strength of their investment in immediate change - with revealing “deep antagonisms” rather than participating in a mates’ debating club - court their colleagues’ amusement at best and risk censure at worst.

The extent of this task is thrown into greater relief when there are only a handful of MPs prepared to carry it out, and scrutiny grows even sharper when they are women. Once in Parliament, working-class women MPs attract opprobrium overtly linked to their background. Angela Rayner, having left school at sixteen and become a teenage mother, receives less admiration for her subsequent achievements and more claims that her regional accent disqualifies her for high office.8 The misogynist and homophobic abuse received by SNP wunderkind Mhairi Black is also edged with class contempt: her appearance derided as ‘scruffy’, her accent ‘guttural’. And when class, gender, race and left-wing politics coincide, all bets are off in terms of the license opponents feel able to take and the lack of respect accorded, as grotesquely illustrated by the avalanche of abuse faced daily by Diane Abbott.

It’s no surprise – bearing in mind Rowbotham’s observation above – that women receive the most overt attacks of this kind when acting visibly and unapologetically as representatives of their class. Theresa May in her 2017 conference speech alluded to Laura Pidcock’s refusal of personal friendship with Tories – a position based on Pidcock’s consciousness of the material harm done to the country by the Conservative Party – as an example of a “big problem” in British politics. A former Labour MP writing in the Daily Telegraph accused Pidcock, delightfully, of “macho posturing”, and she is offered little solidarity by noisier Labour authentocrats in their own self-styling as put-upon tribunes of the people. Meanwhile, one aspect of the facile response from liberal broadsheets to the launch of The Independent Group – at last, the right kind of people are back with the right kind of politics! – was to laud the retro-90s ‘all girls together’ fronting of its female majority. As with Blair’s Babes, smart dressing and centrist politics, and accommodation rather than hostility towards one’s opponents – even when this means being comrades-in-arms with austerity’s cheerleader Anna Soubry – are the respectable, permissible ways to be a political woman.

In a time of unravelling safety nets and crumbling civic institutions, working-class women continue to bear the brunt of economic exploitation, unpaid emotional labour, and life at the centre of “deep antagonisms”, and the way in which we deal with this is inherently political. The past decade of austerity has hit working-class women from multiple directions, whether through cuts to single-parent benefit, increase in precarious labour and zero-hours contracts (a majority-female workforce), or closure of domestic violence shelters. Under this onslaught, working-class women, often from minority groups, have continued to form independent and autonomous mechanisms of support and opposition.9 To define politics simply as parliamentary victories, and political progress as the result of heroic individual endeavours – rather than the tedious, unsexy grind of everyday survival – is to miss this underplayed but fundamental work.

The claim that working-class women are difficult to mobilise politically considers the subject from exactly the wrong angle: we are not passive matter whose innate political agency needs to be activated by some outside force, we are capable of mobilising both ourselves and others. This has been the case historically as well as today. Despite austerity’s unprecedented accelerated erosion of the welfare state, poverty and precarity are not new products of the post-2008 crisis but intrinsic to the lives of many working-class women. So too, though, is the growing awareness of and inclination to challenge these conditions, inside Parliament and without.


  1. See https://newsocialist.org.uk/the-bailiffs-trousers-mrs-barbours-army-and-the-glasgow-rent-strike/, https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/in-conversation-with-the-women-against-pit-closures, https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/women-of-colours-anti-austerity-activism, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/focus-e15-mums-against-austerity-uk 

  2. See http://www.blackpanther.org/legacytwo.htm, https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-9/favelas-in-rio-de-janeiro-past-and-present/ 

  3. Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1972), p.106 

  4. See Eileen Yeo, “Some Practices and Problems of Chartist Democracy” in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (Eds), The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830–60 (London, 1982), p.345-80; Jutta Schwartzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (Basingstoke, 1991), p.98ff 

  5. See https://mediapovertywelfare.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/working-class-women-stereotypes-and-state-policy-by-rhian-e-jones/ 

  6. See https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2018/jul/decline-working-class-politicians-shifted-labour-towards-right-wing-policy 

  7. Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (London, 1952), pp.25-7 

  8. See https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/mp-angela-rayner-brilliantly-shuts-14506328. NB classist abuse of Rayner need not obscure the problems with Rayner’s own (ironic? wry?) reinforcement of an unhelpful image of the working class as overly fecund poverty-porn fodder; interviewed about becoming a grandmother in her thirties, she added that it “does qualify me as proper working-class and Jeremy Kyle”. (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jul/28/angela-rayner-shadow-education-secretary-interview) 

  9. See https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/this-east-london-womens-charity-is-fighting-back-against-austerity-now-its-future-is-under-threat, http://www.minoritywomenandausterity.com 


author

Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Culture editor.

related

The Bailiff's Trousers: Mrs Barbour's Army and the Glasgow Rent Strike

With the advent of World War One, workers flooded into cities like Glasgow to take up jobs in munitions and shipbuilding.

For the Many, Not the Married

Despite the many gains made by feminist and LGBTQ activists, society - including the mainstream left - remains more invested in the couple and the nuclear family than in broader ideas of community.

The Bailiff's Trousers: Mrs Barbour's Army and the Glasgow Rent Strike

With the advent of World War One, workers flooded into cities like Glasgow to take up jobs in munitions and shipbuilding.

For the Many, Not the Married

Despite the many gains made by feminist and LGBTQ activists, society - including the mainstream left - remains more invested in the couple and the nuclear family than in broader ideas of community.