Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

From fieldnotes, October ninth, 2004: The Red Tent: A gathering of women

According to the program, it’s time for the final event at The Red Tent, titled: “Living our wholeness” with Donna Carlson-Todd, certified life coach. Before us is a petite blond woman in her fifties who is passing out business cards and telling us about herself and that we are here to celebrate what it is to be a woman. While finishing up, she says we need to stand and stretch, voice aloud what we’re feeling at that moment—everyone stands up and some “Aahs” and whispery moans are voiced from the group. Then she tells us to sit down at our tables where two sheets of paper have been placed during our stretch, one a worksheet the other a guide to it that outlines the “Universal cycles of change” and the “10 keys to living your wholeness”. Donna Carlson-Todd guides us through the worksheet, prompts us to fill out each section honestly, tells us no one will look at our answers. 

After a half hour of being guided through the worksheet, she asks us to stand again, to leave some space in front of ourselves. She tells us to close our eyes, imagine a circle in front of us—doesn’t matter how big—where we place (figured out from the worksheet we just completed) our intentions, groundedness, hearts desire, beliefs/imprints, and goals. We are told to imagine the colors in our circle, the feelings we felt when we filled out the worksheet. Then she asks us to step into our circle of intentions, groundedness and hearts desire, etc and then, step out, step back in again, “how do you feel inside your circle?” she asks.  A woman exclaims, “I feel better!” She asks us to vocalize how we feel, and several women’s Oohs, Aahs, and hums fill the room. She continues in a soft voice, telling us to step out (a woman behind me moans) then back in, and a woman exhales to my left. Then, Donna Carlson-Todd asks us to step out of our circles one last time and bend over and pick them up, hold them in the palms of our hands, and then close our eyes again. 

I’m not bored, but I’m feeling inauthentic, so I squint my eyes and peek at the women around me. Two women to my right are stroking their circles, another holds hers up, close to her chest, as Donna Carlson-Todd is telling us to place our circle to our hearts so that we always remember how it feels and have access to it. Then she tells us to sit quietly with our group and unwrap the purple blobs of cellophane-wrapped clay in front of us to create with it the feeling we felt in our circle of intentions, groundedness, etc.

So, I play with my clay, while everyone else at my table is quiet and busy with theirs. Fae is good, obviously knows what she’s doing, she’s sculpting a woman laying down with her arms entwined above her head, but the others are just making odd shapes that don’t look like much except Connie’s, which looks like a punk Christmas tree to me. I wind up making a heart shape, stick a rose petal in the middle of it and run off to the bathroom for some quick jotting.

When I return everyone is standing in a large circle holding hands and singing. I run in and stand between Connie and Monica and we are lead in several choruses of “Woman Am I.”

Woman am I

Spirit am I

I am the infinite within my soul

I have no beginning          

and I have no end

All this I am.

Several years ago I attended this all-woman gathering as part of my MA thesis research (participant-observation/ethnographic interviews). I wanted to explore the ways women relate to other women in organized, formal spaces such as work and feminist social gatherings. I grew up in a working class family where the women didn’t “return to work” they just worked. And mostly in pink-collar service work: clerical, food service, and light bookkeeping. I was the same as them and worked in low wage, service-oriented jobs with mostly women co-workers. The kernel of the idea for my thesis was the result of a few years of bookselling at Barnes & Noble where I worked with almost all women employees and a male boss. I may be a bad feminist for saying this aloud, but there was plenty of conflict among my women co-workers, what I call bullying and microaggressions these days when I consult with organizations that have problems with employee conflict.

Through my participation in The Red Tent (a public event held on a university campus that served as a means of ritualizing women’s experiences) I hoped to understand what is meant by ‘sisterhood’, this sense of community that middle class feminists talked about and what I observed was lacking at Barnes & Noble. In the process of interviewing women, I started to develop a hunch that the ways women relate in everyday life were influenced by larger cultural ideas (including from mainstream feminism) about how women should relate rather than how they actually do.

What I know now—after the research plus life experience—is that I was right, there are heavy expectations placed on how women should interact, and they are based on cultural and gender norms. That yes, women do have conflict with each other and that it has to do with the structure of the patriarchy. The big question however, the one that still sticks in my brain, is what of class norms? The Red Tent (and I’ve never told anyone besides my husband this) was one of the most awkward social experiences of my life; if I hadn’t been doing research I would’ve quickly made an Irish exit. Despite being a student, I didn’t feel connected to the white women there, I felt like an outsider in the most Goffmanesque way, the stigma of my social class was obvious, I didn’t dress like the other women or look like them, and I did not experience feelings of “sisterhood.”

I thought of all this last June when I read, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” I’ve been stewing about it ever since, wanting to write a giant YES rather than bore you with my MA thesis and why I’m concerned about the state of feminism. Plenty of women have reaped the benefits of mainstream feminist policy, heck, where would middle class white women be without affirmative action? The problem is (and if you’re on twitter you already know this) is that mainstream feminism does little for women of color and working class white women. Mainstream feminism focuses on things like “leaning in” so that women can have it all and encourages women to push against gender norms and over work in the same way as men in order to secure the corner office. But, where does this leave a woman who doesn’t have the resources, the particular motivation, and/or the education to do these things? Where is feminism for them?

What Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In did best was expose the tremendous class and race divide in feminism. I saw it when I was teaching at a community college, several working class women who said they weren’t feminists because they were stay-at-home moms. Or the woman who thought a two-year degree and dental hygienist career was just fine, thank you very much; she said that she couldn’t be a feminist because they were “into getting more education.” The mythology of feminism being man-hating, well-known but what I heard was something more nuanced, it seemed like feminism was perceived as something academic and thus, completely out of touch.

Yes, feminism has a class problem (and a race problem too, which you can read about here and here). A little navel gazing isn’t a bad thing and singing songs and holding hands with other women is nice too; sisterhood is possible but hardly a guarantee in the competitive space of work. What’s nicer though is raising the minimum wage, family-friendly labor policy, free childcare for single parents (women and men) that are also college students, reproductive rights, and greater assistance and outreach for woman headed families struggling to care for elderly and/or disabled family members and children. Real stuff, because what middle class feminists don’t understand, is that leaning in was never a problem for busy, multitasking working class women. What I want middle class feminists to understand is that individual empowerment gets a real boost when the bills are paid, food is in the fridge, and gas is in the car. It’s the simple things, like good policy.

3 thoughts on “Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

  1. Thanks for this! I think it’s difficult to get at the nuances and complexities of essentializing “women,” as if all women experience and feel things in the same way (and are defined the same way). Obviously, we know this is not true, despite very real and very positive work that has been done by appealing to universality among women.

    You did a great job of underscoring some of those complexities in a way that is very accessible for people. I may use this article with my students.

  2. Hi Marion! Thanks for your comment. I feel just like you do, and you’re right, we know this isn’t true but like most constructs, it’s hard to shake ’em once they’re established.

    I appreciate your perspective and I hope you use this article with your students.

    Kind regards, Julie

Comments are closed.