Sunday, January 25, 2015

Upper versus working class women

So far this semester, I have observed a recurring theme of discussion in our Feminist Legal Theory classes: the ostensible divide between upper and working class women. I have thought about this concept prior to taking this course, and I have ultimately decided that the divide between upper and working class women is real. Recognition of this divide has to underpin one’s analysis of gender inequality and the struggle for gender equality. In other words, the division should be analyzed and understood for the sake of constructing effective means of attaining complete gender equality.

First of all, what makes the divide between these poles of a socioeconomic bifurcation real? In other words, is this ostensible division simply a false dichotomy as it relates to the struggle for gender equality? I do not think so. This is not a spurious division; it is material, and unfortunately those who concern themselves with eliminating the oppression of women too often ignore it. Point blank, the struggles and immediate interests of upper class women are completely different—and even, at critical times, adversative—from those of working class and impoverished women. In conceptualizing the oppression of colored peoples, I employ the same analysis as I do in this context. Indeed, this is not an unprecedented outlook. During the Civil Rights Era, leading figures often spoke and rallied in terms of the division between the “black bourgeoisie” and the vast majority of black people, the poor.

Upper class women face struggles and seek to fulfill interests that lower class women do not share. For example, upper class women as such strive, and rightfully so, for positions of executive power. Or they endeavor to find means of maintaining a family without compromising their endeavor for financial success. What is more, and perhaps most importantly, upper class women seek economic parity with their male counterparts. In attaining these goals, upper class women can utilize the various organs of the political and legal establishment.

Impoverished, working class women face an entirely different beast. Their struggles stem not only from their exploitation as women, but also from their exploitation as working class individuals. They are oppressed twofold, much like a black worker is oppressed once because he is a worker and twice because he is black. To drive the point home, a black, working class woman is oppressed threefold: once as a worker, twice because she is black, and thrice because she is a woman. Tragically, working class women have no recourse available through the political and legal establishment.

In spite of this division, it may appear that working class women and upper class women can fulfill their separate interests without interfering with each other’s interests. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, the cause of working class women’s oppression is enforced by a political and legal system that inherently and necessarily represents the interests of propertied individuals at the expense of the property-less. It follows that for impoverished, working class women to liberate themselves, they must aim their guns, so to speak, at that very state of affairs. However, it is upon this very state of affairs that upper class women base their existence as such. Upper class women seek to better themselves within the confines of this social and economic paradigm. As soon as working class and impoverished women begin to encroach upon this lopsided organization of power, upper class women stand in belligerent opposition. This is where the material division comes into play. Oprah, BeyoncĂ©, Martha Stewart, and Hillary Clinton are concerned with the plight of the majority of women only insofar as this majority’s plight does not threaten their existence as such. In effect, that is no concern at all. Similarly, Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and practically every member of the National Basketball Association do not care about the struggles of the scrounging and soiled street-corner, Sacramento black man attired in sagging and decades-old FUBU and Sean John. Chris Rock’s famous standup routine all too vividly captures this attitude, and it is analogous to the gender question I have broached.

Through the aforementioned, I hope one can see why the concept of “trickle-down economics” applied to the gender question is absurd. I believe there is no point in me explaining why the very concept of “trickle-down economics” is laughable, considering the contemporary economic depression birthed after decades of that sort of rhetoric. But, do not get me wrong. If upper class women desire to attain positions of unrivaled executive power, more power to them. However, the moment impoverished women, with no stake in that matter become opportunistically utilized in attaining those goals, my conscience will not allow me provide support in the matter.

As we spoke of this issue in class, and as I wrote this post, I thought of a little-known Langston Hughes poem, Madam and Her Madam. I feel that in artistic terms, it captures the essence of my contentions:

I worked for a woman,
She wasn't mean--

But she had a twelve-room

House to clean.

Had to get breakfast,

Dinner, and supper, too--

Then take care of her children

When I got through.

Wash, iron, and scrub,

Walk the dog around--

It was too much,

Nearly broke me down.

I said, Madam,

Can it be

You trying to make a

Pack-horse out of me?

She opened her mouth.

She cried, Oh, no!

You know, Alberta,

I love you so!

I said, Madam,

That may be true--

But I'll be dogged
If I love you!



Ahva said...

I agree that the working class woman faces exploitation not only as a female but as a member of the working class. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that, while gender continues to have a strong independent impact on a woman's financial prospects, "class, education and occupational backgrounds are stronger determinants of a woman's progression and earnings prospects." The report also highlighted the problem of focusing on women in higher-paid professions, stating that such a focus contributes to a "decoy effect" whereby the problems of working class women are masked by favorable reports of feminist strides amongst upperclass women. You can read more about the report here:

Jessica S. said...

Ahva has some great points, including the decoy effect. I think internalized sexism among upper class women gets overlooked as well. They might think their justifications for exploiting working class women are valid, when they are merely reinforcing class divisions. Each tier of the system is subtly motivated to maintain the hierarchy. Although my personal view is to hold individuals responsible for patterns of exploitation, it can be overwhelming with so many micro-battles going on. For example, this article mentions woman-on-woman, zero-sum bullying:

Hart Ku said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hart Ku said...

This entry highlights some really interesting issues. What stands out to me is the recognition that -- for one example -- upper- and middle-class women often lead very different lives from single, low-income mothers. To assert that these two groups can "relate" to one other is extremely problematic. Possibly offensive. Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense that females within the "liberal elite" (I use the label affectionately) still feel bound by a sense of duty or obligation to be the "voice" for all women in political discourse.

It's not unusual to find that guilt attaches itself to privilege. And it is often praiseworthy when someone with power and influence tries to help those without. Yet I remain skeptical that the good-intentioned "privileged" can be qualified to represent the interests of the underprivileged.

But I suppose the question of how to empower the underprivileged to have their own voices remains. Have female liberal elites served as a bridge for impoverished single mothers to gain a larger voice in politics? It seems not. Quantitatively, is seems that poor women are more politically marginalized than they've been in a long time, despite Feminist legal "victories" over the past decades.

I don't really know where this leads. Should a privileged woman walk away from the "guilt" altogether, washing their hands of the perceived duty? Should she be using her influence to indiscriminately amplify the voices of poor women (akin to a "Voices of the Poor"-project), whether or not they clash with her own values / Feminist ideals?