A while ago I happened to mention to my dad that I wrote a blog and that it was part of the Mumsnet Bloggers network. God knows why I did this; he’d just mentioned a piece he’d contributed to Trout and Salmon magazine, so I suppose it was a failed attempt at one-upmanship (let’s face it, if you were me, would you want your dad reading any of this?). Anyhow, he wasn’t interested in reading my posts (despite the fact that I ploughed through all of his report on trout fishing in Scotland); he merely screwed up his face and asked me what I was doing associating with Mumsnet because “the women there – they’re all just middle-class mothers!”. Then he packed up his toolkit and went back off to work down the building site (did I just write building site? I meant court – he’s a barrister, so hardly salt of the earth himself).
I am a middle-class mother – a middle-class feminist mother, which is even worse. How bloody exclusive is that? Obviously I believe all other women are exactly like me and if they’re not, then they sodding well should be. Nonetheless, even my own parents fail to acknowledge this essential middle-classness in me. I have a theory as to why that is: I think it’s because they’re my mum and dad and therefore they think I’m nice. Plus they’re middle-class themselves, but they don’t really know that they are. Or rather, they do, but when my dad says “middle-class mothers” he doesn’t mean mothers who are literally middle-class in socio-economic terms.* He means mummies who are assimilated into mainstream culture but who nevertheless dare to express opinions he doesn’t like.
In 2003 Barbara Gunnel wrote a piece in the New Statesman claiming “middle class, applied to women, has become a term of abuse”:
Whenever the phrase appears, you can be sure you are about to read a tale revealing behaviour that is selfish, antisocial or exploitative. MCW drives her children to school – making them fat and fearful, and harming the environment. MCW neglects her children – wanting it all and going out to work, at great cost to her soon-to-be-delinquent offspring and to the nation as a whole. MCW is drinking more (more than she used to, that is, not more than men). Labour MCW politicians (such as Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt) are particularly scorned, being, it has been said, out of touch with working men and women (unlike, one supposes, the wallpaper connoisseur Derry Irvine).
Nine years on, while I still think “term of abuse” is pretty strong to describe a phrase which denotes privilege and advantage which, if we’re honest, isn’t usually acknowledged, there is some truth in what Gunnel writes. It’s particularly the case in relation to feminism. Earlier this year the journalist Laurie Penny wrote a piece in which she bemoaned the lot of working-class women whose needs were ignored by feminists “high-heeling their way up the corporate ladder”. One did not, however, need to read very far into the piece before the lot of the voiceless working-class women became merged with that of Penny and her not-so-working-class friends, positioning themselves as the new under-privileged in contrast to older, wealthier women, especially mothers. The tale of self-centred second-wave feminism and its blindness to the needs of most women is one that needs telling, but it shouldn’t be a catch-all for dismissing the interests of some women (urgh! middle-class mummies!) while exploiting others to promote one’s own advantage (some of my best friends are … and I don’t see them disagreeing with me!).
The fact is, “middle-class” doesn’t even mean socially or economically privileged in the way it’s used against some women. Working-class women are told they’re middle-class – or behaving in a middle-class way – if they’re caught out voicing a view or supporting a cause that they’re apparently not supposed to. This is certainly true in the case of some discourse surrounding the No More Page 3 petition. As a white, middle-class, straight woman I have no wish to back up my own views by ticking off a checklist of which members of which less privileged groups happen to share my position. These are individual people, not debating tools. If more privileged feminists have a responsibility, it is to ensure that the voices of others are heard – by engaging, promoting, supporting, but above all by listening – not by speaking for them or, worse still, by stealing their voices and faking consensus where there is none.
@LUBOttom – who seems to be on an amazing, blog-writing roll all the sodding time – has written an excellent post on her disappointment that “feminists who have been successful in finding an audience for their views are not actively trying in larger numbers to highlight the very real dangers persons with disabilities are currently facing in our country”:
If you are a feminist, or if you’re not, I urge you, please speak up and actively oppose [the] dangerous and potentially deadly swingeing cuts to the welfare bill. Speak out about it, write about it, sign about it. But please do not just accept that it is something that happens to other people, or convince yourselves that this is someone else’s fight, because fucked is a feminist issue.
The difference between this – constructive criticism and a direct request for activism– and conveniently vague smears aimed at campaigns which are apparently not inclusive enough is vast. There is no desperate attempt to drag in others merely as weapons to use against “privileged” adversaries. This isn’t a fight over who owns the voices of people who aren’t even being allowed to speak. It’s an invitation for collaboration, and it works. Far better this than the ongoing spats which simply take me back to the school playground where everyone, for one day only, wanted to be best mates with the kid who had his arm in a plaster cast, but only because it made you look good.
As a privileged middle-class feminist mummy, I am pissed off by the privileged middle-class feminist mummy narrative, because it suggests that my concerns are necessarily trivial and exclusive, or that if something is, statistically speaking , more likely to affect me than it is a woman of another social grouping – anorexia, for instance – I should downplay its importance, however well qualified I am to speak out about it. I’m still conscious that I’m privileged, still conscious that I’m entitled. And yes, some of my concerns are limited and selfish. But I am doing my best, and I believe that part of this, surely, should be to avoid making self-serving claims to speak on behalf of everyone. That is not being inclusive; on the contrary, it’s a gross exploitation of privilege.
Anyhow, I’ll shut up now. Just in case my middle-class-but-not dad is reading this after all.
* As comments to this post are highlighting, “literally middle-class in socio-economic terms” probably doesn’t mean much anyhow…