On the same day that the Guardian frets over whether feminism has been failing working class women, Joanna Moorhead produces a Comment is Free piece which, to my mind, epitomizes a lot of what feminists of all classes should seek to avoid. And yes, I realise how judgmental that sounds. But really, while feminism can touch upon many issues – from violence to body hair, from education to glossy magazines – if there’s one thing I don’t think it should be about, it’s enabling “big dreamers” to have “big lives”. This is a drive towards equality we’re dealing with, not an X-Factor trailer. Is that what, for some commentators, it boils down to? A “successful” life, one in which you’ve found the key to Sunday supplement-perfect living? One in which you’ve risen above all the little people with their piddly little dreams? The truth is, it all sounds a bit “strivers vs skivers” to me. Shouldn’t we be asking for more – and be demanding it for everyone?
Moorhead is worried about work-life balance. Well, aren’t we all. It’s a global issue. Most of us would rather be “living” than working, unless we’ve got an ace job – which most of us haven’t. Yet Moorhead still pushes that form of feminism which rests on the idea that without workplace gender discrimination, we’d all be choosing between a brilliant career or a brilliant “life” (understood in heteronormative terms as husband and kids). And what then? Well, then the only real “problem” would be that, ooh, it’d be so hard to choose which to focus on most! Ace career or ace husband? It’s worse than the classic Daddy or chips dilemma! So why not, says sage mother-of-four Moorhead, have a bit of both? Why not indeed! Here’s what she advises her daughters (“especially the university ones”):
Number one, plan your life (if the plans go wrong, you can always re-plan; but it’s the people without a plan who are most often unfulfilled). Number two, see your life in the round: happiness doesn’t come down to just one thing. It’s not just about a great job, or a great relationship, or a happy home, or a gaggle of kids; it’s about many of those things (and, incidentally, you’ll rarely have all your ducks lined up in a row, so don’t expect to be fulfilled on every front at every point in your life; you have to be adaptable, you have to keep striving). Number three, follow your dreams: don’t be afraid to dream big, in any part of your life. Big dreamers have big lives.
And yet, the trouble is, how much money, education and support will all this dreaming, striving, adapting, planning and re-planning cost? How easy is it to dream big when you’re nothing to fall back on? What if you don’t have any “ducks” to line up at all? It’s not that women are afraid to follow their dreams, it’s that they have low-paid jobs they can’t afford to leave, violent partners they can’t escape, children they can’t afford to send to nursery, pregnancies they don’t want and can’t choose to terminate …. Feminism does – or at least should – offer some route out of this, but it’s not by encouraging individuals to buck up and dream.
To my mind, feminism is about women having the same rights as men – over both mind and body – and enabling them to live with respect and without fear. Money plays a big part in this, of course. As long as the majority of low-paid and unpaid work is done by women our freedom to make decisions, change our environment and / or escape abuse will be limited. Nevertheless, this sits within a broader context of gross and growing financial inequality. The economic disadvantage experienced by women on a global scale overlaps and intersects with geographical, racial and class inequalities. If we’re asking why we’re locked out of the boardroom, shouldn’t we also be asking whether there should be a boardroom at all? If we’re asking why privileged women can’t have the options open to privileged men, shouldn’t it bother us that no one else has them, either?
I don’t think middle-class feminists are bad people – after all, I’m one and clearly I care about the issues which directly affect my life. When people offer a blanket apology for “middle-class feminism” I get suspicious. If you can’t be bothered to distinguish between valid and invalid criticism of the feminism for which women of your class have stood, how seriously are you taking the criticism in the first place? What matters most – saying sorry for everything because you want working-class feminists to like you or focussing on what it is you represent that really does cause them the greatest harm? It’s hard for me to tease all these things apart. After all, there are experiences I lack, privileges I don’t recognise and an ego I want to protect. But when I read Moorhead’s piece, I do think that’s the feminism I don’t want to stand for – and for which at times I most definitely, without even noticing it, still do.