Feminism and class consciousness

The world needs feminism. In the western world one in four women will be affected by sexual violence in their lifetime and in developing economies women are more likely than men to have a lower standard of living. Any efforts to improve the living conditions of the world's poorest people will only benefit 50% of these societies if greater work is not undertaken to improve gender equality. The work of feminists is essential to our continuing social progress, not just bringing genders in line with each other but also working to combat racism, homophobia and transphobia.

There is broad support for the goals of feminism but there is also a good deal of debate as to the methods through which these goals should be accomplished. Due to the low social status of women around the world there are many factors which prevent them from uniting into a powerful political movement, as generally the politically less powerful do not engage with the political establishment as they feel the have less to gain from dong so. What I have set out below is my thesis on one way in which we can move towards accomplishing the goals of the women’s movement.

People who broadly identify as feminist come from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring their own experience to the debate, not just as women but also members of other minority groups. Feminism is in itself a Universalist ideology about readdressing the balance of power between minority and majority groups. As an inclusive movement it has many crossovers with similar struggles and causes, however here in lies a challenge that faces feminists, namely in building female class consciousness. Women (and indeed feminists) typically primarily identify as belonging to a more specific socioeconomic group, rather than simply identifying as being 'a woman'. More prevalent class signifiers incorporate a combination of class, race, sexuality and sub-culture as these have a large impact on someone's identity as well as gender.

Traditionally class consciousness is viewed as the Marxist idea of the proletariat becoming aware of how they are exploited by the bourgeoisie and banding together against their oppressors. In the 21st century where the struggle against oppression has taken on many different forms I feel the concept is still valid but needs to be expanded. We need to stop thinking of class in a rigid way of factory owners and labourers and apply this model to the various different power relationships in society that can be exploitative. In this case the privilege men have over women. This is not to say a means of pitting women against men but a way to spread understanding of how women are opposed by the patriarchy.

Earlier this year, noted feminist blogger Helen Lewis wrote about the challenges facing feminism as a movement in 2012. The piece, which focused on the need to keep the feminist debate current, can be found here. Central to the article is where she asks "What is the biggest, most important single issue for feminists in 2012? What should we get angry about?" I agree with the conclusions Helen Lewis reaches and want to now add my own answer to the question which that it is important to create the idea of women as an oppressed class and to show that the same patriarchal systems which oppress poor black women in developing countries also affect rich white women in the OECD. However there can be problems in creating united class identity as there are a lot of differences between poor black women and rich white women, for example access to affordable childcare. Instances of rape and domestic violence are an example of an issue which affects women as an entire class and poor support for victims is an example of how women as an entire class are oppressed by the patriarchy.

In America, African Americans have been very successful in building a class consciousness that transcends economic background. This is partly through the emergence of an African American culture uniting the class, a culture which places emphasis on exploring how the current system oppresses African Americans and on overturning the barriers society places against members of ethnic minorities. For more details on this see, the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

If this example of how African American culture transcends the gender and economic divides within African Americans then it can be used by feminists to develop a women's class identity. There is already a women's culture which is as diverse as women themselves but feminists need to use this culture to openly explore how women are oppressed and what unites them together in their oppression, much in the same way African Americans have used their culture to advance their liberation. Many feminists are already doing this, so in answer to the question posed by Helen Lewis above, I would say an important challenge and opportunity is supporting the work of these feminists in creating a women's culture to unite diverse women together in a single political movement. In other words developing a united female class consciousness.

Class consciousness makes a diverse movement a more effective political force. The high level of African American class consciousness creates social pressure to tackle issues which affect African Americans such as poor funding for intercity schools and gang outreach programs. The status of Africans Americans within American society is still low but the government programs to tackle racial issues receive more funding than those designed to reduce gender equality. Programs supported by feminists such as women’s shelters or outreach programs to victims of domestic violence less finical support. Most of the hard work in these areas is performed by charities with little support from the government.

Developing the idea of 'woman' as class consciousness will help  bring political pressure on governments to address social and economic issues which affect women. However there is a problem with class  consciousness which is the homogenising effect it has on the class. In other words it creates pressure for the entire class to conform to the opinions and values of the prevalent subgroups within the class. A good example of this is seen again in African American culture where there is a lot of pressure within the class to identify as heterosexual. Class consciousness has created a hegemony of people identifying as heterosexual African Americans which makes it difficult for the oppressed class to connect with other oppressed classes in America to effect social change. For example homosexual Americans. An indication of this effect was the passing of Proposition 8 in California during the 2008 election, California being a state which also voted for Obama. Millions of African Americans went to the polls to support someone from their class but also support a law against another oppressed class because people identifying as African American also prominently identify as heterosexual.

One of the great strengths of feminism is it is a movement that can incorporate people from a variety of different oppressed classes. There are many crossovers in ideology between feminism and movements to liberate ethnic minorities, LGBT people, the poor and the disabled from the constraints that society places on them. This broad background is a great strength to the movement but also a handicap as it inhibits the emergence of a single united female movement as a class consciousness.

The development of woman as a class consciousness will create political pressure to improve the status of women the world over. This is no easy task but a good way of developing class consciousness is through the development of a feminist culture which would use the strength of the movement (its inclusiveness) to explore the problems being faced by women of different backgrounds and create a desire for political change. Hard work is already being done in this area and it is important that this work is encouraged and supported to protect the future of the movement. The world needs feminism, without it we cannot progress socially as half of society will be born into a world which restricts their freedoms.