Shit We Don’t Play: Class v. Gender

1 Apr

Content note: two references to rape and rape apologism/ cover up.

I was honestly planning to write about the inadequacy both of boardroom and of Marxist/ socialist feminism today anyway.  Before I even knew the Guardian, the Independent and the IPPR – those bastions of working class inclusion – would be telling everyone how you can only do class or gender struggle.  And you should probably do class.  Class struggle matters in and of itself, you see.  Gender struggle only matters in so far as it is useful to class struggle.  But it’s ok, class struggle is what will make gender liberation truly possible.  Once we get to the socialist utopia.

Sorry comrade, not good enough.  My feminism won’t wait for your socialism.

This is the condensed version of a debate I had with a professional Trotskyist on Saturday night.  I’m really glad I have the opportunity to present my thoughts on said debate as relevant beyond the niche demographic who were witness to it at the time.

In fairness to the Trot in question, he is probably not the enemy (I do consider myself, by and large, a socialist).  But I think he is a well meaning part of the problem.  The problem being, in this instance, patriarchy (or male privilege, male dominance, women’s oppression, systemic misogyny, institutionalised sexism – take your pick).  I know he is part of the patriarchal problem because at one point he made me a helpful list of the most meaningful ways in which I am oppressed by gender.  Mansplaining is a classic symptom.

Our conversation was a frustrating one because I had spent most of that day and the day before rejuvenating my class consciousness by hanging out with people far richer than me and psyching myself up for returning to work and agitating the shit of my office, which is currently being ‘restructured’.  Suddenly I felt like I had to choose between my class and my gender.  And you know what, if the person making me feel like I have to do that is a working class man, I’m definitely choosing my gender.

Except, of course, I can’t.  I am always going to be working class, almost as certainly as I am always going to be a woman.  The system that creates and maintains class, the system that obliges me to sell my labour (which is also my time, my life) in order to be able to afford to live, is wrong and oppressive and needs to be changed.  Or, I should say, overthrown.  But equally, the fact that being a woman makes me a second class citizen within my class is wrong and oppressive and needs to be changed.  It would also be wrong and oppressive if I was treated as a second class citizen within any other class, or within a supposedly classless society.  And guess what?  I would be treated like a second class citizen within any other class that exists in our current society, including those classes which are actively oppressive of others.  Something tells me that I would also be treated like a second class citizen within the supposedly classless society towards which my Trotskyist friend  is working, if he doesn’t think that treating women that way is wrong in and of itself and therefore in all its manifestations.  Which he doesn’t.  Women get paid less in the boardroom?  Doesn’t matter, there shouldn’t be boardrooms.  Women are second choice compared to men as heirs to the throne?  Doesn’t matter, there shouldn’t be thrones.

I too would prefer a world in which there were no thrones or boardrooms (well, as in, where those things didn’t carry the social significations that they do now.  I have nothing against fancy chairs or rooms with boards in).  However, we’re not going to get to a post throne and boardroom world by wishful thinking.  For now, we have to accept that thrones and boardrooms exist and work with that.  Both in terms of class and gender struggle.

Besides, it really isn’t good enough to say that the problem of gender inequality in the boardroom/ line of succession would be dealt with by getting rid of boardrooms and lines of succession.  That would deal with some problems, but not with gender inequality.

Which is not to say that I’m likely to be joining any rallies for the specific rights of women-who-are-upper-class-or-royal any time soon.  I don’t think there should be rights which are specifically upper-class or royal.  Or indeed that that there should be royalty and upper classes.  But as long as there are upper classes and royalty, I don’t think that the men of those classes should be treated (even?) better than the women.  Those men are probably also treated better than any genderqueer or non-binary people in those classes, who, along with the women, then form a kind of second class within the class.  Just like in the rest of society.  And, just like in the rest of society, I think it’s right that there should be a fightback against that.  I’m not going to join it coz I’m too busy fighting the gender battles within my own class (and the class battle against the whole class system, and the queer battle against the institution of heteronormativity, and the many battles that come up at the intersections between those fronts.  And trying to be an ally to my friends on the race front).

But even though I’m not going to join the upper class women’s fightback (is there a royal women’s fightback?), I’m not going to oppose it, except for where it comes into active conflict with my, often gendered, class interests.  So I would fight for a nanny’s right to a pay rise over an upper-class woman’s right to pay her nanny less (and thereby spend more hours networking and get a bonus closer to that of her male counterparts).  But I’d also ask: why is childcare in both classes something women have to worry about?  Why isn’t there a more equitable distribution of childcare between parents, why aren’t there more men in the childcare sector, why are all the sectors that are ‘woman dominated’ vulnerable to underpay?  Class would not be the only thing I was thinking about.

Also, class wouldn’t always trump gender for me.  For example, I don’t think that men who consider themselves particularly important to class struggle should get to just rape women and then have their friends acquit them of it.  Or that a guy who had done some serious damage to the world’s ruling elites should be above the law if he shoved his penis into a sleeping woman – you know, if he raped her.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme either.  There are countless ways men can abuse the privileges of their gender across class boundaries – (male) builders harassing women on their way to the office is the clichéd example.

So, next time I’m with my Trotskyist or otherwise revolutionary socialist friends (there will almost certainly be several of those times), I will challenge them again when they do things like heckle the boss’ oppressed wife in Made in Dagenham for reaching out to a woman protesting for equal pay.  I will not cheer when someone stands up in a feminist meeting and says ‘I don’t care about the gender pay gap in the boardroom, just get rid of the boardroom’.


Gender inequality in any manifestation is a slap in the face to me because it tells me I’m worth less than a man, I’m second class.  And sure, there are other, harder slaps than hearing that all women are second class (which my friend the professional Trot helpfully listed for me, not that I’m owed any slaps in the face for being a woman).  Lots of these harder slaps have to do with how gender inequality plays out through class, but not all of them do so saying that those are the only ones that matter is playing playing Class v. Gender and you know what?  We don’t play that shit.  Or at least, I don’t want to.

4 Responses to “Shit We Don’t Play: Class v. Gender”

  1. sehaf April 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    If any Marxist/ socialist feminists read this, I’d be interested in any working class feminist material that does not (in my opinion naively) try and define gendered oppression as an issue somehow arising from capitalism or private property or other phenomena conveniently relevant to class struggle.

  2. jemima101 April 2, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    I read this cheering every word. Until socialism accepts gender equality at it;s heart any socialist utopia will simply oppress women.

  3. Sacha Ismail April 2, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Hi Elisa,

    As the person referred to in this article, I’ve printed it off and am looking forward to reading it thoroughly. From a quick skim, it seems we have rather different impressions/memories of what was said in the conversation, on both sides, and what our disagreements were/are. But I will comment properly when I’ve read properly.

    Can I ask you to say more about what you mean about “mansplaining” in this instance? I certainly don’t remember making a “helpful list of the most meaningful ways in which [you are] oppressed by gender”. I do remember trying to set out – for my own clarification as much as anyone else’s – different levels on which women’s oppression functions. What’s wrong with that? Obviously if I came across as patronising, I regret that, but I stand by what I remember I said or at least was trying to say.

    Thanks for writing up the conversation and I look forward to discuss the issues further.

    Sacha Ismail

    • sehaf April 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      Mostly stuff is addressed in the pm I just sent you, but re mansplaining:

      When I said that it felt like a slap in the face to hear of any women being undervalued compared to men (in reference to Jordan Savage’s “stop paying rich people” comment at a feminist discussion group I once attended with Liam) you said but don’t you think there are other, more meaningful slaps in the face (I’m not putting quotation marks around that because your exact words might have been a bit different. You did stick to the slap in the face analogy though). Your list started with the fact that I don’t have the automatic right to choose an abortion, a doctor (or is it still two doctors?) would have to decide that it was in my best interests. At the time I said that you didn’t need to tell me the ways in which I am oppressed by gender, and Liam and Harry backed me up on that.

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