Posted by: Selina Todd | March 16, 2010

Why does feminism ignore working-class women?

Last night – March 15 – I sat down eagerly at 9pm to watch one of BBC 4’s ‘Women’ series of programmes. The series claims to examine how the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s affects women’s lives today (or not). I was particularly keen to watch this because so many of the students I teach have no idea what feminism is. It is a part of our recent history that has almost vanished from popular memory.

The programme showed very perceptively just how little feminism has affected some women’s lives. Many interviewees spoke about how difficult it is to juggle childcare, domestic chores and paid work, and most  felt they had no ‘right’ to ask their partner to help out more. I really wished I’d been able to record it for my students and it made me determine to begin teaching the history of feminism once more.

Yet, astoundingly, this programme chose to focus exclusively upon middle class women. At least one-third of them sent their children to private school (compared with less than 8 percent of the British population as a whole) and one couple said their last row had been over whose turn it was to ‘light the Aga’.

It was this kind of class-bias that led so many working-class women to feel that feminism was not something ‘for them’ in the 1970s. Judy Walker, whose story features on this website (see her story on our ‘Youth’ page) was a community-rights campaigner who helped establish nurseries in Coventry during the 1970s (an important gain for working women), and established an informal women’s group in her home. Yet she said that she ‘never thought about’ feminism; ‘it didn’t seem to touch my life’.  It is about time that highly-educated, professional women recognise just how much they have in common with their working-class counterparts. I think we could all learn from Judy’s struggles and campaigns.

If you’d like to find out more about Women’s Liberation, the National Women’s Library is holding an exhibition until 17 April 2010: go here for details.

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