Last Wednesday Professor Baroness Alison Wolf gave a speech on feminism and welfare as part of the Demos postliberalism lecture series at the University of Westminster. Professor Wolf specialises in the relationship between education and the labour market. She has a particular interest in training and skills policy, universities, and the medical workforce. The XX Factor, is her most recent book on feminism where she argues that issues surrounding women and work have been dominated by a minority of highly educated professional women who have more in common with their male counterparts than with their sisters who place a higher priority and emphasis on family life.
Here is a summary of my response.
I found Alison’s book very exciting and enjoyed her presentation – because her data provides evidence for what had for me previously been a hunch or observation. I think Alison’s work is really strong on data but I think the implications for policy could be developed a little more. For me there are two themes I would like to lift out and weave together.
Firstly there is this breaking up of the sisterhood where what we actually have is gender being trumped by class. But this doesn’t come out clearly because the book, perhaps in keeping with the feminist times we live in, focuses mainly on women. If, with the 80 percent of non-elite women we brought in the 80 percent of non-elite men I think we would get a clearer class story – where the feminist elite maintain their position almost through a process of divide and rule. (In a way you hint at this when you say that you can’t talk any more about women’s interests than you can about men’s interests – no you can’t – class interest would almost be more appropriate)
The other big story is that there have been two significant arenas of change – the workplace and the family and I think the implications of these changes could be developed a little more. I think the conventional policy approach when trying to bring about positive social change is to focus on access to the workplace, for example giving women more childcare so they can go out to work. However, I think that what your book shows is that social change is wrought not through the workplace but through relations of reproduction and this is what I would like to develop here. In fact I would like to weave these two themes together to show broadly how by damage done to relations of reproduction a pretty rigid class system is held in place with your feminist elite in the driving seat.
What specifically I would like to argue is that the very policies which have been benefitting Alison’s 20 percent have actually been disadvantaging ordinary less educated women and they have done this by systematically weakening, and disempowering ordinary less educated men.
We also learn from Alison that marriage and a stable family lives are very much the preserve of the privileged. And this, I would like to argue constitutes the far more significant difference which we should be focussing on.
So what I am suggesting is that it is their access to stable families and to these men which make a much more significant difference to their life and this is what we should be focusing on when thinking about how to the lives of ordinary women might be made better. For these, men play a very significant role.
The trouble is that feminism has always focused on the workplace – the public realm and this is the real feminist blind spot. This goes back to the original feminist myth makers, people like Millet and Greer and the faith which they placed in two middle class elderly men Engels and Marx. This resulted in them believing that the workplace – relations of production is at the heart of everything – as they were for Marx “The mode of production of material life (i.e. WORK) conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
This meant that at the heart of feminist ideology was a belief that absolutely everything depended on access to political power and work.
However, most damaging I would suggest is telling men, very mistakenly, that we don’t need them. We do.
And a large part of the mistake actually goes to the heart of feminism and their understanding of patriarchy. At its most extreme the feminist depiction of patriarchy is one where the labour market and political system are actually set up as a means for controlling and dominating women. Accompanying the belief that men actually want to do this there is an assumption that men will always seek work because this gives them access to power.
I don’t think men are particularly interested in power and most men work because they think someone depends or might depend on the fruits of their labour. And I believe that there are an awful lot of men out there, who, if they believe nobody really needs them, they really won’t bother to work.
This doesn’t affect the privileged classes where men have always got interesting work to do and are a bit more likely to do it whether they need to provide or not.
But I believe it is very damaging for the less advantaged producing generations of demotivated, rudderless, underqualified, underskilled and underutilised men.
And I believe this damage is reflected in the higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and crime we find amongst less educated men.
This is not a problem for the XX women in Alison’s book. But I believe it is a very serious problem for ordinary women and it explains why so many families end up fatherless and fractured and so many poorer women choose to go it alone.
So I would say to policy makers stop focusing on the numbers of women in boardrooms or the number of female engineers and start focusing on the real problems. This means addressing the difficulties faced by ordinary women bringing up the next generation of children. And to do this we need to focus, not, not on women but on the role and place of men.