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.


  1. There is a great line in Lord of the Rings where Frodo attempts to give the ring of power to the lady Galadriel. She said she greatly desired it. Then towered over Frodo in a very dramatic way and said.

    “In the place of the dark Lord you would have a queen. Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the morn. Treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair”

    She refuses the ring saying ” I have passed the test. I will diminish and go into the west and remain Galadriel”

    This sums things up nicely. This isn’t about gender but about two classes. The political means ( the dark lord or beautiful queen ) and the productive class ( the dimishing person with no political ambition ). It is mirrored in the bible. The meek shall inherit the earth.

    The political class are not productive, they are plunderers. A woman controlling that class is no more reliable than a man. There seems to be a belief that a woman is somehow better, but it isn’t true of course. Instead-as Galadriel put it-they would just be different.

    If a person can diminish it is far better, male or female. Get rid of the political means all together and all will be productive. By this means we will have peace and increasing wealth for all. The danger is that we continue on this quest for political power and with it our annihilation.

  2. “I don’t think men are particularly interested in power”

    My experience is that this is totally true. Most men back away from power in both social and work environments because they regard being in charge as a burden. Power goes hand in hand with responsibility, if you’re the one making the decisions you’re also the one who will have to shoulder the blame if things go wrong.

    In addition, male experience from childhood on-wards is that those who seek power the most enthusiastically are generally also the least capable of exercising it effectively.

  3. I think your analysis is spot on. The patterns you discern hold true for ethnicity too with “Muslim” and Black men faring particularly badly alongside poor White men. At it’s most basic men’s life expectancy is much more sensitive to socio- economic class. Better off men can expect much the same ( in some areas slightly higher!) life expectancy as their sisters. Yet poor men in post industrial urban areas and towns have startlingly low life expectancy. The variation for women for class is there but much smaller. This is one indicator among many that follow similar patterns showing men as much more affected by socio-economic class and at greater risk from the currrents of our economy.
    Much talk has expended on the need to turn our economy away from it’s dependence on asset value, borrowing and shopping to productive value added manufactures. A much more concerted effort in this regard would benefit all of us by re-engaging men into productive work , historically work much less attractive to women. It may also help narrow the gender gap in health and wellbeing.

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