Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘class’

Book Review: Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman

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This is the first of two books I intend to review that look at womanhood and working class experience. In beginning to prepare for the term’s worth of lectures, I inherited slides from the previous year’s version of this lecture which positioned this book along with Democracy in the Kitchen by Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey as landmark texts in the field. Published in 1986, Carolyn Steedman uses her own childhood (in South London in the 1950s) and her mother’s (Burnley in the 1920s – a town 20 miles north of Manchester) as case studies for psychoanalysis. Honestly, this approach leaves me dead cold. Neither the semi-frequent references to Freud’s work (particularly the case study of ‘Dora’) nor the figurative parallels drawn with fairly stories (The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen) assisted me with learning lessons from her story. However, I had been drawn into the story from the opening two-page vignette. Steedman writes of visiting her mother for the first time in nine years, two weeks before she died of cancer:

We’d known all our childhood that she was a good mother: she’d told us so: we’d never gone hungry; she went out to work for us; we had warm beds to lie in at night. She had conducted a small and ineffective war against the body’s fate by eating brown bread, by not drinking, by giving up smoking years ago. To have cancer was the final unfairness in a life measured out by it. She’d been good; it hadn’t worked.

Upstairs, a long time ago, she had cried, standing on the bare floorboards, in the front bedroom just after we moved to this house in Streatham Hill in 1951, my baby sister in her carry-cot. We both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: ‘This house isn’t fit for a baby’. And then she stopped crying, my mother, got by, the phrase that picks up after all difficulty (it says: ‘it’s like this; it should be light this; it’s unfair; I’ll manage): ‘Hard lines, eh, Kay?’ (Kay was the name I was called at home, my middle name, one of my father’s names).

And I? I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother. It is in this place, this bare, curtainless bedroom that lies my secret and shameful defiance. I read a woman’s book, meet such a woman at a party (a woman now, like me) and think quite deliberately as we talk: we are divided: a hundred years ago I’d have been cleaning your shoes. I know this and you don’t (pp. 1-2).

Steedman is efficiently telling of her intimate past and its shaping of her experience of always. The clarity of the imagery I constructed in my head when reading the childhood memories that are woven throughout this book was more educational in and of itself than the psychoanalysis, for the most part. In terms of theorists, there are many other than Freud referred to. Most helpfully I think were reflections and expansions on Gayle Rubin’s essay ‘The Traffic in Women’. To contextualise, Steedman’s parents were not married – her father had come away to London with her mother, but there had been another woman and child before. Steedman’s mother had attempted to seduce her father into marriage – in order to gain the stability, respectability and material benefits she felt owed to her (there is very little mention of love throughout the book). Steedman writes “years later it becomes quite clear… my mother set in motion my father’s second seduction. She’d tried with having me and it hadn’t worked’ (p.53). The relationship this has to Rubin’s work is Steedman’s assertion that her mother had “exchanged herself for a future” (p. 69): that women’s ownership of “their labour, and the babies they produce” (p. 69) alters the framework of patriarchal law – Steedman’s mother is both transacted and transactor. The circumstances of Steedman’s childhood meant that whilst her father was materialistically important (he paid the rent and bills, and gave her mother £7 per week for ‘housekeeping’), but functionally semi-absent and unimportant. The argument draws productively on Juliet Mitchell’s work to articulate the patriarch’s “presence even in his absence” (p. 77).

While considerably more time and detail is given to Steedman’s own childhood than her mother’s (due to drawing heavily on remembered anecdotes, and lacking first hand access to the latter), this does ultimately read as a book about her mother. Not a book written about a loving relationship – or, implication might suggest, an embittered or estranged one. Steedman writes in a cool and matter-of-fact manner about her mother’s frustration at having children not giving her what she had aimed for from the having. There is a continual emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of their lives, neither horrific (like a Dickensian representation of the workhouse) nor a heroic ‘salt of the earth’ pride of identity. Political analysis appears occasionally in the text, as Steedman reflects on her mother’s lifelong Conservative voting: “for the left could not embody her desire for things to be really fair, for a full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth, for a half-timbered cottage in the country, for the prince who did not come. For my mother, the time of my childhood was the place where the fairy-tales failed” (p. 47). In places like this, I could see how the narrative device of the fairy-tale did work, and tie things together. The use of quotation to open chapters is also extremely pertinent, my favourite being by Alice Schwarzer:

One can hardly tell women that washing up sauce-pans is their divine mission, [so] they are told that bringing up children is their divine mission. But the way things are in this world, bring up children has a great deal in common with washing up sauce-pans (p. 83).

There is also a brief but powerful reflection on state intervention in the validation of life in the 1950s: “I think I would be a very different person now if [free] orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something” (p.122). This is deftly related back to the broader point that politics shapes the world of the child – and the argument that adults “consciously know and unconsciously manipulate the particularities of the world that shaped them” (p. 123). The book sugar-coats absolutely nothing – life can lack love, crush dreams. But we carry on anyway. I’m reminded of a quotation from my favourite play and mini-series, Angels in America. Fittingly, the character, Hannah Pitt, is talking to her daughter-in-law, and says:

At first it can be very hard to accept how disappointing life is, Harper, because that’s what it is and you have to accept it. With faith and time and hard work you reach a point… where the disappointment doesn’t hurt as much, and then it gets actually easy to live with. Quite easy. Which is in its own way a disappointment (Perestroika, p. 184).

Whilst the analytic style is, for me, rather obfuscating, There are some wonderful historical insights throughout. Maybe the freshness and originality of the work is lost to me due to it being older than I am – but at 144 pages it’s a quick and easy read. The value lies not in any particular theoretical perspective or analysis that can be applied to one’s own considerations of gender and/or class, but on hearing an underrepresented story in a (perhaps) unexpected way.

 

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Some thoughts on the intersections of class, femininity, and transgender

In preparing for class, I read a chapter of the book Formations of Class and Gender by Beverley Skeggs (chapter 6, ‘Ambivalent Femininities’). In it, she begins by giving some historical background where she argues that signs of femininity are always classed.

By this, Skeggs is referring to history. Being ‘feminine’ was, and is, constructed to be fragile, delicate, dainty, pretty, small, thin, submissive, and charming. Of course, this has been challenged, resisted and re-negotiated through feminism, but bear with me.

This traditional notion of femininity was and is “a projection of male fantasy”. It is assigned to those women who have ‘proved themselves’ through the way they interact with people and present themselves in the world. Such attribution has been tied not just to presentation and interaction, but also to work – think of the ‘respectable housewife’ image, the epitome of a 1950’s femininity.

Skeggs explains how “working class women were coded as inherently healthy, hardy, and robust (whilst also paradoxically as a source of infection and disease) against the physical frailty of middle-class women. They were also involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity from ever being a possibility.”

Let’s consider the experiences of transgender women. Trans women can experience pressure to ‘pass’ as female (that is, be socially read as if assigned female at birth through appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour). We can see how the same set of problematic norms that dictate what femininity traditionally is in relation to class can be used to exclude transgender womanhood. In this context, femininity is conflated and confused with ‘femaleness’. That is, in order to be viewed as a ‘real’ woman, one has to successfully perform a very constrained and normative interpretation of femininity. Again, this is quite fortunately being challenged, but those trans women who reject traditional/stereotypical femininity and gender roles can and do experience stigma because of it.

What about the intersection – what about working class transgender women? Cisgender working class women can, arguably, struggle to be recognised as feminine due to femininity’s class construction. Trans working class women thus can experience a double bind – exclusion from femininity for working class norms and practices instilled through environment and interaction throughout life, and a likely more difficult battle to perform a middle class femininity adequately in order to be taken seriously as a woman.

Also, putting in ‘too much effort’ can also lead to stigmatisation and be seen as a sign of deviancy! Think of the prevalent and toxic ideas policing women who ‘wear too much make-up’ or ‘try too hard’ – these narratives become connected to the notion of ‘deception’, which then strikes doubly hard for transgender women whose authenticity as women is already under question due to biologically essentialist transphobia (the idea that ‘being female’ is rooted in genitals, chromosomes, etc.)

This one particular example is, I would argue, representative of a systemic problem, whereby class dynamics and economic inequality undermine the fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality. This also emphasises that any attempts to position feminism and transgender rights as somehow at odds with each other are at best, an erroneous relic. Trying to separate them out will only create an under-nuanced model of the society we desperately need to improve.

 

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.

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Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

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