Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Class Matters: 'Working-Class' Women's Perspectives on Social Class

Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek (editors)
Taylor and Francis: Basingstoke
210 pp.

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I spent part of my time, while reading this book, wondering whether the editors had chosen too many contributors - or too few. I eventually came to the conclusion that they had got it just about right. And it was at this point that I noticed the quotation marks around 'Working-Class' in the title. I will come back to both these points.

This collection aims to explore the class experience of British (English) women 'from working-class backgrounds now living and working in a variety of contexts' (p. 1). In fact virtually all of the 16 contributors and two editors share a common experience of being academically bright children, of passing the 11+ (which dates and places them), of tangling with the class contaminated opportunities that offered, and of eventually, and by various routes, ending up in some part of the UK Higher Education system. In other words, neither the contributors, nor their perspectives are quite as broad as the editors seem to suggest. This makes the one who doesn't fit this mould, Gail Fisher, stand out. She was recruited to write by her childhood friend, Karen Sayer, who grew up in the same village as she did, but who followed the academic path and has ended up as a university lecturer. Gail, however, left school at 16, got pregnant, married and now lives the tough life of rural agricultural labour, surrounded by the green fields that, as she points out, are simply 'a very, very slow-moving production line'. These two friends have chosed to compare and contrast their different understanding of 'working class' in the form of letters to one another - a device that highlights for the reader the way in which a set of similar roots do not produce either similar life experiences or a similar analysis of them.

I found that, unlike many collections, this one was rewarding just to read straight through. The fact that there are so many contributions, and that the editors have made no attempt to create 'sections', and that all the writers write in an accessible, personal style mean that the book as a whole leaves an impression of a rich canter through an unexpectedly diverse and complex world. Or rather, worlds. The whole point of this book is to challenge the monolithic, male, marxist-based understanding of class, especially of 'working-class'. As the editors and a number of the writers point out, class analysis and discussion is still largely the purview of male academics. So, on the one hand, they wanted to place working-class women's experiences front and centre, and on the other to challenge the long standing tendency within feminism to ignore class differences and, implicitly, to elevate middle-class assumptions about working class experience and understandings.

But I am left with a troubled feeling that they have succeeded too well; that the feelings of pain, frustration and anger these women express as they describe the material disadvantages of their youth and the difficult disjunctures forced upon them with entry into the middle-class defined groves of academe spring from any number of sources, which only in England are simply encapsulated as 'class'. The writers describe so many other varieties of experience and lack of priviledge based on immigrant status, from Italy, Germany, Ireland (which produces its own load of historical tensions, to say nothing of the religious ones), India (as an Anglo-Indian), Poland, and, indeed, from the north of England to the south; on the rural/urban split; on religion; on material deprivation; on the complexities of mixed parentage. And so on. Every single writer in this collection has something other than straight economic class to articulate with it to produce her distinctive identity and experience. I am left wondering whether the concept of 'class' is now so muddy, we should abandon it (or at least leave it in quotation marks), and whether the word 'class' obscures more than it illuminates. However, what this book does demonstrate is that the intelligent interrogation of experience will tell us more than a dozen books of abstract theorising.

Marilyn Porter
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998