Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Callaghan, Gill (1998) 'The Interaction of Gender, Class and Place in Women's Experience: A Discussion Based in Focus Group Research'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, <>

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Received: 26/11/97      Accepted: 24/9/98      Published: 30/9/98


There has been considerable debate about the relative significance of class and gender as factors structuring women's lives. This article reports focus group research which reflects upon that relationship. It argues that we must also understand the significance of place if we are to make sense of the ways in which women's domestic and working lives are shaped and their action in response to structural change.

The research is situated in an old industrial city which has experienced very fundamental processes of restructuring. Changes in the nature of work, the move from full to part time, from permanent, skilled manual to casual semi and unskilled work has been reflected in the gendered restructuring of the workforce and a considerable rise in male unemployment.

The article reports focus group work with women at mother and toddler groups. These groups were important as a way of gaining access to women who were at a particular point in the lifestage when the dominant concerns might be expected to be domestic ones. Mother and toddler groups are also locality based allowing the significance of place in people's discussions to be understood.

The groups discussed experiences of work and domestic relations which expressed identifications and differences based in class, gender and place. While the effects of restructuring were universally recognised as bringing change, women identified differences in the nature and pace of change based on the interaction of structural forces.

Class; Culture; Gender; Locality; Place


The debate about the relative significance of class and gender has been important to the understanding of structural force in people's lives (Charles, 1990; Skeggs, 1997). This article seeks to contribute to that debate through an exploration of research undertaken with women with young children, at a point when the dominant concerns might reasonably be expected to relate to domestic and parenting roles. The meaning of place has to be incorporated into this understanding for us to fully appreciate the ways in which these structural forces work. This article will argue that we must see the effects of these forces as interactive so that while we can identify elements of gender, class and place, we can only understand their effects in combination.

The research examines the interaction of class, gender and place in a city undergoing major structural change, when people may be most reflexive about accepted values and traditional lifestyles. It will show that consciousness of commonality and of difference are held simultaneously so that women identify with other women on the basis of common gendered experiences but also recognise differences in experience based in their class and their place. It will argue, further, that we can see the expression of these relationships within local cultures and will conclude by raising questions about the wider consequences of change.

In considering the social then, we are not seeking an explanation in terms of the priority of one structural factor but in the shape of expectations and experience based in the interaction of structural forces with human agency. The article will reflect women's discussions, in focus group meetings, of their own practices, their views and explanations of their world. It will consider the ways in which women encounter and react to structural changes in rethinking their roles as partners, as workers and as members of a community.

The Research

The research is based in Sunderland, a city which has experienced long term industrial decline throughout the 20th century. This decline in its dominant industries was brought to an abrupt conclusion with the closures of the shipyards and pits in the late '80s and early '90s. The change in the nature of work available has meant the loss of much of the central male manual employment base and the growth of casualised, part time work which has been mostly female. These changes are the context within which the women I talked to were reviewing traditional relations, expectations and action and I wanted to gain access to their understandings of place and change.

The Focus Groups

For further information on the focus groups in this article, follow this link.

In recognition of the point that women's consciousness may be different at different points in their life stage (Beechey, 1983), I chose to talk to women at a point when they were likely to be most heavily involved in the domestic sphere. Mother and toddler groups are locally based so that women who attend them are defined in terms of their locality. Additionally, and importantly for me, these women knew each other well and were in the habit of meeting regularly. The approach of using focus groups allowed me to gain access to shared understandings as well as areas of difference.

Eight groups were conducted in all. Three groups were drawn from Fulwell, an affluent part of Sunderland characterised by post-war and modern detached and semi-detached housing. Two groups were based in the intermediate area of Roker, which is mostly comprised of Victorian terraced housing. A further three groups were drawn from the some of the poorest areas of Sunderland, all based on council housing estates.

I have indicated that the groups were structured according to lifestage, locality and gender and their purpose was to focus on the dominant concerns of this particular lifestage. It was also an attempt to develop the understanding of place at a significant point of gendered division in people's life experience. Locality based groups were valuable precisely because they captured the interaction of the personal, the household and the local.[1]

Access to the groups was quite easily obtained. People greeted my concerns with interested acceptance and were keen to become involved[2]. Although ethical issues have been raised in relation to interviewing women (Finch, 1993), the group process is a very public one and the problem of being lulled into unguarded disclosure may be less of an issue for focus group work. People did refer to claiming benefit independently of cohabiting partners but this was knowledge already held by the rest of the group. In order that such information remains anonymous here the names and some personal details of group members have been changed.


I began the groups by thanking the participants for helping me and outlining the nature of my research. Some people were initially nervous of the tape recorder and it substantially affected the contribution one woman made. While I regretted this I was aware that with no co-leader I could not conduct the research without the use of the recorder. For the most part it was quickly forgotten and did not inhibit discussion at all. I had already given a list of questions to the groups to identify my areas of interest, but I tried to make the group atmosphere as accepting and inclusive as possible to facilitate the introduction of issues which I had not raised. My judgement was that people felt sufficiently at ease to contribute readily.

In many ways a group leader must exercise much more explicit control than the one to one interviewer, maintaining focus on the questions at hand, preventing splinter groups from forming remembering the boundaries of time etc. In this research I encountered the added problem that there were children to look after. In one of the groups the Group leader supervised the children to leave the women free to participate but in most groups women remained responsible for their children and this gave rise to inevitable interruptions.

Despite the emphasis on control I did not follow a strict questioning route as focus group guidance suggests (Krueger, 1988). People sometimes returned to earlier issues or linked points of discussion together and I found this interesting and informative. I did maintain a focus the purpose of the questions however and made sure that we had covered the whole span of issues in the course of the group meeting.

The advantages of mother and toddler or any 'natural' group to research lies in the fact that it is 'real'. It is a place of regular social interaction and we discussed issues which were part of the daily experience and conversation of the women involved. Frequently women used examples from each other's lives to illustrate a point and I took this as evidence that we were talking about issues which importantly shaped their experience and consciousness. It is here that the methods of the Market Researcher are least useful for sociological research because we do not need or want anonymity and we are not seeking some idealised objective account.

The mother and toddler group is useful precisely because it is one of the places where elements of consciousness are contested and confirmed. For the researcher this is access to a piece of social interaction. We are not concerned with the psychological processes of particular group members but with the social processes of the group. We can learn from where the group sets its boundaries of acceptable opinions and behaviour what is the context within which people develop attitudes and practices in their own lives. It is this general account which I have relied on to argue the importance of place and in the focus group we can these processes in operation.

An advantage of the method lies in the nature of the material it gives access to. It offers a qualitative level that I think can be deeper than that obtained in the single interview. The trade-off for that quality is that in allowing the group to take its own course we risk some members conforming to group pressure and remaining silent when their experience is not common. This is undoubtedly a cost of this kind of research and yet once again this instances a real social process and points to the issue of seeking a 'true' account. I have found it a valid method of research, which can offer real qualitative insights, if, as in all research, the researcher has clearly understood its purpose and potential.


To begin the group discussion I asked women to introduce themselves by their first names and say something about themselves, explaining that this would help me in reviewing the tape recording. People usually gave information about what they had done before they became mothers, how many children they had and how old they were.

The tape recorder was essential but it does not capture all of the information gained from group proceedings. Some information was communicated within the group non-verbally, especially when emphasis or dramatic effect was required. I saw this particularly in the opening stages when I asked how becoming a mother had affected their lives. This elicited various responses, both groans and grimaces, which together conveyed how fundamental they felt the change had been.

I conducted the analysis of discussion in terms of the group, identifying individuals in creating transcripts but not seeking to draw from this for individual accounts. For this reason I did not always ask for the same personal information but accepted what people told the group about themselves. I have identified several significant themes that arose from my theoretical interests and have related to the different approaches the groups took to those themes. The general nature of reporting what 'women' said arises from this point, that what I had access to and was concerned to analyse, was the dominant views of the group. While the research is based on only a small number of groups I think that in using this approach I have been able to identify ways in which groups dealt with issues differently.

The Findings

In this research my groupings were based on residence which, while related to social class, are not coterminous with it. They represent similar experience at the household level but wide divergences in personal occupation, so that while all women in the affluent (Fulwell) groups were owner-occupiers for example, membership ranged from women who did not work outside the home to full time workers and from unskilled factory workers to nurses. The discussion of class is based on an understanding of class as process (Thompson, 1980; Reay, 1998) and the recognition that classification by own or partner's occupation is inadequate for describing women's experience. The purpose of this article is to explore difference, and to begin to look at the ways in which those gendered and household experiences were modified by experiences as members of a community or a neighbourhood.

In the focus groups women identified areas in which they saw common experience on the basis of gendered divisions as well as differences based in class. Here I will relate to the dominant views expressed and issues on which there was the strongest accord or disagreement within and between groups.

Personal Freedom

I asked women in all groups how becoming a mother had affected their lives and without exception they reacted immediately and dramatically. The question was answered typically with laughter followed by comments such as:

How many hours have you got?

They explained the nature of its impact upon their personal freedom and leisure.

Diane: It's changed, you don't have as much money, you don't get out as muchÖyou don't have two minutes to yourself
Julie: the children come first you come second
Diane: Once you become a mother you forget who you really are
Ada: she's got three little one's - people think you should be happy but you've got no-one to talk to
Julie: you know what you're going to do when you get out of bed in the morning, you get in a rut.

These responses spoke for women from all groups. They seem significant to me both because of the overwhelming nature of the consensus the question generated and more importantly as an indication of how the state of motherhood, at least with young children, creates the conditions for changed consciousness. For most women this not only meant the tie to the domestic sphere, it also meant leaving a working environment and status in which there was a different basis for identity. Whatever their employment status, women bore primary responsibility for the care of children. It was clearly not marriage, but having children, which was responsible for this change.

Following the discussion of the change which children brought, we went on to contrast experiences of parenthood based on gender. All groups saw fatherhood as less onerous in terms of loss of personal freedoms. These discussions of partnerships were primarily split along gender lines rather than differentiated by class or place. Almost all women thought their partners had more personal freedom than they did but occupational class, relation to employment and area shaped those experiences (Walby, 1990). Issues of personal freedom and control were usually expressed in relation to resources of time and money.

Resources - Money

The right to spend the family's money was an area of inequality which women identified (Lister, 1990; Cragg and Dawson, 1982). In general the feeling was that men were able to spend money on themselves without question while they felt that the needs of the children and the household had to be met before they could consider their own needs. Again, although this was not simply split along gender lines, that was clearly the major significant division. Obviously the struggle over money was a qualitatively different experience for women in poor and more affluent areas.

Most of the women in all groups were responsible for managing the money although this did not necessarily mean that they had any to spend on themselves. In Redhouse they talked of husbands having a set amount of pocket money:

Catherine: but that's the first thing that comes out, before the bills are paid.

One woman talked about actively contesting this:

Jenny: my husband works shifts so he doesn't get out as much. I don't see why he should spend all the money, if he goes out and spends on drink I'll go out and buy something for myself.

There was some discussion of the conflict around spending money on themselves which signalled a deeper conflict between traditional and changing expectations:

Averil: I spent £21.50 on a ticket and I was thinking, 'how am I going to tell him?' I wasn't going to ask- but it's hard to justify spending that much on a [concert] ticket.

For most however, although conscious of an injustice, the pattern was already established. In Carley Hill:

Jane: I get housekeeping and he has the bank account - we've got money in the bank but I don't feel it's ours - if he's got nothing he goes to the bank- if I've got nothing, I've got nothing.
Debbie: if you bring in the wage - like me sister - she brings in a wage so he gives her less housekeeping but he pays all the bills - it does give you more say.

In general there was felt to be a real difference in the nature and quality of access:

Denise: They're allowed money and you get spending money
Debbie: my sister and her husband split it equally. He [speaker's husband] says I waste money and she says to me 'how are you wasting money? you spend it on the kids and the house....'

In Marley Potts one woman had officially separated from her partner, primarily to be in control of the family budget so that:

Mandy: he's not always expecting from me.

Resources - Time

Again women felt partners had more time than they but while in Fulwell the general account was of going out together or some turn taking, in Marley Potts this was an area of real and constant struggle:

Diane: I go out once a fortnight - he can go out drinking but he tries to stop me
Mandy: They say, 'well you had them' - they might have put them there, but they say 'you had them' so they think you're stuck with them- so you're kind of more responsible...
Diane: he can go out but if I say I'm going out his face is up his backside - I go out on a Friday and he starts going in a mood on Wednesday.
Mandy: I think they feel threatened.

All women felt they were responsible for the children at all times, even when leisure activities were shared:

Penny: It's like when we're going out somewhere it's me who organises the baby-sitter they just think 'we're going out' they'd never think 'who's going to baby-sit?'
Ruth: they'd never think to put them in the bath...
Hilary: most of the time if it's me going out without John I have to get her ready for bed where John will just go out
Penny: they're capable of doing it but they'd never think of doing it...we can't just get ready and go out..If I want something doing I've got to ask. I think, 'why have I got to ask?' I don't see why he can't think of it himself. He'll go and get his coat on I'm running round chasing them with hats and coats and he'll be saying 'howay then are you ready?'

In Fulwell there was some feeling that husbands thought their partners had an easy life if they were not working and men therefore claimed more leisure time to themselves. In general the women from this group spoke more of going out together, perhaps reflecting the ability to pay for baby-sitters, while in Marley Potts the cost of child care often meant couples had to go out separately.

Domestic Division

Husband's contribution to the domestic chores was often discussed in relation to women's own work status although, in Carley Hill, this was a site of contest:

Jane: My husband says 'a woman should be hung by her apron strings to the kitchen door ' - he's not that bad really.
Debbie: They would be if you let them get away with it.
Denise: I think the mistake we made was marrying pitmen - me mother used to say 'they're all the same you know'.
Mary: I think it's 'cos they're in the dark so much - it affects the brain (laughing).

In Roker:

Penny: Gary used to do a lot in the house when I was full time but as soon as I was's never been said but it was 'that's your responsibility' and there's a lot of pressure on you when he comes in at night like if the place is a mess it's like what've you been doing all day whereas he would never have said that to me when I was at work... I don't think they realise what it takes to look after two children all day and keep them entertained.

The theme of the incompetence of husbands was common to women in all groups:

Penny: I don't think we'd eat if it wasn't for me
Rita: it's our fault 'cos we just get on and do it
Irene: you've got to tell them...put them in the've got to give instructions.

This was an almost universal account particularly relating to men's lack of consciousness of children's needs.

Domestic Division and Place

Differences along the axis of gender relations within households are reflected in wider differences perceived between areas. Most women found husbands made some contribution to housework but held images of traditional relationships to which many were still clinging. Experience of partnership, rather than divided roles, were more commonly articulated among women of Fulwell and Roker. Several women from the poorest area reported husbands or partners saying of children:

Ö you had them, you look after them.

This is one example of the ways in which we can see the effects of local culture on consciousness. Women from the poorest area described these attitudes irrespective of their occupational class, while those in the more affluent groups did not expect their partners to express such a view.

In one group in the poorest area:

Jane: I found with Jimmy, he went to the pit... he went to work and that was his role
Debbie: some men do more
Denise: my husband doesn't he just comes in and sits on his arse and that's it - he just sits there in the chair - he'll take root one of these days.

An auxiliary nurse in this group who worked full time explained how she was attempting to change these attitudes within her own household:

Mary: mine - I says to him if you don't cook you don't get fed. I'm working as well - he's got to do some.

It appeared from these group discussions that women could claim greater equality in relationships if they had jobs and still made a substantial contribution to the family budget. So while in Marley Potts several women told me that husbands said of children, 'you had them, you look after them' in Fulwell some women talked about women not being 'so soft' now and saying 'you had them too'.

All women saw attitudes as changing. The women of Fulwell were clearly familiar with the idea of women's sole responsibility for the children and some were still struggling with it, but they talked of asserting rights of partnership. While women talked about these changes as being changes over time they were quite clearly happening at different pace or at least from different starting points in different areas. This was recognised in Carley Hill

Debbie: I think its more ingrained in people round here that a woman's place is in the home - whereas in Fulwell it's different...
We're all from Carley Hill and round about ... there's still a lot of old fashioned attitudes on this estate ... a lot of pitmen around here.

In all groups there were women whose experience ran counter to this but the significant fact was that this was the recognised norm, a reference point from which change would begin.

One woman described the effects of these expectations in her household, where the pit and the demands of shift work had dominated the family routine. The trend to smaller families and women's control of their own fertility was also recognised as important in changing the balance of relationships.

Jane: Jimmy says 'look at my mother she's had five and she managed. Jimmy's mam and dad .. well he worked at the pit ...he was determined he wanted to work at the pit and that was that...He's not as old fashioned as his dad. I used to say; 'I'm not like your mother' ... I think you should treat each other as equal.

The degree to which men dominated women was a recurrent theme and while women practised some desubordination (Miliband, 1978), on the whole they accepted their position, frequently with resentment. In Carley Hill women who stepped outside this were remarked upon.

Jane: We were arguing last Sunday.. apparently they'd had a drinking day and Deirdre didn't like it... so she didn't speak to him for three days - he [Jane's husband] was saying 'you can see she's the boss...'
There used to be when a man came home from work he had to have a cooked meal on the table because he'd been at work all day regardless of what you've done all day - my mother in law doesn't like me not waiting on him.

And later

Jane: I used to say, 'dad all I want is now and then for him to make me a cup of coffee... we've been married sixteen years and he still asks how many sugars.'

Within the domestic sphere it is clear that these relations are changing driven, most women felt, by their own higher expectations of their partners and by their increasing involvement in paid work outside the home. For a small minority the basis of independence was state benefit which they could claim for themselves and their children without the need for a partner. The claim upon resources, based on women's involvement in paid work and increased power in the household, was bringing change although all women felt that men still did better than they in terms of leisure time and money. All women, across the focus groups, recognised and applauded the direction of change.

In Fulwell

Averil: there's definitely been a change in the roles. Men wouldn't bath a baby and change the nappies- its changed 'cos women aren't so soft as they used to be.

In Carley Hill

Jane: the only reason men's changing is 'cos women are forcing them to...our kids are being brought up in a different way so hopefully they'll be different again. I don't want him (her young son) turning out like his dad...fair enough he's not frightened of work, but as a partner...


Relation to employment was recognised in all groups as affecting power within partnerships but it was clearly a site of contest and one affected by previous work and domestic experiences. In Carley Hill some partners tried to maintain dominance in domestic relations against this climate of change.

Jane: I would say my husband's old fashioned in his ways but I think now he has a double standard 'cos I have two part time jobs. He says - to wind us up ñ 'a woman's place is in the home' and I says 'all right then I'll, pack in work and stop in the home' an he says 'well dunnot come on to me for money' ... you just gan round in a circle.
Mary: There's only a man will say what a woman's place is, you'll never hear a woman say that.

In the Redhouse group the range of experience was broader:

Catherine: my boyfriend does the windows, washes the dishes, does all the meals ... he's a proper new man
June: aye but does he work?
Catherine: no
June: well I think that's the difference now 'cos they're unemployed they expect to do more
Mavis: mine cooks and cleans, he does his fair share
Carol: yeah, but you cannot just get your coat on and go out to the club when you want.

This was the closest account to the exchange of roles described by Wheelock (1990). On the whole women said:

June: they do a lot more now, not as much as they should do but ...
Carol: they still think there's a place for women ... but things are changing now and women aren't putting up with it.
Margaret: men as well.. years ago they didn't like women going out to work .. but now it takes two wages.

Clearly both women and men were facing the change from the traditional style of the male breadwinner and on the basis of that change new relationships have to be forged grounded in both past and current resources.

The groups discussed orientations to work at some length and it was clear in all groups that women recognised and accepted that in having children they would suffer discrimination in their future working lives, both in terms of gaining employment and in promotion.

Most of the women in Carley Hill and in Marley Potts described little intrinsic satisfaction in their work but those who did work found it was necessary to the family income. They also related the ways in which, for most of them, it affected their control within the home. The housework remained largely their responsibility:

Mary: I work full time, I find it exhausting.. You go out in the morning sometimes the beds are not made, the dishes are left and it's all on your shoulders.

For most women who worked outside the home their wage was central to family income. In Fulwell a number of partners were sufficiently well paid to continue to maintain the family during the years while the children were young. Some women held part time jobs to keep themselves in the labour market while others continued in full time work. Almost all of the women I spoke to saw being at home as a temporary state and would return to work either full or part time once children were at school.

On the council estates however, where there was more unemployment and subemployment (Norris, 1978), women's relation to work was also more tenuous. For women with partners who were wholly unemployed, living together was not a rational choice.

Images of Self - Images of Other

Place and culture are clearly related and provide us with, ' account of how people experience and express their differences from others, and of how their sense of difference becomes incorporated into and informs the nature of their social organisation and process.' (Cohen, 1982: p. 2). This is important in that cultures may arise from, and change in response to, material conditions but it is also clear that cultural expectations are implicated in the form which that response takes. It allows the formation of an identity in terms of 'us and them' (Hoggart, 1957).

The issue of community was often raised when people explained their feelings about the nature of their place. While it was difficult to define, degree of interaction was generally accepted as a mark of the strength of community and there were conflicting views about this according to place. This was an axis of difference in which the commonalities of gender were regarded as much less important than differences of class and place. In Marley Potts community was based around wide networks of kin with whom there was regular interaction. Moving away was unthinkable:

Betty: when you've got your family around.. somewhere to go and people to see...
Eileen: mine I see them all the time ... I see me mam every day ... I see the majority of them at me mam's, the only people I see is me family...

This was very important as a support. It was clearly less frequently the case in Fulwell where there were people who had moved in (although often from council estates in Sunderland). Neighbourhood contacts did not seem to replace family support in Fulwell however because, as the women pointed out, most women were working and mothers at home were in the minority. It was on this basis that the women from the Marley Potts group saw themselves as better off than those in Fulwell.

The women of Marley Potts were unequivocal about the quality of relationships which were needed to make up a community and which they perceived as absent in more affluent areas. Unlike the young women of Skeggs' (1997) study, some aspects of being working class were valued and this was importantly shaped by locality. This was also expressed in Carley Hill where they characterised women of Fulwell.

Anne: they're snobs, they look down on council estates...
Mary: us up here....we come down here on a Tuesday and if you felt like it you could say 'he's gettin' on my friggin' nerves' whereas down there you wouldn't say it because your next door neighbour would hear you.
Denise: we've got friends to be able to turn round and say...where they've got to keep up appearances.
Jane: we can go out on a Friday night all the lasses and you can let your hair down and not a word is said...
Mary: being there you mould in to their way of going on...
Jane: They'd say, 'I don't want to go out', rather than say 'he won't let us out he's a stingy bugger and I'm skint' they wouldn't admit that their husband was going to keep them in.

There was a belief that interest in material things outweighed other considerations so that women who moved to Fulwell forfeited friendship and female companionship and had to maintain distance in the interests of status. It was not possible to move without also changing.

There is a recognisable route of upward mobility through the Sunderland working class areas which women discussed quite fully. The vast majority of people in the groups were Sunderland born and bred and for them there were well-recognised distinctions to be made between areas in the city.

June: My Father-in-law lives in Fulwell - you don't feel welcome in the house... I'm not good enough to be in their house .... I mean she's only a schoolteacher and he's a joiner... so I mean....

In the more affluent areas some women described the ways in which they had come to their present place and the meaning of that move for them.

In Roker:

Hilary: I go to a playgroup in Cleadon every Tuesday, everybody's dead canny but I don't feel...I feel like I'm out of my ... I don't feel like one of them ... the group I go to is probably as close as this one.
Penny: is that because you think of Cleadon as being more upper middle class?
Hilary: I don't know what it is...
Ruth: some people think Fulwell is like that ...
Penny: you just think they've got more money and they can do more things just like people from Southwick think about us.
Ruth: Cleadon is the next step up.
Penny: that's because we came from council estates you and me Ruth ... that's why we can see the next step, if you move from Fulwell you move to Cleadon.
Ruth: We moved from Castletown to Roker and from Roker to Fulwell.
... we moved to Seaburn Dene -we'd made it here!

This transition was clearly recognised in Fulwell and in Carley Hill and Redhouse although no-one in the groups described a similar move from Marley Potts. The differences between areas were not unbridgeable ones. One woman articulated this in Fulwell:

Jennifer: we're them and they're us.

Area of residence was not simply a matter of relative affluence. It gave rise to real differences in identification. The Roker group saw themselves as in the middle of the hierarchy. In Roker and Fulwell they reflected on the poorer areas in terms of differences of values and action. A sense of a community was recognised from the outside implying exclusivity and self-containment. There was clearly a belief among the 'respectable' working class that this neighbourhood effect relates, not just to material conditions but also to moral values and a different ethos held in different areas.

In Roker they talked about women from council estates.

Hilary: don't you think they just have families without thinking about it too much?
Rita: I once went on an outing with Pennywell Toddlers...they thought I was mad... I had this enormous bag with me Milupa (baby food) and everything and they just got a pasty for theirs. I had a towel to change her and they were just changing them on their knees.
Ruth: they're that young - they're not married some of them are 16 and 17 and their lives are totally different from ours. A lot of them have got young friends and that and they're not married ... they're still thinking about themselves because they're only 16.
Irene: ... we try to be bright and nice and worry about things where they ... I think a lot of it goes over their heads and it doesn't really matter to them.
Penny: they like to buy nice clothes for their children ... the women in that (expensive) clothes shop near the park ... they say it's the ones with no money that come in and put things away.

In Fulwell

Alison: When I first moved up here I went out with a bunch of women from Pennywell. Their husbands did nothing, spent every spare penny on drink and they just expected it. Their husbands would go out at 11 o'clock for the afternoon and not come back till midnight.
Lynne: but they're the ones that have got no money 'I need a crisis loan' and moan they've got nothing for the kids.
Jennifer: my husband ...the things he did in his childhood, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing. You see you think because people are brought up on a private estate they are better and he'll say 'council estate ... they're scruffs' and things, but I think I'm a better person than he is and I come from a council estate.

Differences were noted across but also within areas. I attended two groups in the poorest area who, although objectively sharing a similar economic position and in similar housing tenure, lived in areas which are characterised in Sunderland as on either side of a rough/respectable divide.

The women of Redhouse compared themselves with Southwick:

Patricia: I think there's differences. Without sounding horrible- we may have council houses but we keep them clean.
Barbara: some of the kids... you feel like telling them to buy a bar of soap, I mean they're filthy and their clothes... you can buy clothes really cheap nowadays ... when I see them with holes in their shoes I think its really sad.
June: I do think when you get down the squares[3], that's just gone on over the years and they've just carried on... I mean at Christmas ... my friends' on the Provi ... she collects round there, you're not safe going into people's houses, she says you could get all your Christmas shopping down there...they're offering you this and that.
Patricia: They all congregate in one house.

My research was carried out in areas which could be characterised as central or peripheral working class and is, in part, evidence of the increasing divide which is occurring between those groups. It seems that the Carley Hill and Redhouse women were from an estate which had a 'respectable' working class history with a central position in relation to male employment in the past. This position is changing and in terms of economic standing, although not identity, those people are now closer to the traditionally poorer areas of Southwick and Marley Potts.

The groups comprised a mix of people from different occupational backgrounds, based on the identity of motherhood and place. Women talked about other lifestyles and these images of the other were based on neighbourhood and not simply on differences of class. There were women in the affluent area who had worked in the sewing Factory; there was a woman in the poor area who was a trained nurse. On the other hand none of the women in Fulwell relied on state benefit while more than half of the women in Marley Potts did and there was a sense of precariousness there which seemed absent in the more affluent areas.

This range of experience gives access to understanding the interaction of factors of gender, class and place. The identification with women on the basis of a common identity as mothers occupied most of the group's time giving rise to comments about other women's experience such as:

Brenda: There's no difference... all their socks smell the same, all their underpants smell the same.

Differences in command over resources were also recognised. In Marley Potts both were discussed in talking about women in Fulwell:

Mandy: they'll be complaining they're getting pork chops instead of lamb ... they've all got dishwashers and nannies.
Christine: the majority of them have got jobs, they're all private houses
Pam: they've just got bigger houses to clean haven't they?
Mandy: they've got a lot more money - a different class.
Betty: we live a lot nearer our families. I don't think it would be much of a community 'cos there's lots of new estates.

The composition of the groups reflected the fact that women do not fit easily into easily definable social classes because of their more complicated occupational history and the fact that this involves them in a wider span of social interaction than their partners. This was recognised and described in Carley Hill, when the auxiliary nurse told how one of her workmates changed from being 'one of the lasses' to being 'posh' when her husband and daughter came to collect her from work.

These factors, countering the class identification of women, are well recognised (Charles, 1990). Additionally many of the women who were now in the more affluent area had originated from the council estates. It seems however that the objective distance between these groups is progressively widening so that identification based on place may become increasingly important if the continuum of places is broken (Byrne, 1995). Women from Marley Potts and Carley Hill characterised the affluent and poor areas 'most of them have got jobs' while 'there's nothing round here'. The distance is most strikingly drawn when people project their futures and the meaning of change as deterioration.

In Marley Potts

Mandy: We went to playschools and that when we were little, there's nothing like that now.
Ada: (nodding toward the children) There'll be no work when they get up.
They leave school and they're on these's a struggle for the parents as well, the parents can't give them what they used to give them

In Carley Hill

Mary: I don't think there's anything for them when they leave school... there's no pits, no shipyards, its like a ghost town.

In these groups the future was not perceived as a continuation of past trends but rather as divergent from places like Fulwell. In general in Fulwell this sense of hopelessness was not expressed. People did not feel threatened by unemployment in quite the same way and education was often perceived as the route for their children into a solid future. In a small number of cases fathers' small businesses were expected to provide for the children's future.


The focus group discussions show that there are differences in expectations within neighbourhoods which reflect processes of class, gender and place. It is clear that place and class are intimately related but not entirely coincident. The gender divide, which is evident in all groups, is contextualised in class relations in a particular place, so that while all women spoke of the gender divide their experience of it differed. This is particularly evident among women with young children because relation to employment is more tenuous and identification based on neighbourhood may consequently be more significant. Mother and toddler groups have been a useful focus for this research because these are consciousness-forming groups, where views about appropriate behaviour in partnerships are in a constant process of review. It was clear to me in conducting the groups that women had discussed the issues I raised many times, and they were able to use each other's experience to support their arguments.

We have seen that people are reflexive about their culture, '..people know their way of doing things; they know a customary mode of thought and performance. They do not necessarily value it because it is traditional, but because it suits them. It developed, after all, to meet their own requirements and conditions, and, if those requirements and conditions remain, theirs is the most practical means of doing whatever is required....' (Cohen, 1982: p. 5). Now however, we can see that wider economic and social changes are bringing about fundamental changes within households, neighbourhoods and communities. If we can no longer characterise some areas as based on a relation to employment in shipyards or pits or any other stable work, then a central tenet in the relations within and between households, their neighbourhood and their city has been removed.

There were relations established in areas because of pre-existing male work roles so that, for example, in Carley Hill (an area where a lot of pitmen lived) the woman's place was very clearly defined as subordinate. Some of the men and women from this area would move to Fulwell however and they would 'mould' to their way of doing things. The level of domination and exploitation would be modified or, as the women of Carley Hill believed, disguised. The work then would go into achieving an alternative appearance of belonging. This is important because identity is formed in relation to the self, the local and the characterisation of 'otherness', in other words we form our identity both in saying who we are and who we are not (Robson, 1971). I have been interested in how women interpret the change that they are living through, their images of previous styles and how their subjective understanding of change affects their orientation in the present. I have gained access to some of those meanings by outlining the ways in which women compared their own lives with those of their partners and the differences they identified with women of other neighbourhoods.

Changing relation to work was recognised as a significant factor in the power relations between women and men within the household. Increasing economic independence among women encourages greater resistance within the domestic sphere. This may be true as much for the women who relied jointly with their partners on unemployment benefit as those whose economic independence related to a previous and prospective position in the labour market. The dominant experience of change was of a weakening in the traditional divides (Wheelock, 1990) but no-one reported complete role swaps among themselves or any of their contemporaries. In some households partners gave considerable amounts of 'help' but everywhere the responsibility for organising, and sometimes delegating, domestic work and childcare remained heavily the woman's burden.

Women held a more complex relation to social class both because of the processes of occupational segregation (Bradley, 1989) and the discontinuities created by childbearing and rearing (Joshi, 1991). The domestic division of labour was clearly primarily structured according to gender but as we have seen, class and neighbourhood affected the final form that division took. These different and sometimes conflicting experiences necessarily had implications for the particular style adopted.

I was interested the division of labour within the home as well as orientation to work. While I recognise that other writers have found the class divide much more significant than that of gender (Roberts, 1994), my research suggests that both divides were significant in different contexts. Women were well aware of their oppression in the domestic sphere as they were of their differences with other women based on class. I found in focusing on roles within they emphasised the divisions there but that when discussing differences of class women saw themselves as more closely allied to their partners. This simply suggests that these divides are more complex than can be understood by assigning any simple hierarchy.

These divisions manifest themselves in cultural practices, which can be delineated within a local area, based on the interaction of forces of class and gender in the past and in the present. This research has shown that there are ways of doing things which people recognise as proper or appropriate which differ according to area. It seems that the breakdown in traditional male employment and the growth in demand for female employment is disrupting those traditional relations and leading to re-evaluation and renegotiation at home, at work and in the community (Wheelock, 1990; Stubbs and Wheelock, 1990).

This article has raised some questions about the factors shaping change and looked at one particular aspect of its expression in people's lives through the images women hold of themselves and of others. The purpose has been to recognise the importance of those processes in characterisation of self and of others as the basis of cultural identity and the ways in which this identity in turn feeds into a complex understanding of changing relations and cultures. The evidence from the focus groups suggests that cultural change is grounded in material change but that, because dominant relations of the past interact with those of the present, the form, which this transformation takes, may be different according to place. In examining the implications of change then, we must be aware of the significance of the growth of casualisation and low wage labour, not only for the economic position of, and relations within households, but also in terms of their effects upon relations in and between neighbourhoods.


1 This marks one significant divergence from Market Research advice on running focus groups (Krueger, 1988) because it relies on the fact that the issues which are discussed are known to its members and that members are well known to each other. The issues that we discussed formed part of women's everyday conversation and were the more valuable for that.

2One of the major problems created by ease of access lay in an early group being substantially oversubscribed. The settings were all mother and toddler groups in local Community Associations and Schools and I wrote initially to group leaders explaining my research. I then visited the group to be available to explain my purpose and to organise a specific meeting. One of the first group sessions began in this way and I enlisted an agreed group for a meeting the following week. When I arrived however I found my group had expanded to sixteen and rather than offend the unsolicited participants, I carried on with the group as assembled. This was a mistake however because, unable to get their point across, people would fall into discussion in subgroups and I consequently lost a considerable amount of information. The group proved impossible to control and some people were inevitably, gradually excluded. In addition the tape recorder I was using was not adequate to the task and so the voices of those furthest away were not recorded.

In subsequent meetings I made it clear that I wanted groups of around eight people and in one Mother and Toddler group, held two separate meetings to accommodate all those who expressed an interest in attending.

3The Squares is an area of council housing which has particularly high levels of male unemployment, large family size etc. It has an image locally as a ëroughí area, a label the area has held over generations


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