Heute ist der 19.09.2017

Gender and Class - Teil 1

Von Rebecka Sommer

When talking about the power of societal expectations on women, is it important to include other factors than gender as well in the analysis? Is it not enough to consider the impact that the construct of gender has on people? In this article I want to argue against this idea by analyzing the influence that both gender and class have on poor and working class women. To do that I am going to build on the theoretical approaches which informed the research and work that has been done on the interaction of class and gender. There is Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction which enabled scholars to shift away from a simplistic definition of class in employment and financial categories to a more distinct discourse which includes social and cultural aspects. Equally important is his concept of “habitus”, the internalized and unconscious way of being by which the individual displays his social and cultural origin and status (Bourdieu 1987, 1989). Closely connected to this concept is West and Zimmerman’s (1987) idea of “doing gender”, which is one of the key concepts of gender studies. It introduces the notion that gender is not a biological feature, but in fact a socially constructed concept that is enacted by individuals in everyday interactions. Third wave feminists have extended the scope of “doing gender” by suggesting that class, as well as other factors such as race and sexuality, are equally constructed categories that work to classify human beings in hierarchies. In my work I try to connect these different theories by showing how scholars have used their approaches to show the intersectionality of gender and class. “Intersectionality”, a term coined by third wave feminists as well as critical race theorists, is the examination of factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and (dis)ability and how different combinations of these factors can lead to very distinct forms of marginalization and discrimination. It is also closely linked with the idea of anti-essentialism which criticizes the assumption of an all-encompassing identity of the people of a group (Delgado and Stefancic 2001).


As critics of second-wave feminism have argued, feminism and the feminist fight against gender discrimination in the 1960s to 1980s were deeply shaped by the dominant influence that the white, heterosexual and middle class members exercised. Only concerned with issues such as domestic inequality, employment discrimination and reproductive rights, they neglected the numerous other problems that women of color, lesbians, and poor working class women needed to have addressed. Instead of allowing those ‘other’ women to raise their voice to build a more diversified base, privileged white women declared their “ownership” of the movement (hooks 2005). This has certainly changed with the formation of third-wave feminism, but there is still a dominant white middle class hold over what is written about and how it is written about in mainstream culture. Beverly Skeggs, author of the influential Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable, who has contributed immensely to the research on the intersectionality of gender and class, articulates the importance of class in feminist study in the following way:

To ignore the underpinnings of class, from which readings of the feminine cannot be divorced (the process of becoming and reading the feminine is a class process), is to put into effect and legitimate the two damaging and dangerous forms of misrecognition that fix and hold in symbolic and social space those who already have only limited access to different capitals and to make sure that their future access mobility remains restricted. (Skeggs 2001, p.305)


Skeggs builds her analysis of gender and class on Bourdieu’s model of social space, in which he distinguishes between different kinds of capital that create the individual’s social status and identity. Thereby, Bourdieu challenges the idea that class is constructed only by financial wealth and income (economic capital), but instead includes other types of capital which define ones position in and options of mobility within the social hierarchy. He differentiates between social capital (social connections and relationships), cultural capital (which is embodied, institutionalized, or objectified), and symbolic capital (individual prestige and personal qualities) (cited in Skeggs 2001, p.296). The embodied cultural capital is closely linked to Bourdieu’s habitus that can be described as a “feel for the game”, a “knowing how rather than knowing that” (Lovell 2000, cited in Skeggs 2001, p.297). It becomes apparent in people’s accent, way of walking, clothing and other unconscious acts that construct the appearance others perceive from an individual. Women, in particular, are the symbolic bearers of cultural and therefore class identity, which leads to an enormous pressure on working class women to conceal their class status.



Rebecka Sommer

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