Hello all, and thank you very much for your patience during my hiatus from this blog. I can reassure any and all of you who are interested that the dissertation is in, the MA has been finished, and an all-too-brief holiday had. I’m back, partly because I’d left it much too long already, partly because I have a point to make, and partly because I’m angry – and the latter two, of course, are linked.
I hardly need to make the point that, since the rapid development of the second and third waves of feminism between the 1960s and the 1990s, we are experiencing a backlash. This means not only that women’s rights activists are coming up against resistance in new and current campaigns for equality, but also that the rights we have won are being gradually eroded – for example, cuts to childcare facilities are causing many women to leave full-time employment to look after their children. Fortunately, the response has been a wonderful rise in grassroots feminist activism. Unfortunately, ‘men’s rights activism’ is also rampant on the internet.
I wouldn’t normally grant a platform to this vile piece of provocation, but ‘The Case Against Female Self-Esteem’ plays into a number of very current problems, and a society in financial crisis is a fertile breeding ground for many of the author’s statements. Forney’s main point appears to be that women are not entitled to self-esteem because they, unlike men, haven’t achieved anything to deserve the right to value themselves. According to Forney, ‘Most girls’ so-called achievements, the ones they take pride in, are complete jokes.’ Their degrees, he argues, are generally worthless:
‘If anything, having a college degree is a strike against a girl—unless it’s in something real like a STEM discipline—as it shows that she’s a conformist who thinks that credentials are a substitute for knowledge and experience.
‘The same goes for having a job. The vast majority of girls work useless fluff jobs: government bureaucrats, human resources and various other makework positions that exist to give them the illusion of independence. The jobs that keep the country running—tradesmen, miners, farmers, policemen, the military—are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
‘If every girl was fired from her job tomorrow, elementary schools would have to shut down for a couple days, but otherwise life would go on as usual. If every man lost his job tomorrow, the country would collapse.’
This typical backlash reasoning, you will not be surprised to hear, has been around at least since the Victorian period, when women began to enter the public sphere, including the workplace, in numbers. Particularly during the financial crises of the 1840s and 1880s, the male reaction, both in the workplace itself and in the budding trade union movement, was hostile. Men whose pay was subject to repeated reductions saw women’s cheaper labour as a means to undercut their wages. In City of Dreadful Delight, Judith Walkowitz explains how the economic crisis of the late-Victorian period prompted working-class men to cling to stereotypical masculinity as high unemployment lost them their traditional masculine role of family breadwinner. She describes how employment insecurity ‘reduce[d] the authority of the male head of household to an absent or decorative role, one highly vulnerable to parody as something of a “comic disaster”’, as the women and children in families were taken on as cheap labour whilst the original ‘breadwinner’ remained unemployed because his labour was deemed too expensive. This, she shows, was reflected in popular music hall songs such as ‘We All Go to Work but Father’.
Organising committee of the Matchwomen’s Strike, 1888: a strike organised entirely by female workers at the Bryant and May Match Factory
Thus, Victorian working-class women took on much of the work previously done by men, and proved themselves equally capable of carrying it out. Nevertheless, they were employed primarily because their labour was cheaper than that of men. Furthermore, their employment was far from being more secure than men’s: they were often taken on on the implicit understanding that their job would be returned to a man as soon as there was less need for their employer to undercut men’s wages. Hence, women’s labour was used, successfully, to cause rifts between different groups of people within the working class.
Even amidst the growing call for workers’ unity, however, trade unions did not try to represent women and develop a climate of solidarity in which all exploited workers could unite to fight for fairer wages. Instead, as Walkowitz makes clear, ‘Men clung all the more tenaciously to patriarchal prerogatives, including wife-beating’ (2000: 44); and female workers were often intimidated and sexually harassed by their male colleagues in an effort to induce them to leave the workplace. Thus, as Marx and Engels point out in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves.’
…and the London Dockworkers’ Strike a year later
These divisive tactics are still being employed today. I am currently looking for work myself, which means filling out an Equal Opportunities form with every application. And although I personally believe my sexual orientation is certainly no business of my employer’s, I recognise fully the importance of equal opportunities and wholeheartedly support equality and diversity in every place of work. What shocked me is the way in which people, in casual conversation about the unpleasantness of job hunting, bring up equal opportunities as something to resent. They tell me that all the jobs now go to people who tick multiple equal opportunities boxes, and present that as a reason why they (hard-working, able-bodied, white, straight men and women) struggled to get work. As well as being obviously untrue, this entirely defeats the aim of equal opportunities, and internalises an ideology based on playing workers out against one another to prevent the formation of a united front against exploitation. Denying people and groups of people something so basic (whilst still so often lacking) as self-esteem absolves one of the need to respect that person – and this is precisely what gets in the way of mass solidarity in reaction to the economic and political problems we are all facing. In short, the case should not be made against the self-esteem of any particular person or group of people, but for the self-esteem of individual workers and for workers as a social class, to allow us to unite against the divisive and exploitative strategy we are told the financial crisis necessitates employers to use.
To wash that down – not because my female self-esteem is grounded in my ability to bake, or because being unemployed leaves you with all the time in the world for these inconsequential things, but rather because I’ve been away, because I haven’t had time in the months I was completing my dissertation, and because several friends have told me off for the recent lack of cake on this blog: here’s a picture of my latest batch of cranberry chocolate flapjacks, made with heather honey from my dad’s bees: