Class, Gender and Respectability - And Their Reproduction Amongst Young Working-Class Women

Barry Gilheany discusses the work of sociologist, Beverly Skeggs on young white working class women in the North West of England.
In this article, I consider the longtitudinal ethnographic study by the sociologist Beverley Skeggs of the experiences of 83 young white working-class women from a industrial town in the North-West of England enrolled on college caring courses. (Beverley Skeggs Formation of Class and Gender Sage Publications 1997) It covers their trajectories from enrollment onto after leaving school and then participation on the courses including the placement elements right through to eventual employment and long-term relationship status in the time period 1980-1992. This study was an attempt to fill a lacuna in feminist and cultural theory; the role of class in the subjective experiences of women because, in her opinion, of the disappearance of class as a concept and working-class women as a group from feminist and cultural theory agendas (Skeggs, 1997 p.2).

Feminist (and) cultural theory is replete with theories of identities and constructions of subjectivities but little of this scholarship investigate the processes by which 'real' women negotiate and understand them 'selves'. Beverley Skeggs shows how an unspoken form of class consciousness develops among her cohort of research subjects through one of "the most ubiquitous signifiers" of class - "respectability" It is part of the British Cultural Studies tradition that theoretical, methodological and political concerns are worked through empirical understandings and careful attention is paid to the historical legacies which inform contemporary representations of subjects. By showing how respectability historically acted as a marker for class and how respectabiity is used as a means of 'othering' deviant codes of behaviour and being are internalised by the women in her study as a means of disidenitfying as working-class but how in this process the emotional politics of class are played out through the anxieties of women to live up to middle-class standards. By doing this she makes an important and original contribution to the literature in her field.

This book grew out of a general scepticism about the categories deployed on a daily basis in academia; it comes from a critique about the supposed neutrality, class-blindedness of epistemology. The historical portrayal of the working class as signifiers of all that is mad, bad and dangerous ( or as heroic, noble savage of middle class rebel romantic projection) through academic analysis and popular culture (think of Vicky Pollard of Little Britain fame) produces legacies and signs through which those who comprise the category can be recognised. It is this recognition that the women sought to avoid by cloaking themselves in respectability. It was the "unswerving commitment" of the women to "respectability" that motivated the author to find out why it was such an issue (Skeggs: p.160).

Through this prism of respectability Skeggs uses four central themes in her book: (1) Processes of identification and differentiation; (2) Issues of location; (3) Interrogation and applicability of concepts and (4) The deployment of different forms of capital. By using Pierre Bourdieu's metaphors of capital and space, her study maps how this cohort of young white working class women were born into a matrix of inequalities which provided differential amounts of capital which governed their movements through social space. Skeggs shows how these movements were put into effect by the women who exploited the types of capital to which they had access in an attempt to put a floor on their circumstances (Skeggs: p.161). I now examine these themes in turn.

Firstly, Skeggs in her feminist ethnography seeks to deconstruct received wisdoms around methodology and epistemology. She gives a feminist account of power and legitimation, the focus of which is experience and interpretation.

Epistmology is the theory of knowledge. Methodology is a theory of methods which informs a range of issues from who to study, which institutional practices to adopt (such as interpretative practices), how to write and which knowledge to use. Regardless of who or what we are, we are always implicated in relations of knowledge. Skeggs contends that traditionally it was only bourgeois White men who had status as legitimate knowers and producers. White bourgeois women were designated objects of knowledge through the classification of respectable femininity and that of Black and White working-class women through deviant sexuality. Such 'oppressed groups' are constituted objects of knowledge without agency or volition. It was the author's experience of feeling as if she was a misrepresented object of sociological and feminist knowledge that motivated her to work with her white working-class women subjects (Skeggs pp.18-19).

Thus, Skeggs states the practices and knowledge by which we 'know' in academe are generated from positions in historical and contemporary bourgeois hegemony and feminist theory is not exempt from this practice in that White Western middle-class women have set the agenda for the analysis of women through their institutional power derived from their hegemonic role in the production and distribution of knowledge. Many of the concepts in feminist theory have been generated from partial experiential description. Motherhood, for example, is defined from a supposed universal experience of it yet, in practice, it is experieced quite differently from the perspective of women of colour, of women of the developing world, of working class women, of disabled women etc. (Skeggs p.20).

Having problematised feminist theory for its apparent blindness to the effect of class and other exclusionary forces on the subjectivity of women outside the bubble of middle-class controlled academia, Skeggs proceeds to detail her methodological approach to the subjects of her research over the eleven year time span of the project. The first three years were spent doling ethnography as intensive participatory observation combined with other methods. She traced the trajectories of the women through the education system and biographical details in a case-study file for each of the women and also conducted informal interviews with family members, friends and college teachers.

The first research question was framed was 'why do women, who are clearly not just passive victims of some ideological conspiracy, consent to a system of class and gender oppression' ? (Skeggs: p.22). She points out that this sort of question is always historically contigent and located. While the research paralled in time the shifts in feminist theory from structuralism to post-sructuralism; the sheer extent of the empirical data she gathered prevented her from totally absorbing any “new and fashionable theory” (Skeggs: p.23). Her ethnography was a political project to “provide a space for the articulations and experiences of the marginalised (Skeggs: p.23).

The intention of the research was to undermine any attempts to construct normative positions in feminist theory which do not acknowledge their production from positions of power and privilege and to challenge the dichotomy of subject/object so frequently reproduced in feminist research. Experience was prioritised over any other epistemic principle as we are all produced as subjects through our experiences, through the interpretations of these experiences and through time. In this study, experience was central to the production of subjectivity; to the production of raced, classed, sexed and gendered 'woman' (Skeggs: p.38).

Skeggs then goes on to trace the genealogy of respectability and the duality it creates for women. Respectability, domestic ideals and caring all establish constraints on women's lives, yet they can be all experienced positively. They also reproduce distinctions between women: those who have invested in these constraints can feel superior to those who have not. As shall be seen later, these distinctions were increasingly vocalised by some of the women in the latter stage of the study.

The discourse of respectability emerges in the 19th century with the expansion of Empire and the pathologisation of the potentially polluting and dangerous working classes. The regulation of moral behaviour during the Victorian era was part of a wider formation of class identity, nation and empire. Through the discourses of hygiene, sexuality and morality, along with the maintenance of social order, women viewed as potentially dangerous if not regulated through their own civilising self-regulation. The threats from the untamed working classes could be neutralised if women were educated to civilise; that is, to control their husbands and sons who were likely to be the cause of anticipated strife. As an invisible pedagogue, the mother as virtuous woman protected the nation and empire; non-virtuous women were subversive. Men would not perform the necessary virtues but would be the judges of them (Skeggs: pp.42-43).

Historical national anxieties were articulated through educational reform, welfare provision, Christian charity and evangelism, pathologisation of deviant sexuality and the fondness of national-scientific classificatory systems which sought to codify most aspects of human life within the linguistic framework of eugenics. Early childcare legislation such as the Maternity and Child Welfare Act (1918) was not designed to help mothers themselves but to monitor them to make sure that they brought up children 'correctly'. The moral duty to “entrust with a mission to educate the poor under you” through the transmission of advice became the basis for the development of social work practice at the turn of the 20th century.

Caring courses throughout the early and mid 20th century were also imbued with the prerogatives to create the disposition to are amongst working-class women and to inculcate the effective characteristics such as the acceptance of and taking pleasure in domestic duties as part of the sexual division of labour in the family household structure (Skeggs: p.48).

Contemporaneous to the author's research study was the development of Community Care as a legitimate form of social work practice. This suggested a merger between the once separated (through the wage structure) occupational and familial roles in which young unemployed working-class women were perceived by the State as part of a pool of carers. The shrinking labour market of the 1980s helped to engender a need amongst these young women a compulsion to develop and monitor a “caring self” and it to this prerogative we now turn to.

Using the framework of what Michel Foucault (1986) defines as “technological practices”, Skeggs examines how in her cohort study the process of the construction of the “caring subject” is played out. This process is one in which caring for is conflated with caring about. To be a caring person involves having to display responsibility by taking on personality traits such as unselfishness. Responsivity, as one of the key signifiers of respectability, is demonstrated through self-performances such as conduct or manners, or through care and obligations to others (Skeggs: p.56).

The 'selves' of these women are constructed through concrete caring practices and through investment in these practices. These women are positioned not just by historical legacies (the respectability discourses of the preceding century) but by the range of opportunities open to them most pertinently the high rates of local and national unemployment at the time (e.g. only 18 per cent of total school leavers in that town in 1982 only 18 per cent were known to have jobs). The lack of a suitable alternative was obvious to most of the participants in the study (“I'm hear cos I couldn't do anything else”, Julie; “It was either this or the dole”, Sally B).

A predisposition towards caring among many of the women gained from experience of looking after younger siblings in the family home meant that caring for them was a form of cultural capital; something they were unlikely to fail at. Even though within the sexed and classed division of knowledge within the college, the caring courses were considered to have the lowest status within it, the women inverted such distinctions by valuing the practical aspects of their courses (health and social care practice, home nursing, elementary nursing practice, social and life schools) over the “useless” academic qualifications. They validated practical and responsible behaviour as features of their own personalities rather than as part of a process of educational differentiation (Skeggs: pp.58-60).

Thus by accepting the caring subject position provided by the organisation of the curriculum the women came to recognise themselves as caring subjects and their experiences of taking tasks of high responsibility on their placements such as dispensing medication on hospital wards further boosted their self-esteem and confidence in their caring personalities to the point where they developed a sense of moral superiority.

Class was completely central to the lives of these women. By using Bordieu's metaphors of capital and space the study mapped how a group of white working class women were born into structures of inequalities which provided differential amounts of capital which circumscribed their movements through social space. These movements were put into effect by the women who utilised the forms of cultural capital (proficiency in caring and the respectable and responsible character traits constitutive of the “caring self) they had access to in order to an attempt to put a floor on their circumstances (Skeggs: p.156).

In this study, class is defined as a structure of feeling rather than in the occupational classifications of authorities such as the Registrar-General or the categories of proletariat and bourgeoisie as reflected in popular and academic discussion. The author collected data on the parents' occupations, family situation, housing, education, employment aspirations, welfare use, consumer patterns and leisure pursuits. These categories were quite fluid and it proved impossible to subsume the social class of the women's mothers (21 per cent of whom were full-time housewives and only 6 per cent of whom were involved in local factory work) into that of their fathers many of whom were unemployed, transient or shakily self-employed (Skeggs: pp.79-80)

The most fundamental marker of class was that of exclusion. Class was experienced through affectivity, the emotional politics of class fuelled by insecurity, doubt, indignation and resentment (but also lived with pleasure and irreverence as their “nights on the town” showed (Skeggs p.162).

The investment they made closed down other ways of being; so when they made investments in caring, this closed off their possibilities for focusing on themselves rather than on others. For many it was all they had as an alternative to unemployment; lack of alternatives being one of the central features of being working-class.

To maximise their investments in caring capital required a greater purchase on respectabilty which locked these women into systems of self-regulation and monitoring which inevitably generated shame when they queried the mismatch between their dispositions and positions. The imperative to assert public respectability produced a complex and contradictory matrix of sentiment around (hetero) sexuality and feminism as I shall now explain.

They produced themselves as particular sorts of 'women' in relation to public narratives of what it means to be a working-class woman. Skeggs draws on Bourdieu's assertion that working-class women are considered to be distanced from having 'taste' to ilustrate how important to the women as their investment in femininity. Appearance and conduct became markers for respectability although these had to be coded in the correct manner; too much concentration on appearance was seen to be a sign of female deviancy 'no good girl can afford to appear bad' (Skeggs: p.100).

She develops Bourdieu's notions of the body to show how the women deployed femininity as cultural capital and how they policed themselves within the boundaries set by it. Bourdieu argues that the body, as a social product, is the only tangible manifestation of the person. The sign-bearing, sign-wearing body is also a producer of signs which are physically marked by the relationship to the body (differences in bearing, posture, movement and the use of space. Physical appearance may work thus as a form of corporeal capital.

In their youth, the women put a premium on attractiveness through clothing, hairstyling and fashion but also desired independence in order to construct appearance for themselves. Acrimony between mother and daughter was often fought out over clothes as mothers wanted their daughters to appear to be respectable and this meant displaying the right amount and type of feminity. As Yvonne complained:
I hate going out with my mam. She wants me to wear the most ridiculous things you've ever seen. You know like flowery dresses, court shoes. Clothes were seen as a form of cultural capital and one of the few alternatives available to the women. The legacies of 'knowing one's place' through clothing informed their 'choice'. 
Textually mediated femininity (through magazines, advertising etc) was applied through local interpretation. Learning the distinctions, as they did, between style and fashion, between looking good and looking 'tarty'; between looking feminine and looking sexy were regarded as working-class competencies. The women operated with a long list of prohibitions such as 'you can't wear jeans and high heels' or 'you can't wear white stiletto shoes and mini-skirts'. (Skeggs: pp,163-64). The practice of looking good was central to the women's sense of self but did generate anxieties, competitiveness and judgemental attitudes to those who did match up to required femininity standards. For example:
Jean (to Rose) 'Did you see her (Sandra) in that track suit last week. It was pink for goodness sake and she looked like a sack of potatoes. Well she's a disgrace to the female race. I mean just look at it' (Skeggs: p.164).
The category of respectability mediated the women's positioning on and responses to sexuality in particular ways. Skeggs makes use of Michel Foucault's theories on the representation of sexuality to explain how sexuality and sexual behaviour was mediated among the women. Foucault argues that what we experience as sexuality is both the product and process of its representation. If experience is understood as the correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity and forms of subjectivity. He asserts that we are born into heterosexuality as an institution and dormant norms just as we are born into systems of class and race.

On the caring courses the values of heterosexuality were directly transmitted to the women through assumptions about 'proper and correct caring' but also through discussion and inclusion of marriage as a topic across the curriculum. Such discussion could invoke racist and classist prejudices such as 'the difficulties in certain types of marriage, you know, forced marriages and mixed marriages' (Miss S Health Care Tutor, 1983) (Skeggs: p.126).

Because they were white working class women the assumption of eventual marriage was institutionalised on the course. As a gendered substitute to the problem of unemployment, the inclusion of marriage on the curriculum was seen to compensate for the lack of educational value provided by the course. Being married was a signifier of responsibility, respectability, desirability and material success. To be 'left on the shelf' was considered shameful; a measurement of failure.

The women did not become heterosexual; rather they were positioned by heterosexuality and they refused to be fixed by this category or any other category by engaging in strategic gender power plays to deal with the sexual harassment that they encountered from male tutors at the college and by policing their own sexuality.

To conclude, I believe that through the application of Bourdieu's theories of cultural capital and Foucault's on the deployment of sexuality to her research study Beverley Skeggs’ ethnographic study makes an original and valuable contribution to sociology and cultural studies scholarship. She makes an impassioned but well argued case for bring class back into feminist theory by highlighting the privileged position that white middle-class women hold in academe as gatekeepers to knowledge and by showing the disjuncture between feminist theory as mediated by this group of women and the lived experiences of the cohort of working class women documented and analysed by Skeggs. Her work underscores the reality that there is not one universal conception of feminism and that the individualised discourse of the autonomous woman of popular and academic feminism is not one that is recognised by the working class women from the North West of England whose sense of self was realised in caring for and obligations to others. It is also a classic example of how the pernicious (in my opinion) concept of “respectability” with its processes of othering, stigmatisation of behaviour held to be deviant ([particularly in the area of sexuality) and self-policing of body appearance and clothing preferences) remains so pervasive and its norms so readily internalised (as, for example and most oppressively in the approximate century and a half after the Great Famine in Ireland).

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

1 comment:

  1. "...feminist theory for its apparent blindness to the effect of class and other exclusionary forces on the subjectivity of women outside the bubble of middle-class controlled academia..."

    This is a crucial point. Academics have a love/hate relationship with the working class. They imagine (and fetishise) a homogenous group of untapped revolutionaries who will one day overturn the established order. At the same time, the differing views on immigration, Brexit, jobs and national identity give middle class academics a headache. So they spend endless amounts of money "researching" these contradictions, and can't accept that the working class (if such a thing genuinely exists anymore due to globalisation) are a hodgepodge of diverse opinions, thoughts and concerns.

    Conformity is for the middle classes, as they use it to enter the upper echelons of society.