Where is the working class woman?

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

An extended version of a talk given at Feminism is for Every Body, TWT2022.

I want to preface this by stating that, for me, ‘working class’ is not a synonym for ‘white’. I grew up in a multicultural working-class culture, as so many of us have done, and I therefore find it extremely frustrating that this needs to be pointed out—but sadly, based on past experience, it does.

Where is the working class woman? In much of the theory of the Global North, she’s something of a fugitive figure; she haunts our thinking, but she rarely appears—and is almost never addressed directly. In fact, Black feminist writing is one of the few places we can actually find her, and see her being spoken to, albeit with an inevitable focus on US cultural politics.

One place where she does appear is in Chapter 15 of Marx’s Capital 1—the chapter about ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry’. It’s the briefest of appearances; almost an aside, an illustrative flourish, intended to reinforce Marx’s main point. But when I re-read that chapter, three years ago, I came—just for a moment—face-to-face with her. On page 517, Marx says:

In England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling barges, because the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is beneath all calculation.1

The specificity of this account never fails to bring me up short: it’s not just working class people being exploited in this way, but women; specifically and precisely women.

And then, just as suddenly as she appeared, she vanishes again; Marx provides a citation (the 1863 Report of the Social Science Congress at Edinburgh), refers to the exploitation as “despicable”, and moves swiftly on to the following section, which finds him talking about “the adult worker and his family,” as though nothing has happened.

But, having glimpsed her, I cannot forget her. For three years, she’s haunted me. She shimmers through my consciousness, hauling the canal-boat, her hands raw from the rope, her shoulders knotting in pain. Cheaper and less trouble than a horse, or a machine: a horse requires a certain amount of food and stabling; a machine requires a certain amount of steel and oil. A working-class woman, on the other hand? Toss her a penny; she’ll be grateful for it, and she’ll learn to make do.

What do I see in her? I see a whole forgotten history. From the very inception of the British working class, women were working—not that you’d know this from the way we talk about the historical British left, with its “union men” and it’s strange notion that women only recently “entered the workforce”. From the so-called ‘matchgirls’, in 1888, to the women of Grunwick and Dagenham, to take only a few examples, working class women have always worked, and have always acted politically, too.

Perhaps I also see myself. I was born and grew up in North Liverpool, into a family of poor Irish Catholics, whose women had pretty much always worked outside the home. Did any of them haul a canal boat? I do not know. I do know that many of them were indeed in receipt of ‘Wages for Housework’: other people’s housework.2 Censuses reveal that many of my foremothers were laundresses, cleaners, menders of clothes. Perhaps we could call this work the domestic equivalent of canal-boat-hauling: the unglamorous shitwork that nobody wants to do, but that is, nonetheless, necessary to the maintenance of things.

A machine requires a certain amount of steel and oil. A working-class woman, on the other hand? Toss her a penny; she’ll be grateful for it.

Naturalised labour.

Capitalism needs abject populations. The entire social order relies upon the continual (re)production of an exploitable class who are oppressed not only economically and physically, but emotionally and psychically, too. That I am standing here talking to you, rather than hauling a canal-boat or mending posh people’s underpants, is not necessarily a sign of progress: it’s a sign that capitalism has found other horizons of exploitation. Many cleaners working in Britain today are migrant women, often from lands that were colonised and depleted by European states. Today, we find an increasingly feminised labour force in the factories of the Global South, producing our clothes and our household goods in often horrific conditions. Their exploitation makes cheapness possible; why pay to have your clothes mended when for half the price you could simply buy a new one? The sociologist Maria Mies, in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, refers to studies which

have found out that women in South and South-East Asia are considered to be the most docile, manipulable labour force who, at the same time; show a very high degree of productivity of work.3

From the garment factories of South Asia to the second-hand fabric markets of West Africa, the fabric of our lives is woven from the very specific creation, upholding, and exploitation of racialised, feminised identities: submission, docility, the happy labourer, grateful for scraps. These women, and so many others, are hauling the canal-boats for us. My qualified liberation is built on their exploitation. And, like so much exploitation, it’s naturalised: Asian women are ‘naturally’ docile; African women are ‘naturally’ physically robust enough to carry and sort kilo upon kilo of our rubbish from daybreak til dusk; women in general are ‘naturally’ better at domestic labour, or emotional labour, or reproductive labour; working class people are ‘naturally’ formed for the most menial jobs. As Claudia von Werlhof once observed: “From the standpoint of the rulers… ’nature’ is everything that they do not have to, or are not willing to, pay for.”4

When exploitation is naturalised, we can imagine the exploited happy. The exploiter wants nothing more than their own redemption: the notion that this work that’s done for them is voluntary—a composite act of kindness, of tribute, and of grace—or, at the very least, that it benefits the worker. The woman who hauls that canal-boat is thought to be nothing but grateful for the penny, and the opportunity for more pennies tomorrow. She has no interior life: no pains, no joys, no hopes, no dreams of something better. She just works, and she works, and she is invisible.

Today, we find an increasingly feminised labour force in the factories of the Global South. Their exploitation makes cheapness possible.

The working class woman in the web of life.

The whole history of the British working class is deeply and inextricably intertwined with the exploitation of others—exploitation in which we are (wittingly or otherwise) necessarily complicit, even while we ourselves are exploited. In Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz discusses the role of sugar in the development of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Drawing on a study of shifts in the Scottish diet, which observes that, in Dundee, declining levels of basic nutrition can be correlated to the intensifying exploitation of women in the jute mills, Mintz argues persuasively that the Industrial Revolution was effectively fuelled by sugar, both in the form of jam and stirred through tea. A cup of tea and a jam sandwich became a sort of ‘working lunch’, quick and cheap to prepare and eat in the dwindling amount of time left to workers of all genders for any life-sustaining activity beyond the selling of their labour-power.5

Sugar, of course, was a plantation crop, grown and harvested in the colonised islands of the Caribbean by enslaved West African people, who were forced into the intensive and horrific labour conditions required for the expansion of sugar production. My foremothers consumed the forced labour of colonised and enslaved lands and people (including women), so that capital might consume more of their own exploited labour (coerced, arguably, but not forced). This is what Stuart Hall meant when he wrote that “people like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries… I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” These plantation commodities—sugar, tea, cotton, etc.—constitute, for Hall, an “outside history that is inside the history of the English”, without which “there is no English history” at all.6 Can we imagine a British7 working class without jam, without tea, without cotton? Perhaps—but when we do so, we are firmly within the realm of the counterfactual; we are imagining an alternate history in which we are not so entangled.8

The problem, then, is not the solidarities and friendships built by working women in the face of their exploitation. The problem is this: how can we extend these to all women?

The organisation of the current world-system is almost entirely dictated by flows of capital, labour, and products that were set out by European colonialism. For English-speakers, even our language holds these histories, and thus remakes and reinforces them in the present: ‘banana republics’, ‘spice islands’. We might think of the sugar plantation as a historical outrage, but 25% of sugar imported to Britain is produced in its former colonies, often by children, under conditions of extreme exploitation. Much sugar production still takes place on plantations that were established by European colonisers.9

Meanwhile, back home in Liverpool, the city’s Tate & Lyle refinery employed thousands of working class women, known as the ‘sugar girls’. The ‘sugar girls’ would process and package sugarcane grown and tended by generations of exploited women half a world away; sugar which would then be sent out into the world to make our jam, our bar of Dairy Milk, our morning cup of tea. The refinery’s closure, in 1981, was hard-fought by the workers, and contributed to the economic decline that shaped both the city’s future and my own life (I was born the following year). Since its demolition, in 1984, the refinery has become something of a focus for good-old-days nostalgia amongst older Scousers—including some of those who worked there. The hardships of the plantation seem a world away from the cosy memories recounted by the ‘sugar girls’, exploited as they themselves were.

How are we to think such nostalgia? It isn’t as simple as ‘false consciousness’, nor some caricature of a European woman, luxuriating gleefully in the abuse and dispossession of her sisters. Women workers in the imperial core were and are exploited, and it’s worth being really clear about this. But that’s what makes the nostalgia seem so baffling.

In a 2019 essay for New Socialist, Dan Barrow writes compellingly about this “longing for a vanished world”. Acknowledging that it is, on one level, an effect of “the upward redistribution of the gains of imperialism, as sites of industrial production move to places without worker protections,” Barrow cautions us nevertheless to remember that “the worldhood of proletarian life” was something “self-generated in the face of annihilating suffering and drudgery,” and which “constitutes a vital part of whatever project of liberation” we might aim for.

The problem, then, is not the solidarities and friendships built by the ‘sugar girls’ in the face of their exploitation. The problem is this: how can we extend these to all women—the globalised, feminised working class? So that the loss of a workplace does not need to mean the loss of a world, and the living of our own lives does not destroy the worlds of others? It is both possible and necessary to hold the truth of imperial violence in balance with the simultaneous truths of the exploitation and abjection of working class women in Britain, without subtracting from or diminishing either of them.

Indivisibility against invisibility.

I do not haul a canal-boat, or sew clothes in a factory, or pick coffee-beans or sugarcane, or carry discarded garments on my head in Kantamanto. I live somewhere around the national poverty line, but that life is still built upon the exploitation of other women just like me. I have only ever wanted to write: to write and to think; but even—or especially—on the left, to be a working class woman, even a privileged one, globally-speaking, is still to be somewhat invisible. When institutions are concerned with drawing in audiences, with selling tickets or magazines, the easily confident, perhaps privately-educated, woman is a better and a safer bet than somebody like me, whose entire upbringing and experience has produced something a lot spikier, and angrier, and less confident than women are ‘supposed’ to be. I wonder if my foremothers also wanted to write. Maybe they wanted to paint, or play music. I wonder about their ideas, their hopes, their dreams. I wonder about the hopes and the ideas of exploited people the world over. I wonder what’s been lost, and what’s at risk of being lost, even now, every single day. This violent squandering of life for profit, and this foul system that makes me a participant in it all, even as it wears me down to almost nothing.

When institutions are concerned with drawing in audiences, the easily confident, privately-educated woman is a better and a safer bet than somebody like me.

Raymond Williams once wrote about the ways that our “lived culture”, our habits, mean that

what people come to think and feel is in large measure a reproduction of the deeply based social order which they may even in some respects think they oppose and indeed actually oppose.10

We might want and believe things to be different, but somehow we still live in ways that perpetuate that which we oppose. And so it is with me. I don’t want to see myself and my work as less worthy, but in many ways, I do. I don’t want to be ashamed of everything I am, or to hold myself to the unreachable standards of those who were born lucky and whose luck only increases—but I do. I don’t want to exploit people every time I get dressed, or make a coffee, or turn on a light—but I do. This is how social orders work both on and through us all. It takes more than just opposing them to oppose them. It takes all of us, unmaking them, together.

So, where is the working class woman? The answer is that she’s always been here: hauling the canal-boats, rotting her jawbones in factories, harvesting the crops, cleaning the messes and mending the holes, and so much more. If the tradition chooses not to see her—not to see us—to speak only of “union men”; to render invisible our labour, our love, our political and cultural activity, then we need a different tradition.

  1. Karl Marx. [1867] 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. London: Penguin. Ch.15 §2, p.517. 

  2. See Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974)—a text which, incidentally, demonstrates a profound contempt for working-class men, who are presented as drunken violent brutes. I am by no means unsympathetic to the arguments around so-called ‘caring labour’ and social reproduction, but the field’s historical and ongoing domination by the women of the bourgeoisie has left it riddled with what are, in my opinion, some quite serious flaws. 

  3. Maria Mies. [1986] 2014. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books, p.117 

  4. Claudia von Werlhof. 1988. ‘On the Concept of Nature and Society in Capitalism’. In Maria Mies, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen & von Werlhof (eds.) Women: The Last Colony. London: Zed Books, pp.96-112, p.97. 

  5. Sidney Mintz. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, pp.127-31 

  6. Stuart Hall. [1991] 2019. ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’. In Essential Essays vol 2. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp.63-82, p.70 

  7. I use ‘British’ because I think Hall is drawing the boundaries too narrowly here; Scotland, for example, was an enthusiastic participant in and beneficiary of empire. 

  8. Indeed, if it had not been for the profits of empire, not to mention the underpaid labour of the descendants of enslaved people, would the NHS that has enabled the survival of three generations of my family ever have existed? 

  9. In Louisiana, US (where French sugar planters set up after fleeing revolutionary Haiti), sugarcane is grown by prisoners at the notorious Angola prison, which is then processed into syrup and sold—grotesquely, Americanly—in the prison’s ‘gift shop’. In an extensive essay on the racialised history of American sugar production, Khalil Gibran Muhammad makes plain the historical continuities. “Angola,” he writes, “is the largest maximum-security prison by land mass in the nation. It opened in its current location in 1901 and took the name of one of the plantations that had occupied the land.” As well as sugarcane and other commodities, prisoners also grow and harvest cotton. 

  10. Raymond Williams. [1975] 1989. ‘You’re a Marxist, Aren’t You?’ In Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism. London: Verso, pp.65-76, p.74.