Class and Feminism: The “Optionless” Woman

I have a confession to make to my readers. I, femistorian, have a tumblr. That’s right. I am one of those people who will spend 3+ hours on the internet scrolling through my tumblr dashboard, reblogging photos and quotes until I fall asleep. A few nights ago, I was engaging in this ritual, when I came across this quote in the feminism tag:

The buzz word in popular feminism today is empowerment. When I became a feminist many years ago, the word we used was liberation. Unlike empowerment, liberation is a collective concept which means that even if my life is all rosy and “empowered,” it doesn’t mean shit for those women who are doing low paid jobs while trying to raise families. In fact, there is a very good chance that elite women’s empowerment is built on the backs of other women whose exploited labor provides the goods and services that enable a good career and a comfortable lifestyle. The low pay of nannies, cooks, cleaners, sweat shop workers, and day care providers means that wealthier women are freed up to make a salary that no doubt does feel empowering.

-Gail Dines

Now, at first glance, everything about this quote seems pretty awesome. Good for Gail Dines, trying to expose the hypocrisy of wealthy women and “empowerment.” That is, everything’s awesome until you look at it through a different lens. For me, that lens includes my status as a working class woman. Quotes like this, ideas like this, are what have been a very frustrating part of the feminist movement for me in the last few years. We’ve even had some disagreement about this at ShoutOut.

…for ourselves

The way I see it, who are these upper class women to come in and determine that anyone who isn’t make a 6-figure salary is “unempowered” or “optionless?”  At what point do feminists become the oppressors when they continually remove these women of their agency? By telling these women that their lives are horrible and hard and that they should strive to be in middle management, living in a high-rise apartment in New York, are feminists not imposing capitalist, upper class standards on other women?

My feelings aren’t totally new either. In the first half of the twentieth century, many working-class women refused to take on the feminist label because they felt like many feminist women were trying to impose their own rigid, upper-class standards on low income women, instead of asking them what they felt they needed help with. Early versions of the Equal Rights Amendment, fought for by the National Women’s Party and Alice Paul, were actively fought against by women in the workforce because of how it blatantly ignored their desires, and in some cases would have been detrimental to their ability to maintain a job.

So what’s to be done? First and foremost, let’s stop referring to women in “low-income” or “unempowering” jobs as “optionless.” Ask them if they actually want our help. Don’t just start speaking for someone else because you are more “enlightened.” Ask what they think about their job or their life in general. Find out what’s important to working-class women, before assuming that just because you have an education, you have all the answers. Consider the influence of capitalism on what you’re saying. Just because you are more economically privileged, do you really know what’s best for anyone else? Most importantly, keep in mind that working-class women, though they are working-class, are still intelligent, capable beings with a mind of their own. Even though you may not agree with their choices, don’t remove their ability to decide for themselves.

6 thoughts on “Class and Feminism: The “Optionless” Woman

  1. Reblogged this on Ms Peacock Escapes and commented:
    An important, if brief, look at the importance of agency when we talk of women as an oppressed disenfranchised group- feminism is about freedom to choose and the ability to fulfill our INDIVIDUAL potential, as well as elevating the living standard of women collectively. Perhaps we could start by rolling back all the focus on “the top” which is by its very nature unrepresentative of the majority…

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  2. I find it interesting with quotes like this that the woman who makes 6 figures becomes the bane of feminism….It’s almost as if that quote reinforces the divide between 6 figure women and women who do not make as much. Sure, I think a lot of people (men and women) can under appreciate/take advantage of or even just utilize low-wage women workers for child care and house cleaning. But, I think there are also a lot of women and men who don’t do that. I have known several house cleaning employees. One in particular made a huge (I mean huge) family business out of it. I think when we look at people in the house cleaning industry, we tend to overly-victimize them and forget about those that have made real careers for themselves. Again, I’m not saying that exploitation of low wage workers doesn’t happen in domestic industries. But, I do think our language shouldn’t be shaped around victimization. I think it propagates a stereotype that is not necessarily true.

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  3. I think this post brings up intersting points, but it doesn’t exactly hit the heart of the matter. When I wrote my post, I didn’t write it from a “high,” “middle,” or “working” class standpoint. I was writing from low-class, the lowest of the low, the kind of class that I grew up in. And those women were optionless – they didn’t like working in restaurants, cleaning houses, I knew one girl whose mom was a prostitute while we were growing up – they were optionless because the option they were living in was their one and only choice, or at least they saw it as such.

    I am not saying AT ALL that anyone who does this kind of work is optionless, that’s just ridicules. Academic women have definitely ignored the feminist needs of low class women throughout the past…but until they acknowledge the binds these women live in, they can’t help them. And I don’t remove their ability to decide by admitting all this – these binds do. Admitting optionless doesn’t unempower them – it shows how strapped in they actually are.

    Funny to me becasue I have rarely met a lower class person than myself at JMU…it’s really one of those situations you can’t understand unless you live it I guess.

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    1. I think it’s important in situations like this to consider that even though both of us come from low-class or working-class backgrounds, our experiences are different. And perhaps because of this, our views on class and success might be different. Just as people of color do not have the same experience across the board, it’s the same for people in similar classes.

      That being said, yes, there are things that bind women to their class. Should we try to fix this? Of course. My point is that our goals don’t have to be based around a middle- or upper-class ideal. Success does not have to revolve around salary or income or education or material possessions. We should obviously try to alleviate the problems that render some “optionless,” but also recognize that not everyone in the working- or low-class feels that way.

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  4. I grew up in a poor family myself, and it certainly allows you to see things differently. I think the influence of capitalism in often a major factor. I don’t know any strippers who get naked for fun. As far as I’ve seen, they do it because it’s often the best money-maker they can find at the time. They often weren’t helped with things that are luxuries under capitalism: child care, an education (that can afford them a job that at least pays the living wage,) and affordable housing and other necessary things. I know women who have been strippers to take care of their children, or to pay for their college education. So yeah, they’re probably not optionless… but it’s a sad state of society when some women’s best option for work is to sell and objectify themselves.

    Of course, I’ve also met women who will do nude modeling for free, but only for artistic projects. I suppose that’s the other side of the coin. And that’s cool if that’s what they want to do. I’d consider it an act of liberation if a woman wanted to strip freely. It’s just that when money gets involved, I then start to question how free of a choice for the woman it really is.

    So yeah, overall, I guess I just think that the women who need help deserve it. It’s not so black and white, some women don’t want to do the things they do and others enjoy it. I think it’s more degrading to the women who do it out of necessity, though, when society looks at them and thinks that it was just their free choice.

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  5. I don’t think the majority of feminists measure success as how much money a woman has – I think they measure it on the amount of freedom and agencey she has in her life. Maybe it’s confusing because money is a “fast-track” to independence?

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