As part of my work, I run courses with women aimed at empowering them and increasing their personal safety, mainly around the issue of domestic abuse. While they are from a cross section of different backgrounds, coming from an area that has been hit hard by austerity it’s fair to say that most of my learners are living well below the poverty line. The functional illiteracy rate is higher than the national average here and many of them have been through the criminal justice system and/or prison on more than one occasion. There’s a bit of a myth that women like this “don’t do politics” and that theres a massive apathy and ignorance when it comes to social issues.
But sit in on one of my groups and you’ll notice something pretty quickly; These women are fiercely political and usually carry strong feminist views. Just not necessarily in the way modern feminist and leftist circles would want them to, which is precisely why the women in my groups wouldn’t engage with them, even if they were welcome.
Historically, this hasn’t always been the case. Poor and working class women have always been driving forces of social change and equality, and not in the way your history teachers and politicians would have you believe. From the Russian Revolution to rent strikes in Glasgow, working class women have always organised and they have done it well. Here in the UK it was their grassroots organising that formed the first women’s refuges for those fleeing domestic abuse.
My area was one of the first which trialled Universal Credit. It was a mess. Everything that community workers, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence advisors warned them would happen, did. It demanded that vulnerable people living hand to mouth with a myriad of compounding issues should suddenly able to manage a monthly budget. It introduced joint claims, insisted that payments being made to couples are put into the bank account of just one, trapping mainly women into abusive relationships, and left thousands without money for months as claim forms seemingly vanished into thin air.
While Theresa May paraded around in her ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, she also introduced the rape clause to child benefit, essentially forcing victims of sexual violence to prove they conceived a third child through rape in order to put food on the table.
The women on the receiving end of all of that were sat in my classes. Progress isn’t about putting more women in positions of power that actively strips resources from other women, and it isn’t about getting women with privilege to speak for the ones who don’t either because they will always prioritise their own needs and see the struggle of less advantaged women an afterthought once their own aims are achieved.
The Suffragettes are a good example of how both their tactics and the role and experience of working class women have been downplayed and ‘nicewashed’ into popular belief. The suffragettes smashed shit up. They blew up the chancellor of the exchequer’s holiday home. So far, so good direct action. My problem with this is that much of it was at the instigation of Emmeline Pankhurst, a wealthy white woman with social connections who encouraged the suffragettes not just to commit criminal acts but to wilfully get themselves sent to prison and overwhelm the system to achieve their aim- much like what we are seeing in the Extinction Rebellion movement now, which they are just beginning to realise they were wrong about.
Prison is horrible. But we know the experiences of white middle class, particularly high profile political prisoners is different than those from marginalised communities. That was true then and is true now. Because when we talk about the Suffragettes, may still believe that part of the reason it was so revolutionary and surprising was that it was well heeled, privileged young women who were having themselves thrown in jail. But this isn’t reflective of the reality. Many poor, working class and disabled women also received prison sentences and it is fair to say their experience was not the same as their wealthier, more famous counterparts.
Back then, prisoners were put in 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions. Their uniforms were different, as were their roles within the prison, the poorer ‘criminal’ classes being slung in 3rd. You can guess where the more prominent WSPU members were placed and the treatment that they received was worlds apart. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of her cell floor being scrubbed by 3rd division prisoners as she lay incapacitated after she was force fed. Another Suffragette, Mary Nesbitt, jailed in 1912, found her cell “unacceptable” when some graffiti on the wall informed her that it had previously been inhabited by a sex worker who had been jailed for one month for soliciting. She demanded to be transferred and astonishingly this request was granted immediately.
However other activists, like Minnie Baldock who came from a poorer background, struggled to pay for childcare when she was jailed and her husband was away at work. Of course the official line from the jails was that prisoners were treated the same. But when Lady Constance Lytton was released from Newcastle Prison following her hunger strike in 1909 after only serving two days of her sentence, she had her suspicions as to how true this was. Lytton was told the reason for her staggeringly early release was her weak heart. She had indeed suffered from this all of her life, but suspected her social status was the driving factor for the decision.
Determined to prove her theory, on her release she rejoined the WSPU under the assumed name of Jane Wharton. She altered her appearance, cutting her hair short and changing her fashion. She was arrested and jailed again for protesting the force feeding of the hunger strikers outside Walton Gaol, this time for two weeks. This time she was placed in 3rd Division. She was never given a proper medical whilst incarcerated and was subject to force feeding from which she never truly recovered. She suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923 aged 54 years old.
While a range of women in the movement were subjected to force-feeding, we do know that it was first performed on the poorer factions of the WSPU, probably as a sort of test run.What we don’t know is the kind of force feeding they were exposed to. As you can imagine just by the name, there is no pleasant way to exact this on someone. Many of those who experienced it had lasting health problems as a result and talked of indescribable pain. But it wasn’t just performed via the nose and mouth as the illustrations in the papers of the time will show you. It was also performed vaginally and rectally for no justifiable or practical reason, but was likely inflicted on lower ranking and disabled members of the WSPU rather than their more privileged counterparts. Many of who were left to starve once they began hunger strike until they grew weak, when they were then released until they recovered, and then recalled in what was known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. This method was only ever employed because of the authorities fear that a prominent and good standing Suffragette would be to die within their prison walls.
Not all of the more affluent Suffragettes had the empathy and insight of Constance Lytton. Figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were happy keeping their privilege for themselves and fiercely opposed their socialist kin Sylvia’s attempts to bring class consciousness into the women’s movement. It is no surprise at all to learn that a number of the Suffragettes later joined Mosely’s British Union Of Fascists, for their intention was only ever to be equal to men of their own class.
We know lots about what happened to them, and far less of the experience of working class suffragettes. They certainly wouldn’t have had family members who were able to send baskets of food and fruit so they did not have to rely on prison sustenance as others talked of, and much of their story is missed as many also didn’t have the literacy and connections to publish what they had endured.
Prison for the people around me has not been baskets of fruit and kindly wardens. It has been violence, sexual abuse and a cycle of poverty and trauma that very few have been able to break free from. Isn’t just enough to eradicate these systems and prejudice from all of our movements- we must be conscious that our own actions aren’t supporting the divisions that have been engraved onto us since birth.
The revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War did much to relieve some of the appalling conditions women were living in at the time and anarchist women organised themselves and fiercely resisted Franco’s Army who subjected them and their children to horrific abuse and torture when they captured them. However even within their own movements they had the same gendered expectations imprinted on to them. Even those women that were fighting on the frontline were still largely assumed to be responsible for child rearing and household chores. Imagine:
“Evening Darling, long day?”
“Oh yes, very productive. Shot lots of fascists in the face”
“Marvellous! Me too. Good job little lady, now whats for tea?”
Im being facetious of course, but you see the problem.
Because lets go back to the women in my classes. You’re unlikely to see them on women’s marches. Most modern feminist circles are not seen as relevant to them because they are deliberately excluded from them, even though they are the first to be affected by regressive policies. On the 9th November 2016 when it was announced that Donald Trump had won the election, I happened to be running a class that day about the early warning signs of domestic abuse and they talked a lot about Trump that was entirely relevant to the conversation; The abuse of power, the meaning of authentic consent and the best way to snap the finger bones off a man who puts his hands somewhere he shouldn’t.
If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting it. Not because they don’t take interest in the world events or lack critical thinking, but because when you are living in poverty, every bit of your energy is spent on meeting your and your children’s basic needs you aren’t likely to have detailed knowledge of current events, let alone get involved in an anti fracking campaign miles away from your home, even if that is an issue you find concerning . Myself and other activists I have worked with have all dipped out of movements before because of poverty or mental health issues associated with poverty, with apologetic mumblings about how we have to take time out from organising. That isn’t right. Those sorts of everyday struggles should be at the very heart of what we do. People say poor and working classes are apathetic when it comes to politics, when actually the left has all of its priorities wrong. Last year I started a campaign to get government to force utility companies to stop charging more on metres than billed customers. My mistake was sharing it mainly in my usual left circles. Electricity charges aren’t dramatic or newsworthy and not a great deal of people were interested as they have never been in fuel poverty and think shitting into a compost toilet at Boomtown for a few days a year when the class A’s kick in makes them the fucking Lorax.
It didn’t take off among them, but out of the few thousand that got involved, the vast majority were from poorer backgrounds who seemed slightly surprised at something that was relevant being brought to the table, particularly from those who had more conservative views. To them “we”- The Left, or what is perceived to be The Left- are normally concerned about having Jane Austen on paper notes that’s never in their hands for more than a few minutes as another debtor demands payment.
Not that representation isn’t important. Of course it is, but if we aren’t ripping down the structures that allowed the vile abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez who headed the Jane Austen campaign to thrive at the very same time then it often becomes tokenism, a few crumbs to placate us rather than a catalyst for radical change.
This isn’t about the attacking the middle class either, because whether they are aware of it or not, the gap between rich and poor is ever widening and some are not on the side of the crack that they think they are. I’ve seen people who were relatively comfortable left destitute within 8 weeks in this system. Even those of us that have been part of the most deprived communities rarely organise there unless it’s to counter the far right. It’s because we are often seen-even affectionately- as a sort of oddity in them and we subconsciously think we won’t engage our own family and neighbours. I know this to be true, after a hazy conversation in a bar last week after a family members funeral where me and a long time friend of the family tried and failed to have a slurred conversation about the BLM movement which, at the point it looked like we were making progress, was interrupted by another member of the wake who casually remarked about my brother’s “golliw*g hair”. It can honestly feel like firing a water pistol at the sun, but that is where change needs to come from- not the left or right, but from the bottom, smashing up.
It isn’t impossible to create truly feminist movements which have class consciousness at its core and recognises how our individual identities collectively shape and are affected by it, rather than allowing it to be hijacked by those who are using it as a shield to cry oppression when their positions of power are threatened or obstructed. Or ridiculed by those who are afraid it is a threat to them.
Gentrified feminism, gentrified rebellion, serves no one but the ruling classes ultimately and the time has come for those who most need it to break down the door and squat the building so that it provides shelter for all. The revolution will not have an Insta filter.
Wouldn’t be right not to sign this off with Poison Girls.
Love and rage,