More Reflections on the Middle-Class Women’s Workshop

So much happened at the Middle-Class Women’s Workshop1 that it’s taken me a few days to decide what I want to say.

I am a woman who’s been leading middle-class liberation work for twenty-five years, and it has been a shock to realise how much I have not addressed women’s liberation and to what extent I have kept the two sorts of work separate.

At the workshop, women introduced themselves standing up in front in groups: women targeted by racism, young adult women, Jewish women, Catholic women, women from outside the United States, then white Protestant women. Because I had gone with women from outside the United States, I was sitting and watching when the white Protestant women stood up. I looked at that line of powerful, intelligent women and noticed as they introduced themselves that most of them muttered and did not look pleased or proud. Most importantly they looked alone, as if they were talking to themselves. Heartbreaking. Later I got together with a small group of white Protestant women to think about how to go forward. We had rounds to clarify our thinking. I said that we needed to discharge oppressor material2 in order to get back our pleased faces. When we are able to be pleased with ourselves, we will be a contradiction to internalised anti-Jewish oppression and internalised racism. Jews and people of the global majority will feel a lot safer around us. They will have a bit of hope in our ability to listen.

In watching demonstrations on the cost of upward mobility, I was struck by everyone’s honesty and what the people of colour, immigrants, and women raised poor or working class had had to do to get into the middle class and stay there. It was awful to hear about all the one-way listening (to ignorant people like me) they had had to do.

Diane said that one of the earliest distress recordings many women carry is the feeling that we don’t exist. Our caretaking and pleasing-others role is often predetermined before we are even born. Then when we grow up and are in oppressor roles, we can fall into making others invisible.

When we are in middle-agent roles3 in the service sector—whose purpose in the capitalist system is to contain and manage the damaging effects of oppression—our training as women makes it hard for us to notice that we have been co-opted. All we can see is that we are trying to help. In fact, she said, “Our job is to be fighters.”

Diane said that middle-class material can disconnect us from our own struggles, since to be in the middle class we are required to look as if we aren’t struggling. In some ways I have fallen for that,4 putting my liberation as a woman aside to “get on with the job” (a common white Protestant recording6).

A piece of the work on class has to be discharging on unpaid labour. Diane talked about how capitalism has always depended on the unpaid labour of women. As capitalism disintegrates and becomes more openly cynical and punishing, women are under pressure to do even more unpaid work. She reminded us that the RC Communities are mainly female, that women do an enormous amount of unpaid work in RC, and that we need to value it.

She also said that part of becoming middle class is disconnecting from oneself as a worker. When I was a union representative in a university, I noticed that when members were in trouble with management they were always surprised and hurt, because they didn’t realise they were workers. This was especially true of the women.

A woman at the workshop who was a nanny had difficulty seeing her job as a real one. This was partly because of the low pay, lack of feedback, and no contract (very much like being a mother).

So it now seems to me that I have learnt two important things from this workshop: (1) that the work on class must include thinking about women’s unpaid labour—how to both value what we do and resist the inequality and oppression that usually go with it, and will probably increase as capitalism disintegrates, and (2) that my commitment to end class oppression cannot and must not be separated from my commitment to end my oppression as a woman. If I allow a wedge between the two, sexism and male domination will rush into that gap, as has so often happened in past revolutions.

Caroline New

Bristol, England

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of women

1 A workshop held in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, in February 2015, led by Diane Balser, the International Liberation Reference Person for Women
2 "Material" means distress
3 "Middle-agent roles" means roles of being the visible agents of the oppressive society.
4 "Fallen for that: means allowed myself to succumb to that."
5 Distress recording


Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00