Within feminist sociology there are three major approaches to understanding the links between class and gender; one criticizes standard classifications of class (Acker, 1998/1973), another extends materialist visions to encompass gender (for example, Delphy and Leonard, 1992), and the third turns to discourse and culture (for example, Skeggs, 1997). French Materialist feminists, most especially Christine Delphy, offer a partial turn to culture in the way they develop Marx’s ideas (Jackson, 1998b). Delphy concentrates on explaining the domestic mode of production as a crucial concept in understanding women’s subordination. This is a mode which excludes women and the household tasks they perform from the market and exclusion from the market means that housework is unpaid. The unpaid nature of household labour also means that women cannot consume when and as they choose. Women are additionally disadvantaged because the domestic mode of production is also a mode of circulation in which wealth is conventionally passed to oldest sons, reproducing women as non-possessors. This does not consider all areas in which women are constrained, neglecting violence and sexuality, for example, but Delphy (1984) has acknowledged this.
Without some understanding of the operation of ideology or discourse, it remains difficult to explain why it is women who are exploited within the domestic mode of production. And yet the notion of ideology was often rather underdeveloped within materialist and radical approaches to gender. Contemporary accounts of how gender inequalities are classed use Bourdieu in promising ways to elaborate how meanings make class distinctions in gendered ways that have real effects (see Adkins and Skeggs, 2004; Duggins and Pudsey, 2006).They employ his concepts of capital and habitus to examine class as specific sets of ingrained ways of thinking and being, played out in gendered ways within particular social worlds or fields (for example, Reay, 1998; Skeggs, 1997; 2004; 2005). In addition Adkins can be used to consider how it is that a ‘taste’ for certain kinds of workers to do particular jobs helps explain why women’s labour is exploited in specific ways within capitalist patriarchy. It is through constant battles to be deemed respectable that class distinctions operate for working class women, who strive for some of the markers of middle class femininity (such as caring skills or elegant clothes) in the hope that they might be able to convert any limited cultural capital they may gain into economic capital. Even though this may be unlikely, they however have to maintain the struggle in order to ensure their social position does not worsen. This struggle is one with considerable emotional costs (Reay, 2004; Skeggs, 1997; 2005).
What could be clearer is how it is that some individuals are able to overcome or relearn their habitus sufficiently to accrue various forms of capital sufficient to gain social mobility. This might be better understood if we appreciate that it is possible to ‘move’ the kinds of sedimented power relations that Bourdieu and feminist followers describe, and that emotions — especially anger — may play a part (Holmes, 2004). If such shifts towards respect for diversity are to be more than utopian fantasies they require an understanding of how gender intersects with other forms of inequality and, most importantly, how it intertwines with racial inequalities.