Imagine two women, the same age, from the same city. They both work in the same office building. One has a comfortable office, starts work at different times each day depending on what needs doing, and lives by herself in a nice house in a quiet area of town. The other starts work at five in the morning, keeps her handbag in the cleaning cupboard, and lives with her two kids in a rented flat in a block with a lot of problems. The first woman is a lawyer, and earns at least four times as much as the second woman who is a cleaner. You can imagine that these women lead fairly different lives and that the lawyer is likely to have many advantages that the cleaner does not have. But if we remain at this individual level it is difficult to analyze why those differences might occur. At the individual level it is tempting to suggest that the lawyer got where she is because of her own hard work, which is probably true to some extent. But of course this implies that the cleaner has not worked hard, which is not the case. We could delve into the individual biographies of each of these women to find out how one became a single lawyer and the other a cleaner with two children. However, those biographies will tell us a lot more about women’s lives generally, if we place them within their historical and social context. A sociological imagination (Mills, 1959) can help make sense of how the ‘troubles’ people experience result from disadvantages suffered by certain groups such as women, the working class, and ethnic minorities. We can imagine these women not as simply free-floating individuals but people living at certain times and in particular places, who are part of a number of social groups. The lawyer is a professional, a single woman. The cleaner is a low-paid worker, a mother. The different constraints and opportunities operating in these women’s lives are better understood by appreciating not only economic structures but cultural discourses (ways of thinking and talking).
This chapter therefore directly discusses the shift from material to cultural explanations of gender. Here we see a transition from a focus on the economic and occupational categorization of class, through to analyses
arising from Marxist ideas, and on to feminist critical responses to these ideas which embrace culture. I argue that these are the three major sociological approaches to considering how class and gender relate (see Skeggs, 2004). Within debates about the interconnections between gender and class we clearly see the attempts to understand gender as fundamentally a product of material, meaning economic, conditions — and we encounter the limitations of that approach. From this, new considerations emerge which add analysis of cultural factors in order better to understand class and gender. Those feminists taking this approach engage with Pierre Bourdieu’s work, but also develop it in ways that offer some highly promising insights into the complexity of the relationship between gender and class as forms of inequality.
Chapter 6 discussed feminist efforts to broaden their thinking to consider inequalities amongst women, including those of class, and here we see how those ideas developed. Different forms of inequality have often been separated out because it is extremely difficult to try to think through how inequality may be simultaneously gendered, racial, and classed. This chapter begins with those who remain tied in some respects to identity politics (see Chapter 6), seeing it as important to continue to recognize that ‘women’ are a category of persons who continue to share material disadvantages as a group. A shared social identity as ‘women’ is argued to continue to play a large part in understanding inequalities, but not all women are equally disadvantaged. In explaining class disadvantages, the chapter focuses first on the material aspects of inequalities in relation to class. The term ‘material’ originally referred to relations of production and here we deal mainly with how gender was understood to connect to those relations. I therefore first discuss the analysis of gender and class which deals with relations of production and then consider attempts to examine class and gender in more cultural terms.