Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women and Work: Class within the Classroom

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women and Work: Class within the Classroom

Article excerpt

The increased numbers of working women in the college classroom provide scholars and instructors with unique opportunities to develop new scholarship and theories about the working class and its connection to gender and race and ethnicity. Previous theories that focused on the social relationships among industrial workers and their employers at the site of production led to a whitened and masculinized analysis of class. However, sociologist Rose Brewer asserts, "The conceptual anchor of recent Black feminist theorizing is the understanding that race, class and gender are simultaneous forces" (16). Economists Teresa Amott and Julie Matthaei agree, adding that these forces are "interconnected, interdetermining historical processes, rather than separate systems" (13). These systems are not experienced separately nor can they be adequately examined as discrete phenomena. Examining any one system, however, can become a lens for understanding the interconnections among all three and especially their collective impact on social actors. For example, the sexism that marginalized European American women workers operated in tandem with racist treatment of workers who were men and women of color. The experiences of both groups in the labor market fostered a sexual and racial division of labor that, in turn, reinforced distorted theories about the relationship of all women to the working class.

One such distorted theory was able to dismiss women's class by assuming that the husband's position in the labor market was the sole determinant of his wife's class position. Yet since the onset of the industrial revolution, most working-class women whether married or single have worked for wages. Wives of male workers usually earned money to supplement their husband's earnings.

Nonetheless, the places and forms of women's wage earning differed from that of men. When unable to work in factories because of child care responsibilities, dangerous conditions, or male bias, women earned money by working as servants or washerwomen. They worked out of their homes and cared for boarders in order to earn money.

They augmented their low wages by engaging in mutual support efforts with women kin and friends. Indeed, wage earning could be considered a reliable indicator of a woman's working-class position, for only the wealthiest families could afford an unemployed wife or daughter.

In addition, unlike men, the home has been as much a work site for women workers as the office or factory. Women must balance and juggle the demands of the public world of wage earning with unpaid work in the private sphere of the household and family. Therefore, rather than experiencing a single and dominant social relationship to class based on wage earning at industrial sites, working-class women have simultaneously occupied multiple sites of production involving paid and unpaid labor. These multiple sites are connected to complex social relations sustained by women's emotional as well as physical and mental labor.

This article examines the significance of this multiplicity and complexity for the development of a class analysis. It argues that beginning with the experiences and voices of social subjects such as working women, rather than with ideology or a structural analysis, reveals the many dimensions of class. Most importantly, studying the "authentic chronicles" created by working-class women college students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds about their work lives, enables theorists to better understand the connections among race, class, and gender.

The analysis of class described in this article was based on teaching Women and Work, a course developed to bridge the pragmatic issues of contemporary urban working women students with the pedagogy and scholarship of women's studies. The course was taught four times at the City College of New York Center for Worker Education, an evening college program especially designed for working adults. …

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