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Feminists and working-class boys

If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the professionals you will come across in your formative years are women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that most of the authority figures you come across in your formative years will be women. If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that your experience of women/girls during your formative years is that they are generally the high achieving and successful ones.

Unlike you. And your mates.

If you are a working class boy, there is also every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are proving less than successful in life. If you are a working class boy, there is every chance that a good chunk of the males you encounter are underemployed and undereducated.  If you are a working-class boy, there is every chance that the places you are most likely to come across successful males – secondary school, celebrity culture and the professional services – seem so remote, sometimes even antagonistic, to your own everyday experiences as to be almost alien.

We paint in broad brush strokes, of course, but there is justification, if only to tease out the central point. The idea that women are systematically disadvantaged in society might well be true. For this reason, we might well deem it morally justified to address this, through our politics, through our legal system, through our education system, through our cultural norms and practices.

But by the frames of reference available to working class boys, this can so often seem only to contradict lived reality. And if we then sit them down and tell them that they are part of the privileged, the winners in society, such that their interests must at times be circumvented to help girls and women be more successful, to achieve, to succeed in life – what do we expect the reaction to be? To feel engaged in eradicating injustice, or to feel even more alienated? To feel empowered, or further disenfranchised? To feel magnanimous, or further slighted?

Working class boys have it pretty tough, though there is little political capital in making the improvement of their condition a priority. And if one has already accepted that gender must trump class, then there is little moral reason to do so either.

In the meantime, we have a generation and more of working-class boys becoming a sink subsection of society, developing into the kind of men that only confirms the worst suspicions of those who would so readily write them off. We must not deny moral agency here: oftentimes this is of their own making, engaged in a downward spiral, formed within a cultural landscape marked by precisely that transience and insecurity that shapes a view of life and living that schooling and learning is failing to counter. And which only further feeds into that feeling of alienation, that perpetually unsuccessful attempt at the art of living well.

The result? Disengaged, angry young men. Lots of them. It is no surprise that this is beginning to shape our politics.

The condition of working-class girls is an essential part of this story, though it is legitimate to question how effectively feminism has captured this reality. I am from a northern working-class family in which the women are hard, authoritative, confident – though their concerns seem a world away from the attentions of academics and professionals, that which characterises the principal cultural and political expressions of feminism. My point is not that we must therefore choose between the two, but allow as valid a space where other narratives might appear.

And one of those narratives might be the impact social changes – economic and cultural – have had on working-class boys and men. We might think these changes worthwhile, worthy, fully justified, but we must also take account of the experiences of those on the sharp-end of such progress. Maybe a working-class feminism would better capture an understanding of the needs of working-class boys too. Maybe it wouldn’t. I really don’t know.

But what is clear is that working-class boys are struggling. Economically, socially, culturally, they are fast becoming a dalit class. We cannot claim to be a society that seeks justice if we stand blindly by and allow it to happen. And if feminism is really the best vehicle we have for providing an account of the way gender interacts and impacts on one’s place in society, then maybe there are grounds for hope. Because this seems to be precisely what working-class boys need right now. Maybe, then, working-class boys need feminists too. I suppose the question is: would feminists be willing to address that need?


  1. ana says:

    12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” aka – Why did you bother making woman when all she’s done is make my life, like, really hard!


  2. Timo1983 says:

    There is only one choice for boys today MGTOW, a NAWALT if you’re lucky.


  3. Bill Habergham says:

    Excellent article and in need a saying I think. As a thought experiment I do wonder what would happen if there were 2 identically qualified candidates for the last place at an Oxbridge College, a top medical school, or for a top civil servant training position. One candidate was male, educated at the local comprehensive and the son of a single mother who was brought up in a council house in Newcastle, against a privately educated daughter of ,say, an Indian heritage millionaire businessman. Who gets the place? Probably not the northern working class guy and is society more equal for that decision?


  4. Paul Hale says:

    A lot of boys in general are ground down in their ambitions. It’s not just a working class thing (though it is far worse there). I look across my family, in-laws and all (which everywhere is one/two generations from true working class): my generation are high achieving professionals but our children aren’t aiming for that.


  5. hzlacre says:

    I think the scenario is accurate, and it rather shows that the narrative of systematic discrimination/oppression of women is simply a lie.

    A tiny percentage of men hold any political/economic “power” (however you define that word). Contrast with the fact that every woman controls (mostly backed up by the law or convention) when sex happens, whether it leads to a pregnancy, whether the foetus survives, who goes on the birth certificate as father, whether there is a DNA paternity test, whether the father gets to see his children.

    Women have so much control over the family (the thing that really makes a man) that it seems dishonest for them to complain about oppression. Yet they always want more control.


  6. Tim says:

    What if working class boy don’t want to change what it means to be a man? What if they’re simply looking to live in a world where the dice isn’t loaded against them in favour of their sisters?

    Would feminists accept redefining ‘what is is to be a woman’ as a consolation to practical change? Of course not.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. teachwell says:

    I would have to disagree with Nancy with the of course bit. Truth is that it depends on the kind of feminism we are talking about. If we are looking at equity feminism then yes but it is moving towards an equal rights agenda which seeks equality of opportunity and rights.

    Men’s Rights Activists are rightly calling out feminists who are showing hypocrisy in their attitudes and it is one of the reasons I won’t be joining the Women’s Equality Party or Women’sEd as the principle of proportionality where women dominate and equal numbers where they don’t just doesn’t add up to equality – it means men will lose power in professions regardless of whether they are the majority or the minority.

    The particular case of white working class boys and girls is interesting as they have been on the receiving end of far too many poor policies and what I would say is prejudice in the system. Eulogising poverty as the middle class hard left has done both keeps the poorest in their place and denies them opportunities. Where did the idea that there is such a thing as an elitist education for working class children come from? The factory workers? The miners? No from those in love with the idea of a revolutionary politics that the working class in this country have never supported or voted for on the whole.

    The way forward isn’t more feminism or identity politics. It is by ensuring that there is no longer an acceptance that teachers get to pick the way they want to teach because of their feelings – SSP is a clear flashpoint – look at the good it has done precisely for the most deprived and then look at the people who decry it, wishing instead to keep a system which leaves 20% of ch functionally illiterate as opposed to 5% who will be in this position?


  9. nancy says:

    Of course. I think what you have described here, very effectively, is patriarchy. That is, the domination, by one group, of every other – and that includes working class men. In order for there to be a change for women, there needs to be a significant change in the structure of manliness too – what it means to be a man.

    My own view is that the means by which a man may define himself, feel good about himself – feel like a real man, often through his ability to work (and this might be in particular ways), to support his wife and children financially (or practically – DIY anyone?) has been slowly chipped away. Where are the opportunities for a man to earn a ‘living wage’ unless he throws his lot in with the knowledge economy? As the mother of a young man who will not be able to take up high status work – through learning disability, rather than economic circumstance – this subject concerns me greatly.

    The only criticism I would offer is that all boys grow up in female dominated places. It isn’t peculiar to working class boys, but that is by the by. I expect you’ll get lots of comment. I’ll tweet you the link to the blog on masculinity I’m thinking of.



    • A good response, Nancy. Can I make one point. It is not true to say that all boys grow up in female dominated places. I taught in boys-only public schools, where the staff were almost entirely male. The boys had all attended boarding prep schools, again, mostly all-boy schools, with all male staff. These boys, of course, are anything but working class.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Women tell boys they’re crap that must defer to women > patriarchy, got it :/


    • “there needs to be a significant change in the structure of manliness too – what it means to be a man.”

      What it mean to be a man is only partially influence by culture/nurture/upbringing. As long as the nature part of manhood is evacuated of such analysis, im afraid we’re not gonna make much progress. The complete denial of evolutionary and biological aspect of differences between man and women behaviour is an obstacle that i don’t think we’ll overcome in the near future.


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