There have been several charges levelled against the One Billion Rising in Second Life. One was that it was invalidated by its refusal to address the issue of violence against men. Or indeed, the issue of all violence everywhere. So often was this repeated that in the end I actually wrote a post about it – which you can read here.
A second charge that was made against the event (in Second Life and in the real world) was that it was in some way invalidated by the fact that it was organised and attended by middle class women. Several commentators made this point – including one who, in addition to stigmatising the protest as “middle class” felt the need to stress that they had working class parents.
Here I want to stress my perspective as a Brit so there shouldn’t be mis-interpretation. For me, “middle class” is a term that refers to white collar, professional workers. It covers a wide range of trades and professions – ranging from company directors to shopkeepers, from university professors to office workers at management level. It’s the widest class in the UK – the upper classes are a smaller part of the system, generally being seen as people who have inherited land and/or titles. A company director, no matter how wealthy, would not be seen as part of this class – although he or she could marry into it. The situation might be different in the US.
In the UK, the working class would be seen as people who work primarily in junior positions, manually (or jobs where manual labour is a core component). It would also largely include the non-working population who are claiming state benefits – although some of those might generally be seen as unemployed middle class. Again, this might be different in the US.
The middle class is the largest class in the UK at present. In previous times, the working class has been larger proportionately; one of Margaret Thatcher’s ambitions was to ensure that as many people as possible should identify themselves as middle class, and therefore aimed at raising living standards and matching aspirations, with the intention that the new middle classes, their aspirations to – for example – own their own home, should then vote for her party, the Conservative Party. For about a decade, this strategy was highly successful.
Ironically, despite the fact that so many people aspire to join the middle class or would classify themselves as middle class, the name itself is frequently denigrated or used pejoratively – as it has been in discussions of One Billion Rising.
And I believe this is wrong in this context – for four reasons.
1) This event wasn’t just for middle class Westerners
Of the many, many exciting aspects of this event, one of the most exciting was its global nature. The Guardian newspaper live-blogged it, and reported what happened in the UK, the Democratic Republic of Congo, across the US, in Egypt, Ethiopia, Australia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, Germany, Albania, the Netherlands, Somalia, Israel, Hong Kong, Nepal, Iceland, Turkey, the Maldives, Italy, Poland, Indonesia and … oh yes, they featured an event in Second Life too.
This was not just middle class women – although middle class women were involved. In Albania, for example, one arena featured a centre for Roma women – one of the most disadvantaged communities in Europe. In some countries, where dancing is seen as shocking, women marched or watched films, or talked. In some countries where dancing is frowned upon, women danced in their own spaces – Virtual Evangelical referred to having seen it on a Saudi Arabian blog. In Bangladesh, at least 1,000 acid attack survivors were planning to take part in rallies across the country.
It goes without saying that there are middle and even upper class women taking part in all these events. But they are reaching wider. Women of all classes are joining in, from the Queen of Bhutan to Indian street vendors.
Someone made the point on a blog that it would probably be more useful if women spent a week reading the newspapers than dancing. But that presupposes a free press. It presupposes that women have access to newspapers, and the means to purchase them and that – once they do have them – they know how to read. The idea of dancing was chosen, in part, because it is a simple, low cost activity that is easily understood.
2) Violence against women affects middle class women too
This really should go without saying, but the abuse that women face crosses class boundaries. Middle class women are beaten up and raped too.
3) You shouldn’t limit protests to the people affected
This is actually a more general point – because, as I said above, middle class women ARE affected by the issue. But even if they weren’t, even if no single middle class woman was sexually or physically abused, I believe passionately that it would still be right for middle class women to protest in support of their sisters – just as we welcomed men into One Billion Rising.
Because, if you impose that limitation, you are saying that unless you have experience female genital mutilation, you can’t protest on behalf of your sisters. You are saying that unless you have been through the hell of a forced marriage, or an acid attack, you have no right to stand up and say, “This is wrong. This must stop.”
And if you start to slice and dice in that way, you are left with one terrified girl cowering in the corner of a room … because her experience is unique and, if you have not been through it, you have no right to protest about it.
And that is so very clearly wrong.
4) The middle class – and middle class women particularly – are routinely stigmatised in a attempt to silence them
And other women should not be a part of doing this.
It is an age-old problem that where we should be uniting, women attack other women. They negate what women are doing. They belittle it. This happens for a variety of reasons, many more complex than the one that is usually cited – that these women want to curry favour with men. I think we do see that, even in an internet age (the appalling attacks on Kathy Sierra involved other women, for example).
But to assume that is the case in every instance is wrong. There’s a space for valid criticism and a space for valid critiquing, and that is important – indeed, essential.
But the use of stigmatising terms does not foster debate. It promotes the skewed disparity in language that consistently sees words that reference women acquiring a lower value than words that describe men.
Don’t believe me? Run these pairs through your head and remember, once they were completely matched as a term for a male – a term for a female:
Sir – Madam
Master – Mistress
King – Queen
Bachelor – Spinster
Courtier – Courtesan
In every case, the female pair of the word has either become less of an honorific than the male term, or has acquired a secondary meaning that can be used pejoratively.
In the same way, “middle class” has become a pejorative term, occupying the space once held by “do-gooder”. It implies people who, through economic stability, are out of touch with the “real world”. It suggests that these people are patronising and (frequently) domineering, attempting to impose their own world view on others.
And yet …
If one looks at social history, it has frequently been middle class women who have brought about great social change in the world. In times when working class women had little leisure time to give to things such as protests and social change, it was middle class women who were in the vanguard with the male social reformers – from Hannah Moore to Elizabeth Fry to Florence Nightingale to Josephine Butler to Octavia Hill to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. And that’s just Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the best known women.
There were, of course, far many more nameless middle class women involved in campaigns – sometimes as decorous as the slave sugar boycott. led (in Sheffield) by Mary Anne Rawson – but rapidly spreading across the country. Arguably the first political boycott of its time, the refusal of British consumers to be slave-produced sugar played a significant role in the ending of the slave trade in 1833.
Sometimes the campaigns were rather more dangerous. Josephine Butler had to escape through the window of a hall where she was speaking to avoid an angry mob on at least one occasion. And one thinks too of the bravery of those women who campaigned for Prohibition. Nowadays we might find their campaign wrong-headed, but there’s no doubting the courage of those women who marched into beer halls and fin joints and knelt down and prayed.
The stigmatising of middle class protest has continued into the twentieth century too – it was one of the charges levelled at the women of Greenham Common and their protests against the nuclear weapons sited there, suggesting that their protest was, in effect, a “fashion statement” and that they would, soon enough clear off to their nice warm houses.
Well, the women have gone now, So too have the missiles.
And conditions in prisons, housing, medicine and nursing have all improved. The slave trade is long gone in the UK, women are not licensed and bullied as prostitutes, and women have had the vote for nearly a hundred years.
Thanks, in part, to the efforts of middle class women.