Working Class Heroes?

Why, since Brexit, have working class people in Britain come to be thought of as not just white but also male? Laura Schwartz suggests to understand this, we must look at history.


This article is reposted with the kind permission of the author and was originally posted on the History Workshop Journal website.

In the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote, the spectre of the working class has returned to mainstream politics. From Nigel Farage’s call to vote Leave to defend the British working class from migrants supposedly undercutting their wages; to Theresa May’s first prime ministerial party conference speech referring eight times to ‘ordinary working-class people’ and ‘working-class families’; to the Conservative’s apparent ability to capture working-class voters in former Labour heartlands in the 2019 general election – class is back.

The logic of this new class politics is curiously inverted. Working-class interests are no longer seen as a left-wing cause but most frequently associated with support for a right-wing government, patriotism and social conservatism. Although it is questionable whether a working-class vote really was the main impetus behind Brexit or the election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, it remains a widespread and oft-repeated perception.

Who are the ‘ordinary working-class people’ who have recently garnered so much attention? Scholars such as Gurminder K. Bhambra and Robbie Shilliam have pointed out that the depiction of the working class as inherently suspicious of immigration and globalisation assumes that it is homogenously white and British-born. As a feminist historian, I am also interested in how today’s working class is assumed to be not only white but also male. I argue that this gendering has helped nationalist and anti-immigrant political forces to mobilise the new class rhetoric.

The working class in Brexit Britain is usually pictured as a resident of one of the post-industrial towns of northern England who has suffered as a result of the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing – a form of employment that was dominated by men. The southern counterpart to this intrinsically male representative of the British working class is the self-employed ‘white van man’. Working-class (male) authenticity is counterposed to a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ which is in turn gendered feminine. For example, in the 2018 Leave.EU tweet pictured below, a white male miner from 1967 is contrasted to the trans comedian Eddie Izzard canvassing for Labour wearing a skirt and high heels. The tweet mocks the idea that Izzard could ever be considered a ‘working-class hero’ in the manner of the paradigmatic male industrial worker. No further explanation is provided beyond the juxtaposition since Izzard’s gender fluid identity is apparently enough in and of itself to invalidate her as an authentic example of working-class activism.

The equation of masculinity with working-class culture, and femininity with ‘poshness’ is all the more perverse when we consider the massive expansion of women in full-time waged work over the last 40 or so years. Today’s working class is more female (as well as more ethnically diverse) than ever before, yet the working-class archetype remains a white man. To understand this paradox, we need to look at the longer history of how the British working class has been gendered male.

With the industrial revolution and the emergence of a working class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, there emerged a clearer distinction between the workplace and the household. Work was something that happened in the public sphere and was defined male, in opposition to the feminised private sphere of the home which was defined as a refuge from the world of labour. Although these boundaries were blurred and many working-class women continued to work outside the home, this ideological distinction had material effects. Work undertaken by women and/or that which took place in the home was defined as non-work and poorly remunerated if at all.

Karl Marx’s theory of the proletariat reflected and further entrenched these gendered definitions of what counted as real work. He was primarily interested in what he defined as ‘productive’ work (which produced commodities), rather than ‘reproductive work’ (which performed services such as cooking, cleaning and childcare). For him, only ‘productive’ workers, be these factory workers, miners or ship builders, constituted a revolutionary proletariat. By contrast, women employed in the home did not work in conditions that fostered class consciousness nor were they able to disrupt capitalist production through tactics such as the strike. This prioritising of mainly male forms of employment shaped a range of socialist and class struggle political currents well beyond Marxism.

Gendered understandings of work and the working class permeated the British labour movement from its inception. Early trade unions were often hostile towards women workers, sometimes barred them from membership and were suspicious of the way women were used by employers to undercut wages and erode conditions. Such a practice was only possible because of the pervasive belief that the breadwinner ought to be male, and thus when women did engage in waged work it was only for a temporary period prior to marriage and motherhood. The demand for a ‘family wage’, based on the premise that men (but not women) should be paid enough to support a partner and children, remained popular in British trade unionism into the early twentieth century. In practice, large numbers of married women had to shoulder a double burden of domestic labour and waged work outside the home, whether they wanted to or not. Yet the belief that a respectable working-class man ought to earn enough to keep his wife out of the workplace had a powerful effect upon gendered norms and expectations. Positive identification of oneself as working-class was thus implicated within a particular gender ideology, whereby the value and status of the working-class man was predicated upon his ability to financially provide for his family.

Women’s trade unions expanded from the late 1800s onwards recruiting women service workers and home-workers as well as factory workers. Most of these women workers were white, though small numbers of people of colour were present within Britain’s working-class long before post-WWII Commonwealth immigration. Many women factory workers, as well as servants and shop assistants, were involved in the upsurge of working-class militancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, most British trade unionism focused its energies on the male-dominated heavy industries up until the point the labour movement went into long-term decline in the 1980s.

Imagining the ‘typical’ working-class figure as a white male industrial worker is, therefore, nothing new. And this kind of worker has, at various moments, been as much a fetish on the left as it currently is on the right. After the Second World War, the living standards of the white working class improved dramatically due to the institution of a comprehensive welfare state and the rapid expansion of social housing. The rise of a so-called ‘affluent’ (white) working-class caused concern among a number of leftists fearful that it was leading to their pacification. As historian Stephen Brooke has pointed out, this supposed de-politicisation of the working class was often equated with its feminisation, whereby the dignified working man of the pre-war era was contrasted with the frivolous young woman worker more interested in the fruits of post-war consumer capitalism than industrial action.

The ‘New Left’ of the 1950s romanticised the working-class male hero, while the white male figure of the car factory worker became emblematic of the intensification of grassroots industrial action in the 1970s. In the 1970s and 80s, exhibiting toughness and physical strength through manual labour became one of the few sources of cultural capital available to working-class men, qualities often represented by the left as ‘heroic.’ Even today, the Class Struggle Hall of Fame remains overwhelmingly white and male, populated by dockworkers in the 1880s, shipbuilders of early twentieth century Red Clydeside, coal miners during the 1926 General Strike, car factory workers in the 1970s and miners again in 1984-1985.

Historically, white working-class women were more likely to feature in the public imagination as victims than as class-struggle militants. In the nineteenth century, perhaps the most ubiquitous figure of white working-class womanhood was the prostitute. Depending on one’s political perspective, she was defined either as a source of corruption or as a victim of male vice, but never as a political agent in her own right. Similarly, Victorian campaigners for the Factory Acts represented white women factory workers as neglectful mothers and/or victims of oppressive capitalism; and this construction of the forlorn and oppressed woman worker persisted in campaigns against sweated labour at the turn of the twentieth century.

The most common way of representing working-class women after the Second World War was the strong, hard-working and uncomplaining white housewife – ‘our mam’ in the words of her most famous proponent, the sociologist Richard Hoggart. While this was a largely positive depiction of working-class womanhood, it was also a very limited one. Not only did it exclude younger, unmarried, queer and child-free women – it was also a primarily apolitical identity firmly locating the working-class woman in the home rather than in the world of work and trade union politics.

Black working-class women’s labour has been even more invisiblised. Even within the trade union movement there was little acknowledgement of the degree to which Britain’s imperial economy depended upon the work of women in the colonised territories or those who migrated to Britain – be they women of colour working as domestic servants or South Asian ayahs (nannies) arriving at London’s docks. After the Second World War, the establishment of a National Health Service would not have been possible without employing large numbers of Afro-Caribbean women as nurses, caterers and hospital cleaners. Yet such women rarely figure in the iconography of post-war militancy, despite playing a considerable role in radicalising public sector unions.

NHS workers on strike in Bethnal Green, London (1982) [with permission of Warwick University Modern Records Centre]

Histories and iconographies of the British labour movement that more fully acknowledged the role of women in shaping working-class culture and politics would be far more difficult for right-wing forces to appropriate, compared to the ubiquitous male figures of, for example, the miner or the steelworker. They would disrupt the equation of masculinity with working-class authenticity, which at present enables wealthy men from affluent backgrounds to present themselves as men of the people by being photographed drinking beer in the pub. Remembering women workplace militants would also challenge the traditionalist ‘family values’ that are embedded in contemporary evocations of ‘ordinary’ working-class people. I recently organised a symposium of historians working on ‘non-traditional’ aspects of working-class history, including Black barmaids in Victorian Britain; an early twentieth-century domestic servants’ trade union; women in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike and sex workers’ unions today. The challenge is to find ways to bring these histories of the British working class to bear upon contemporary political debates, not just because they offer a richer and more diverse vision of class struggle, but also because they provide a much more accurate depiction of exactly who’s labour, past and present, keeps Britain afloat.

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Laura Schwartz is Reader in Modern British History at the University of Warwick. Her latest book explored the history of the Domestic Workers Union of Great Britain and Ireland (est.1910). She has recently established a network of labour historians interested in historicising and intervening in contemporary political debates about class.

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