Response: problems of identity and description

by Joseph Markus

A racist sign on a beach

Jenni Tomlin’s piece from the first day of this year raised an important issue. The cuts to UK public spending, to services and to welfare budgets, will affect everyone to some extent, but they will affect women (and perhaps other groups) in a disproportionate manner.

It is good that the statistics and reasoning are rallied in one place, to sharpen minds and arguments. But I have one thing to pick up from her analysis (though it may derive mostly from my relative ignorance of feminism(s)).

My worry is that in focussing on the feminist angle, and on the effect on women, we are compartmentalising what is a much broader issue. I also think that the label of ‘women’ attaching to (some of) those affected by the cuts under-describes why those individuals are more affected. Identity is considerably more complex than one plane or one facet. People are not just women: they are black women, white women, women who speak a different language, women from a different country, women with a disability, religious women, and so on. Some men may also find themselves affected.

So, saying that the cuts disproportionately affect women is right, but is it a complete description and, more importantly, is it politically useful? If we are successfully to challenge the cuts, the best solution would seem to be not to divide any analysis or solidarities along gender lines, but rather to embrace all those affected within a ‘coalition of interest’. Any other way and we risk in-fighting and division between groups while the broader goal fades out of sight.

The focus is rightly on disadvantage, but it should be the whole picture rather than just one limited (though important) snapshot. Perhaps it’s just me, but I always assumed the broader goal of any critical theory—including feminism—was to actively promote change. For instance, one of the things with which feminism is concerned is the differential value placed on the work which is predominantly done by men and that done by women. This is a political-economic problem and one that is criticised by some feminist theory.

What I’m getting at is that while ‘the cuts’ are a largely bad thing, the real issue is surely much wider. It is the problem of underpayment in jobs, of wages blind to the true cost of living, of massive disparities in wealth. It is not just the public but also the private sector.

If our focus is enlarged, and the radical lineage of critical theory followed to a natural conclusion, we reach a much more radical result, which is that disadvantage in any form is something to be challenged.

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