Women in (Class) Conflict - by Bruce Rogers-Vaughn

Bruce Rogers-Vaughn

Working as a pastoral psychotherapist for three decades, I have listened to the stories of women in pain. Many were victims of workplace harassment, discrimination, sexual abuse, or intimate violence. The #MeToo movement is making my job easier, as the women who talk with me today are becoming more adept at locating the social sources of their distresses, rather than assuming their struggles are rooted in personal inadequacies or the idiosyncrasies of their inner worlds. This is another reminder that liberating social movements can accomplish more widespread healing than even the best psychotherapies.

This does not mean that #MeToo is without ambiguity. Many working-class women, who happen to be disproportionally women of color, have been critical of the class-based and racial insensitivity of some Hollywood actresses as they made public remarks following the Harvey Weinstein revelations. The working-women backlash was so forceful that eight female labor activists were invited to the 2018 Golden Globe Awards to walk the red carpet with celebrity sponsors.

Trickle-Down Feminism?

In effect, #MeToo is highlighting the class and race differences that have bedeviled feminist efforts for decades. A failure to recognize how class conflict appears between and against women could easily undermine the radical potential of the #MeToo movement. Without the voices of the working-class women majority, we will be left with yet another version of “trickle-down feminism.”1

Class is one of the most misunderstood topics in public conversation. We typically hear this word as an indicator of socioeconomic status, cultural taste, or educational achievement. None of these exactly hit the mark. Class is a form of social dominance in which people with economic, political, and cultural power subjugate those who lack such power. The purpose of this is to maintain control and increase wealth for elites.2

Another confusion is the notion that class is entirely distinct from race and gender. This is not the case. Rather, class elites deploy categories of race and gender to achieve their goals. First, they use racism and sexism – which regard people of color and women as somehow inferior – to label and shunt people into lower-paid or even unpaid labor, or otherwise to exclude them from the workforce. This means that a significant portion of racist and sexist practices is class power doing its thing. Second, class elites use their power to divide the working class against itself. White men, for example, are led to believe that immigrants, African Americans, and women are to blame for losses of wages and jobs. Both methods enable class elites to maintain control and shift wealth to themselves.

The truth is that today’s working class is disproportionally women, especially women of color.3 These women are typically far more vulnerable to sexual harassment than women in higher-income brackets, to such a degree that many have difficulty claiming their #MeToo moment.4 This leads one activist to conclude: “Immigrant issues, gender issues, and antiracism are working-class issues.”5

Even if every individual man repented of his sexist ways, we still would have patriarchy. The working- class women who attended the Golden Globes pointed to this fact in their joint statement: “Too much of the recent press attention has been focused on perpetrators and does not adequately address the systemic nature … of violence against women.”6 The core problem is not individual bad apples, but a system. This patriarchal system is embedded in the fabric of social conventions, laws, institutional regulations, corporate policies, and religious practices.

This is not to equate capitalism and patriarchy. Patriarchal societies and systems flourished prior to capitalism, which did not emerge until the 16th century. Nevertheless, patriarchy – racism too – has been an inherent feature of capitalism from its inception. This continues to be true in capitalism’s present-day forms. I would argue that patriarchy is not rooted in an intrinsic hatred of women but emerges from material interests. Patriarchy is therefore deeply entangled with class conflict.

Class is the way capitalism organizes society, with considerable help from racism and sexism. “Capitalism is an economic system based on the exploitation of the many by the few,” writes Keeanga- Yamahtta Taylor.7 “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” Malcolm X declared.8 The Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminist activists, extended this to sexism as well.9 Summing up, bell hooks refers to the current world order as a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”10

If this is true, we cannot eliminate patriarchy without creating alternatives to how capitalism organizes society. This will not be achieved by the actions of individuals. It takes a system to change a system.

Beyond Identity Politics

The liberation of people identifying as women will not succeed if it is limited to a narrow, individualistic identity politics. Drawing upon the wisdom of the revolutionary Black struggle and anti-capitalist feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, we can find better ways to resist sexism and racism by understanding how class antagonism is at work in these forms of injustice.11 This will require broad-based coalitions that work across identities. We are already seeing signs of this, not only in #MeToo, but also in #Black- LivesMatter and inclusive labor efforts such as the Fight for $15 campaign.12 The healing of individuals requires more than the exertions of lonely individualism. It demands the taming of ruthless structures or systems.

Today’s globalized economy values money over people. It is diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of God portrayed by Jesus in the Gospels. We cannot, Jesus insists, serve both God and money. By joining coalitions to liberate the exploited, we will make clear which side we are on.

Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt Divinity School, is the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (Palgrave, 2016). He is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and has 30 years of experience in clinical pastoral psychotherapy.


1 Sarah Jaffe, “Trickle-Down Feminism,” Dissent (Winter, 2013).

2 See Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, “Class Power and Human Suffering,” in Pastoral Theology and Care: Critical Trajectories in Theory and Practice, edited by Nancy J. Ramsay (Wiley Blackwell, 2018), pp. 55-77.

3 See Victoria Brownworth, “Women Are the Working Class,” Dame, April 12, 2018.

4 Bernice Yeung, In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers (New Press, 2018).

5 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 216.

6 Leah Fessler, “Read the full statement of the women activists attending the Golden Globes,” Quartz, Jan. 7, 2018.

7 How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket Books, 2017).

8 Malcolm X Speaks, edited by George Breitman (Pathfinder, 1989), p. 91.

9 Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, p. 205.

10 bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters (Routledge, 2000), pp. 6, 67, 161.

11 In addition to the works by Taylor already cited, see Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018).

12 Tamara Draut, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016).