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New Left Review I/175, May-June 1989

Nicky Hart

Gender and the Rise and Fall of Class Politics

Is gender an autonomous form of social stratification? Does it form a compound with other bases of social inequality? How is it related to class, the ‘master’ concept of stratification theory? These questions have been forced into focus in recent years through the emergence of the married yet occupationally committed female wage-earner. In most advanced industrial societies, the rates of both participation and remuneration of married women stand at around sixty per cent of the male rates. [1] G. Routh, Occupation and Pay In Britain, London 1986; G. Sapiro, Women in American Society, Mayfield California 1986. The implications for stratification theory and research are clear. The distribution of material inequality in the population can no longer be simply equated with wage differentials in the male workforce. The constitution of a household, the number of earners and non-earners, is now an equally important source of inequality, with the emergence of the dink household (double income, no kids) opening up a further novel complication for surveyors of the economic landscape. Even those remaining loyal to the public sphere of production as the terrain for measuring material exploitation must now cope with the fact that female labour is systematically undervalued relative to male—which suggests the operation of something other than a straightforward economic logic differentiating the life chances of male and female workers. These facts have not been lost on the new wave of feminist researchers who have risen with, indeed been part of, the transformation of the post-war labour market. A broad-based sisterhood of radical, Marxist and sociological feminists has kept up a polemic against the conventional mainstream, and the initial heresy that gender must be reckoned a formidable source of structured social inequality is increasingly acknowledged. Indeed, many of the old school gain intellectual refreshment from the personal discovery of past errors of method and judgement. [2] By the mid-1980s, even the publicly-funded esrc Stratification Workshop felt the time had come to devote its annual session to Gender and Stratification. The proceedings, in R. Crompton and J. Mann, Gender and Stratification(Polity 1986), provide a useful and sometimes provocative account of the degree of reformist progress in the sociology of stratification. Interestingly, Goldthorpe declined to take part in the workshop and later refused to allow his own thoughts on the subject (J.H. Goldthorpe, ‘Women and Class Analysis: In Defense of the Conventional View’, Sociology 17, 1983) to be republished with the papers presented there. Almost every issue of Sociology records a new deserter from the ranks of mainstream masculinist theory and practice in stratification research. Naturally those with most investment in the old paradigm have found it hardest to budge, which helps to explain why two of the most prominent sociologists in Britain, John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood, stand out for their vigorous, some might say stubborn, defence of old practices.

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