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. footnote1 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. footnote2 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.

John Goldthorpe has repeatedly asserted the validity of traditional methodological practice: measuring the social class of households by the occupation of the male ‘head’. footnote3 Though the growing presence of married women in the post-war workforce cannot be disputed, Goldthorpe has consistently argued that female workers do not have the occupational commitment of men and that their contribution to household living standards makes no substantial difference to the distribution of potentialities for class action in the population. Meanwhile his former colleague Lockwood has even denied that gender constitutes a form of social or sociological stratification in any sense at all. He concludes that because conflicts of interest between male and female are not capable of macro-social/organized expression, they are an inappropriate object of sociological analysis. footnote4 Though Goldthorpe and Lockwood defend very different aspects of conventional theory and method, there is a certain unity in their recalcitrance. For generations of post-war sociology undergraduates, The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure (1969), their study of Luton car workers, was the key to the study of British class structure and it continues to serve as a benchmark for the state of political consciousness in Britain in the mid-1960s. footnote5 Their defence of the conventional paradigm is in effect a defence of the perfect case study of masculinist research on class.

This article will examine the relevance of gender for processes of class formation in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain, drawing critical insight from Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s study of affluent workers and from Lockwood’s disavowal of gender as an axis of social inequality. I will argue that traditional approaches to the conceptualization and measurement of class do not merely fail to value the post-war contribution of women’s paid work to the material and cultural life of households; more seriously, they fail to notice that gender inequality is a core ingredient of class formation and consciousness. I shall suggest that: (i) masculinity is a critical though untheorized component of class; (ii) the social processes that create and sustain gender inequality have been a submerged though crucial foundation of class formation; (iii) recent shifts in the political allegiance of manual workers are a sign of subsidence in this foundation brought about by a convergence of gender (rather than class) interests; and (iv) the seeds of this now well-developed process of societal change were clearly visible to Goldthorpe, Lockwood and their collaborators in the Luton study, but they went unnoticed and untheorized because of their masculinist methodology.

My observations apply well beyond the work of Goldthorpe and Lockwood. The field of stratification theory and research is still dominated by men. It has been confined to the analysis of male experience and yet it has failed to notice that an important dimension of what is being observed is masculinity itself. In short, theories of social stratification have not observed the compound structure of social inequality. Lockwood rejects gender as a stratification variable because it lacks the autonomous capability of producing social protest which can disturb prevailing social arrangements. He implies that class possesses such autonomy. I will take issue with this assumption. The social force of class is not a pure and single-stranded material phenomenon but a blended compound which, in its heyday, depended for theoretical propulsion on normative as much as material constituents. As a backdrop to the development of these arguments, the article will begin with a summary of the influence of gender on the shape of the political landscape of post-war Britain.

The last three general elections in Britain have been won by the party of capital led by a woman. Thatcherism, a movement rooted in an unashamed glorification of the bourgeois values of individualism and self-sufficiency, has attracted a sizeable proportion of the skilled working class vote. Prior to 1987 there was a highly significant discrepancy between overall distribution of men’s and women’s votes between the parties. Thus between 1950 and 1983 there was no election in which women voted in larger numbers for Labour than for its rivals. Labour’s successes between those dates stemmed from its ability to attract the votes of a majority of males. Put another way, had Labour succeeded in attracting women’s votes as successfully as it attracted male votes then it would have been Gaitskell not Macmillan who would have presided over postwar ‘affluence’, and it would have been Callaghan and not Thatcher who would have profited from the legacy of North Sea oil. In the 1987 election the ‘gender gap’ appears to close if we look only at the overall distribution of votes, but significant differentials remain if the figures are broken down by age, according to the Sunday Times of 14 June 1987. Thus while 42 per cent of young men aged 18–24 voted Conservative only 31 per cent of young women did so; on the other hand while 42 per cent of men aged 35–54 voted Conservative, 47 per cent of women of this age group did so, the 5 per cent gap being the more significant because of the large size of this cohort.

Given the electoral power of women it is quite surprising that political scientists have paid so little attention to women’s political inclinations and motivations. Psephological texts typically note the rightist voting tendencies of women, but then lose interest in pursuing the matter further. The political animal, as Lipset put it, is a man, and most surveyors of the political scene have restricted their interest to the voting intentions of the autonomous male without inquiring into his possible role as an agent of political socialization within the family. Consequently we have no systematic evidence on differences in voting behaviour between husbands and wives and no records of patterns of conjugal deviance for post-war elections.

The part played by women in assuring the continuity of Conservative rule between 1951 and 1964 was the backdrop to the Luton study, yet Goldthorpe and Lockwood did not bother to inquire into past or future voting intentions, even just for the record, when they interviewed the wives of their male informants. Sections 7 and 8 of the Luton questionnaire, entitled ‘Politics’ and ‘Class’ respectively, come immediately after one on child socialization and before that which deals with savings and expenditure. While husband and wife are both designated as appropriate informants for these data, only the husband is listed as the person to answer questions about politics and class. Why did Goldthorpe and Lockwood deny their female informants the opportunity to express their political feelings and ideas? Was it an oversight, an example of sloppy questionnaire design? This seems unlikely, given the preceding and succeeding sets of questions. Rather, it would have required an explicit instruction to the interviewer—which in turn implies some deliberation on the part of the principal investigators. The most plausible explanation is simply that Goldthorpe and Lockwood never conceived that it was necessary to gather data on female voting preferences. In their perspective the roots of class consciousness and action were buried in the public sphere of economic production, and though they conceptualized a domiciliary role for men—the male informant is referred to as ‘husband’—they clearly did not even begin to think about the implications of this title for political ideology and action. Given the evidence of table 1, and the significance that Goldthorpe and Lockwood assign to ‘processes of privatization’ in their conclusions, this was an extraordinary omission. Whether a more egalitarian-minded Britain (e.g. minus public schools and the House of Lords) might have emerged had Labour held onto power for the first two post-war decades is a matter of conjecture. What seems clear is that it was through women rather than men that the Conservative Party was handed the reins of governmental power and given a crucial opportunity to shape the development of the welfare state.