Nicky Hart’s engaging essay on gender and stratification (nlr 175) is an eloquent contribution to debates about class. As she suggests, male academics, and particularly male academic sociologists, have a long tradition of assuming that women are peripheral to the process of class formation and the construction of class identity. The heroes of British sociology in the 1950s and 1960s were, at least to the Left, the manual male working class. The ‘lads’, as many a trade union leader described them, often assumed a responsibility for social change that was, to say the least, overdetermined. Indeed, throughout the 1950s it is possible to find in British literature, as much as the British academy, a mythologization of the working-class male and his part in both the class struggle and the personal encounters of sexual politics. Jimmy Porter and Arthur Seaton, in their different ways, resisted and denied the interests of women as forcefully as any academic.

If male academics did not have the same immediate coherence as Porter and Seaton then they had, perhaps, absorbed many of the same cultural values and standards about women. My initial disagreement with Nicky Hart is not, therefore, her contention that British theorists of class ignored women. Any reading of their work—from the male subject of their analysis to their theoretical conclusions—demonstrates a concentration on men that is impossible to deny. My argument is that this conceptual bias does not have the theoretical consequences that Nicky Hart suggests and that the failure concerns the limits and limitations of British culture. The real target of discussion should not be those individuals who have made an attempt (however flawed) to demonstrate the centrality of class to social analysis. Rather, it should be the culture itself, which for its own material convenience distinguishes between the public male world and the domestic female world and in doing so denies to both women and men the development of particular aspects of their being. We can legitimately criticize male sociologists for failing to address the sexism of British society, but at the same time we do have to acknowledge that the study of law had in itself a social radicalism. So: what I wish to argue here is that male (and/or masculinist) social scientists are not as incorrect in their discussion of class as is suggested and that the evidence for the ‘feminization’ of the culture (that is, the convergence of gender interests that Nicky Hart suggests) is insubstantial. On the contrary, there is evidence to support the alternative hypothesis: that in Britain in the 1980s women are increasingly expected to act as ‘male’ social beings, without any reciprocal adaptations on the part of men.

In her account of the work of Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Gorz et al. Nicky Hart criticizes their understanding of such concepts as ‘work’ (as only an activity outside the household and only a male preserve) and their implicitly critical use of the terms ‘privatization’ and ‘home-centredness’. As she indicates, from the point of view of women there was a great deal to be said for increased male interest (not to mention participation) in the home. To support this view she cites the documentation (both historical and contemporary) of the domestic competition for resources. But whilst the evidence is substantial and the case for more equality in the allocation of domestic work overwhelming, we cannot from this construct neutral concepts of the ‘home’ and ‘family life’. Both exist within capitalist society and contain at least one adult with a relationship to the process of production. In the sense that more married women with children are now in employment (albeit largely part-time) we can see that as an instance of the gender convergence which Nicky Hart emphasizes. But the apparent equality here remains that of the opportunity to compete in an unequal labour market—a market which remains organized around the assumption that workers work full-time and have no domestic commitments to limit their efficiency. Shelves of studies attest to the double shift of employed women, and their greater assumed responsibility for both the material and emotional well-being of the family.footnote1

In the light of this evidence it is surely not too fanciful to consider whether the creation of the concept of the (private) ‘ideal home’—a concept endlessly manipulable by fashion and created need—is not a further burden to women, in that it requires participation in consumption to be seen merely in terms of consumer choice. (In reality, income is often crucial to economic survival.) Equally, an ideology of privatization and home-centredness arguably increases class antagonism rather than diminishes it. The Thatcherite ideals of personal responsibility and individual housekeeping encourage and legitimate personal accumulation amongst those for whom it is possible; ‘doing our best for the family’ contains the ideological support for private schools, private health-care and social privilege just as much as it contains support for a united male/female family.

To assume, in the economic and political climate of the late 1980s, that ‘“privatization” can be identified as a female-inspired strategy of social equality rooted in the contradictions of gender inequality’ is surely to misinterpret a partial, and by no means entirely recent, social phenomenon. As Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have shown, the ideology of domestic privacy and the ideal of domestic bliss played a crucial part in the formation of bourgeois identity in the nineteenth century.footnote2 The ‘privatization’ of the working-class family could then be seen not as a consequence of women’s fight for the irinterests but as part of the increasing ideological homogeneity of the culture and ideology of the British family. An important part of that transformation includes the transition from the ideal of a ‘decent’ home to that of a ‘nice’ home. The latter ideal, material rather than moral, allows the shifting relationships within the home to become less visible, and certainly less central. Indeed, in one crucial way the privatization of the family leaves with the family the major determinant of sexual inequality in the labour market—the taken-for-granted assumption that women, not men, are primarily responsible for the day-to-day care of children. Until that association is broken, it is surely not just optimistic but empirically incorrect to assume ‘an equalization of the life chances of men and women’. At present, it is only by choosing to remain childless that some women are able to compete on equal terms with men in either the family or the labour market. The social conditions of biological reproduction remain, as many feminists have observed, the major source of gender inequality.

The qualification of ‘some’ in the previous paragraph leads me to a further dissatisfaction with Nicky Hart’s essay. In her critique she assumes an ideology of masculinity that is independent of class, or ethnic, differences. I would argue that such an ideology exists in only the most partial sense; the work of Paul Willis et al. demonstrates the many-splendoured versions of masculinity within one culture, some of which are in competition with one another. So it is with femininity, and women. The use of the term ‘women’ here is as problematic as elsewhere; the discovery (for example, by Beatrix Campbell) that women from privileged circumstances have the same domestic responsibilities as other women demonstrates the uniformity of the ideology of women’s domestic role; what it does not do is demonstrate or elucidate the varied conditions of personal negotiation with that ideology.footnote3

Within the family there is reason to believe that the sexual division of labour continues. Patterns of consumption change, family size changes, divorce rates and patterns of family formation change, but what does not change is what Nicky Hart describes as women’s ‘domiciliary’ role. But is it the case, as she suggests, that women are now becoming more politically conscious of this role, and their role as paid workers, and therefore turning (in the much vaunted term of the United States) to ‘gender gap’ politics in which women are more likely to vote for parties of the Left than the Right? The evidence about Britain is limited, but it is clear that the Conservatives (particularly their present leader) are still able to manipulate effectively the importance of personal and individual solutions to general problems. The collectivist solutions of the Labour Party remain, for many women, alien—as alien as Engels’s assumption that after the proletarian revolution the State would take over responsibility for children and the household.