Women, Class, and Agency


Agency is relative, choice is never absolute. The freedom exercised by a rich man and a poor man are infinitely different, and as is the freedom exercised by a man and a woman. As agency traverses across various social classifications, it empowers some and cripples others. How then, has this cornerstone of liberal thinking and modern-day existence affected women?

A cursory glance over the correlations between economic stand and agency would lead us to draw a speedy conclusion- rich women have more agency than poor ones. This may not necessarily be true. To understand the lack of agency among women located on the higher side of the economic ladder, we must consider several factors. Often, women in the higher classes were controlled by powerful men. They belonged to the upper stratas of patriarchy, and were perhaps one of its most significant upholders. This meant women of higher class were under close supervision, allowed to exercise freedom only that was deemed fit by the patriarchs of the household. Elite women had the freedom, in some cases, to choose a husband of their choice, and following marriage to run their household with some amount of agency. However, this was limited to a large extent, as in any case they rarely had the choice not to get married. Think back to Mrs. Bennet’s pressing insistence on having her daughters married in Pride and Prejudice. Such an interpretation is also supported by instances cited by French feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir. Moreover, women of the higher class always had to hold themselves up to social standards, and were made to feel the constant need to be poised and polished. The cloistering effect of this obligation was perfectly encased by Rose’s evident frustration with her stand in life in Titanic.

On the flip side, poor women certainly faced more logical constraints to freedom. They had to be married off to whoever would ascertain some amount of economic stand in the future, or worse still, be forced into prostitution or other forms of commodification. They might have had the freedom to behave in any way they like, and not force themselves into corsets to make their waists look thin or behave prudishly, however, in situations when social structures had concentrated resources in the upper stratas, their want for a full stomach prevented them from cherishing such a freedom. They were bound by working for their basic needs. This sense of deprivation was particularly intensive in the earlier ages because of rampant food shortages. Thus, it seems like both rich and poor women faced peculiar restrictions on their freedom.

In feudal times, the clear stratification amongst the estates meant there were fundamentally only two classes: the higher and the lower. The Industrial Revolution brought with itself the emergence of a new class altogether- the educated, socially rising middle class. These consisted of the merchant class, self-educated and self-sustained. The very essence of this economic class gave women a kind of freedom that poverty or elitism could not provide- it struck a sort of odd balance, where women had agency not to hold up to elitist standards and not be helpless either. Their agency was hardly complete, but it was among the middle class that awareness and consciousness of women empowerment began. Some texts in 14th century England, such as the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, reflect subversive characters like the Wife of Bath, a member of the middle class. The relatively more agency exercised by middle class women was contingent almost entirely on their socioeconomic position.

The two world wars propelled women empowerment to a much greater degree. As men went out for war, women were led into spheres outside the domestic world, and grew conscious of their abilities. This was especially true of the educated classes that came across the values of equality and liberty. Eventually this led to amassing of opinions across classes as education became more accessible. With social progress, the distinctions of classes on the economic and social levels grew increasingly complex, and apparent lines of difference blurred significantly. Womankind found a strange relatability across classes, a recognition that made them realise the subordination they shared, irrespective who they were, where they lived, how they dressed, and what they ate.

– Contributed by Tinka

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