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Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity

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In this examination of white and Mexican-American girls coming of age in California's Central Valley, Julie Bettie turns class theory on its head and offers new tools for understanding the ways in which class identity is constructed and, at times, fails to be constructed in relationship to color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Documenting the categories of subculture an In this examination of white and Mexican-American girls coming of age in California's Central Valley, Julie Bettie turns class theory on its head and offers new tools for understanding the ways in which class identity is constructed and, at times, fails to be constructed in relationship to color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Documenting the categories of subculture and style that high school students use to explain class and racial/ethnic differences among themselves, Bettie depicts the complex identity performances of contemporary girls. The title, Women Without Class, refers at once to young working-class women who have little cultural capital to enable class mobility, to the fact that class analysis and social theory has remained insufficiently transformed by feminist and ethnic studies, and to the fact that some feminist analysis has itself been complicit in the failure to theorize women as class subjects. Bettie's research and analysis make a case for analytical and political attention to class, but not at the expense of attention to other axes of identity and social formations.


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In this examination of white and Mexican-American girls coming of age in California's Central Valley, Julie Bettie turns class theory on its head and offers new tools for understanding the ways in which class identity is constructed and, at times, fails to be constructed in relationship to color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Documenting the categories of subculture an In this examination of white and Mexican-American girls coming of age in California's Central Valley, Julie Bettie turns class theory on its head and offers new tools for understanding the ways in which class identity is constructed and, at times, fails to be constructed in relationship to color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Documenting the categories of subculture and style that high school students use to explain class and racial/ethnic differences among themselves, Bettie depicts the complex identity performances of contemporary girls. The title, Women Without Class, refers at once to young working-class women who have little cultural capital to enable class mobility, to the fact that class analysis and social theory has remained insufficiently transformed by feminist and ethnic studies, and to the fact that some feminist analysis has itself been complicit in the failure to theorize women as class subjects. Bettie's research and analysis make a case for analytical and political attention to class, but not at the expense of attention to other axes of identity and social formations.

30 review for Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Kost

    This ethnography is set in California's Central Valley, published in 2003. I am a social scientist who worked in the rural Salinas Valley in California for eight years, starting in 2003. Nevertheless, this ethnography was so irritating I had to put it down to scream repeatedly. So many of Bettie's foundational assertions are just wrong, as when she repeatedly asserts, "In much leftist analysis women are assumed to be without class" (33). I am a Weberian and taught women's studies in the 1990s an This ethnography is set in California's Central Valley, published in 2003. I am a social scientist who worked in the rural Salinas Valley in California for eight years, starting in 2003. Nevertheless, this ethnography was so irritating I had to put it down to scream repeatedly. So many of Bettie's foundational assertions are just wrong, as when she repeatedly asserts, "In much leftist analysis women are assumed to be without class" (33). I am a Weberian and taught women's studies in the 1990s and declare emphatically that's just not true. Perform the most cursory Google Scholar search for <> and see all the results from the 1950s through 1970s. Where I worked in the Salinas Valley, 3 out of 5 teens became pregnant before the age 18. Her view of female sexuality as recreation, as "purposeful violations of the regulation of their sexuality, as refusals of middle-class notions of adolescence and morality" as though intercourse held no negative consequences for girls is an empty political statement. I saw far too many girls and boys of great potential leave high school to tend to infants. She wrote about this in a few pages in Chapter 3. Bearing a child was obviously a way for girls without a realistic chance of school success to deal with boredom in the rural area, become an adult, and solidify immigration status in some cases. Among Mexican girls, in particular, the cult of maternity was pronounced. Note that in Mexican churches, the figure of Mary often occupies a more elevated place, closer to the ceiling than Jesus. Bettie merely states, "Middle class performers embrace adult norms for the adolescent life stage;" other lay "claims to adult status before middle-class adults think they should" (61). There is no mention of the role of religion, Catholic or otherwise. That's quite an omission. Bettie writes about the "punitive attitudes" of the teachers toward the distraction created by girls bringing their infants to school and passing him/her around "by trying to recenter attention on the success of students who could and did follow the institutional ideals" (72), which seems like something a school ought to do; education is the mission, after all. From the very "Introduction to the 2014 edition," Bettie revealed herself as a card-carrying member of the activist type of scholar with a clear Leftist political axe to grind. "In the aftermath of the 'great social debacle' that the West called economic prosperity, and the exclusions and wounds it produced, new dreams may include a greater global fairness, to live simply, to own less, to live green, and to forego modernist and oppressive notions of family that makes economic dependency on problematic and let the nation-state and global capital off the hook for their failure to provide for the world citizen workers" (xli). There's an awful lot of folks from around the world who want to break into that "great social debacle." The generative family unit, marriage before having children, and staying married, leads to a lower rate of poverty. We know that to be a fact, but it's fashionable to disparage social institutions in the name of Woke alternative values. Admittedly, this author and I started off on the wrong foot. Bettie degrades works like those by Mary Pipher, a Rockefeller Scholar who earned a PhD in clinical psychology, and author of many books including the bestselling Reviving Ophelia. Petulant envy is unbecoming. While not rooted in the specific silo of cultural studies, Reviving Ophelia was well-researched, spent three years on the NYT Bestseller List, and sold 1.5M copies. Pipher, Damour, and many others, studied mostly white middle and upper class girls. People who earn over $80K per annum are most likely to read books. There is no question that socioeconomic analysis matters. But to state that such books "are dominated by individualistic, psychological explanations and routinely lack any consideration of the effect of social structural forces on individual lives" (5) is just wrong. From the outset, Bettie revealed herself as one of those self-important academics who want to raise the drawbridge to anyone not in their particular ivory tower. Her ilk launched the witch hunt against philosopher Rebecca Tuvel for her essay "In Defense of Transracialism," in Hypatia for failing to use the specific lenses and conventions of critical race and gender studies [See my review of the crucial book Cynical Theories https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...], when she used the conventions of her own discipline. Further, in that same introduction, Bettie went on and on lauding all the ways her research was significant. That is jaw-droppingly poor form; let someone else write a preface discussing that. Besides, I'm not convinced. Maybe I've spent too many years as a social scientist working with adolescent girls in the Salinas Valley to find any of this illuminating. Can anyone really find it groundbreaking to learn that girls "employed rituals of girl culture" like primping "as an alternative to and refusal of official school activities" and "friendship bonding" or that boys receive much harsher penalties for behavior than girls? Nevertheless, there are several interesting takeaways in this book that other researchers have also found. One is that those who have phenotypes more typical of Whites than their ethnic group will adopt performative measures like cosmetics, style of dress, and behavior, to assert their ethnic identity. Another is that "Mexican-American girls' friendships crossed class performance boundaries more often than white girls' did because there was a sense of racial alliance that drew them together, both in oppositional relation to white students at school and through activities outside of the school in the Mexican-American community" (88). Bettie found that students who claimed not to know what their parents did for a living did know but didn't like to say. Working in a socioeconomically diverse high school in South Florida, I found it astonishingly self-centered and incurious when high school seniors had no idea what their parents did for a living, but confirmed these students truly did not know what their parents did for a living because they called them in front of me to ask while we filled out the application materials for universities. I appreciated Bettie's mention of the false gospel of education as the means of upward mobility and the predatory practices of for-profit institutions and their bogus promises. For more, see Tessie McMillan Cottom's book Lower Ed https://www.goodreads.com/review/show.... Students just don't believe counselors when we tell them and show them the data that such places will take their money and will result in debt, not gainful employment. Moreover, the the sense that one who has a degree is entitled to a job with a better salary, but too often doesn't, leads to anger, frustration and social instability (known as relative deprivation). This is one of the places where the publication of this book in 2003 makes it truly dated. Currently, 20% of 25-34 year old males "who had a college degree actually earned less than the average male high school graduate." Downward mobility is a real threat for everyone, which is why the college major is crucial. (See Federal Reserve data https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/c... ) Bettie is a fan of the Occupy movement, supports Marxist analysis, and, in keeping with Marxist technique, views schools as "one useful site for social change" with "an education on the uneven distribution of social goods." Ergo, she advocates for political consciousness raising groups and the emphasis on structural oppression that Critical Race Theory brings. "Repeatedly, I could see the utility for students of an understanding of their lives that brought into focus structural rather than individual causes. Understanding structural class inequality would be beneficial to the 'self-esteem' of working-class students across race. Motivation based on indignation at the workings of power and the failures of democracy rather than on self-blame or other-blame is a prerequisite to the formation of class alliances....for a widespread labor movement" (203). With the changing nature of work, the rise of the gig worker, independent contractor, and project hires, a widespread labor movement is less likely than ever to have a positive impact. Bettie's comments on the final pages were genuinely eyebrow raising. She states it is "imperative" that "the progressive left conceptualize class directly in relationship to race and gender so that it cannot be mistaken as a code for "white" or a code for "white male." We see here is that, like gender, race, and sexuality, class too is the site of discursive struggle; it too is never finished...I feared and still fear unwittingly providing ammunition to those who would chose [sic] to employ it in ways with which I disagree" (205), namely opposition to Affirmative Action, which California's voters passed in Proposition 209, which prohibits state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. It is curious that in the 90s, there was much talk about post-blackness and post-race. Then, the Left determined that class warfare wasn't an effective means of bringing about revolution, so they decided to focus on race, which is where we are today in 2021. Although Bettie and I are contemporaries, I was clearly more steeped in class sensitivities than she from the late 1980s through the 1990s. I can't think of any other reason she would state that class "is an element of contemporary feminist and cultural theory that is often discursively present but analytically absent," when it has always been front and center in the studies I reviewed and taught. To instructors considering this title, I recommend opting for more recent analyses. Students are likely to find is relatively readable, with only occasional dives into the ridiculous language of Critical Theory, like this gem: "Catherine Vininga, for example, critiquing the 'ontological commitments of critical race theory,' asks how students 'mobilize their bodies to negotiate belongings ostensibly foreclosed by the primacy of phenotype'" (xxix). Egads.

  2. 5 out of 5

    [redacted]

    An excellent ethnography. Finally someone who wants to look at the issues of gender, class, and race in a paradoxical and pragmatic way. Every step along the way, Bettie refuses to look at things in dualistic terms. Her explanation of culture as performance and performative will definitely shape the way I look at people of all cultures, and the way I study sociology.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    This is an incredible ethnography. Such careful attention to the too often ignored intersectionality of gender, race, and class. As well, the author's attention to her own positionality and bias is refreshing and should be a model for all qualitative researchers. This is an incredible ethnography. Such careful attention to the too often ignored intersectionality of gender, race, and class. As well, the author's attention to her own positionality and bias is refreshing and should be a model for all qualitative researchers.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Natasha

    an incredible ethnography, love this author

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kaushalya

    A really good ethnographic study, looking very closely at issues of class in the US. I would recommend it to anyone interested in ethnographic research methodology, socioeconomic class as a factor in education, US education policies.

  6. 5 out of 5

    CTEP

    The book is an ethnography of Mexican-American and white girls in a California high school. I often think the blurbs describe books much more eloquently and accurately than I can, so if you are interested, check out: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/92.... Basically, Bettie puts a years worth of participatory ethnography to work in the services of exploring how class interacts with gender and race in the context of the public education system and the social structure of the high school. She ha The book is an ethnography of Mexican-American and white girls in a California high school. I often think the blurbs describe books much more eloquently and accurately than I can, so if you are interested, check out: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/92.... Basically, Bettie puts a years worth of participatory ethnography to work in the services of exploring how class interacts with gender and race in the context of the public education system and the social structure of the high school. She has a lot to say that makes important contributions to the study of all areas involved, and for social justice work especially in the education system. As the title suggests, Bettie points to the ways that class is obfuscated under race and gender for the girls and the adults who interact with them. I.e., how our fundamentally unequal economic system (capitalism) is often invisibilized and explained in terms of race and gender, and how the girls negotiate and create those meanings. How does it relate to your Americorps experience? Girls are clearly a large part of the population that I serve. The book was full of insights for me into the various complicated factors that influence class mobility and consciousness. For example, one of the parts I found particularly interesting was about gendered rituals of heterosexuality that girls employed within the classroom. Putting on makeup, grooming hair, looking at prom pictures, chatting about boys, and so forth. Bettie noticed that adults and girls themselves mostly saw this as being just boy crazy, a natural part of (hetero) female teenagedom. These rituals were also seen by adults and “other” girls (I won’t get into the complex race/class distinctions that Bettie uses here) as a general part of the perceived hyper-sexuality of working class and Latina girls. On closer examination, Bettie saw that the girls effectively used these seemingly boy-oriented rituals to avoid classroom work and strengthen their friendships. The actual attitudes towards heterosexual relationships and boys/men were critical and sophisticated in their analysis of the role that males are likely to play in their lives and of what could generally be expected of males vis a vis themselves. So, what seemed to be a simple boy craziness Bettie saw as a strategy to avoid school work and behavior management and also a bonding method. Unfortunately, escaping the tedium of the routinized classroom also has the effect of limiting their class mobility. Would you recommend this book to other CTEPs? I definitely recommend this book. It is an academic book, so it has some theory and stuff that not everyone will be into, but it also has a wealth of detailed observations about real people and real lives, without feeling voyeuristic and in accessible writing. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of how class, gender and race play out in the every day for the youth that Bettie studies, then dive in.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mary Beth

    This is a really impressive book, probably the most theoretically rich ethnography by a sociologist that I’ve ever read. Packed with insights from the macro level of social formation to the micro level of identity formation. The author’s reflexivity was also quite impressive. Highly recommend.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    Excellent analysis and study of the intersection of class, race, and gender. Its focus on highschool girls makes this a great read for girls' studies scholars - especially because so much of the scholarship renders class invisible. Because the content is so important, I would have liked for the language (especially the forward) to be more accessible to a non-academic audience, but it's a great "must read" overall. Excellent analysis and study of the intersection of class, race, and gender. Its focus on highschool girls makes this a great read for girls' studies scholars - especially because so much of the scholarship renders class invisible. Because the content is so important, I would have liked for the language (especially the forward) to be more accessible to a non-academic audience, but it's a great "must read" overall.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Adelaide

    ED161: Sociology and Anthropology of the School. Being 8 years out from my own high school experience gave me space to consider tracking, social/racial dynamics, and other issues that I didn't consider much at the time. Bettie's concept application of "moral panics" to concerns about youth culture (particularly gangs and teen pregnancy) was particularly helpful. ED161: Sociology and Anthropology of the School. Being 8 years out from my own high school experience gave me space to consider tracking, social/racial dynamics, and other issues that I didn't consider much at the time. Bettie's concept application of "moral panics" to concerns about youth culture (particularly gangs and teen pregnancy) was particularly helpful.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Zach

    One of the best examinations of intersectionality around, including a truly impressive deconstruction of the ways class differences manifest themselves culturally (in addition to the more highly visible and easily essentialized gender and race). My one complaint is that Bettie failed to do much problematizing of gendered presentations of self.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kells Perry

    Read this for my Women of Color Feminism class and found it decent. I really struggled with the jargon of the second chapter (academic theory, yeesh!) but beyond that I was able to follow along fairly easily. While an interesting study it had its shortcomings and showed its age at times. Overall, okay.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    An intriguing look at how class and race affect "upward mobility" for women An intriguing look at how class and race affect "upward mobility" for women

  13. 5 out of 5

    Allison

    Very cool book. Entertaining to read, and heavy theory.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    A great ethnographic study of social class among girls in a California high school. Reminiscent of Paul Willis' study of working class lads in England in 'Learning to Labor.' A great ethnographic study of social class among girls in a California high school. Reminiscent of Paul Willis' study of working class lads in England in 'Learning to Labor.'

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anjali

    bettie's book was disappointing. not rigorous in its analysis of racial formation(s) and also still stuck in classic (and boring) problems of ethnography and ethnographic method. boo. bettie's book was disappointing. not rigorous in its analysis of racial formation(s) and also still stuck in classic (and boring) problems of ethnography and ethnographic method. boo.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amy

  17. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Padgett

  18. 4 out of 5

    Liz Meyer

  19. 5 out of 5

    Fai

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chrissy Lee

  22. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  23. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kat

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

  26. 4 out of 5

    Erin Fredericks

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Anawalt

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

  29. 4 out of 5

    Drew

  30. 4 out of 5

    Julia Elrod

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