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Working-Class Politics
A Case Study of Central PA

I worked with Dr. Jennifer Silva on her research in the coal region of Central PA, focusing on working-class politics, family, education, and health. The research consists of ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with approximately 120 Central Pennsylvanians. 

Background

As the American Dream has become less and less accessible over the past few decades, many have hypothesized that the working class would rise up and work together to fight for better conditions. But that hasn’t happened—in fact, protections for workers are being rapidly eroded. So how do working-class grievances translate into politics? 

The Challenge

Dr. Jennifer Silva investigated this dilemma in her book, We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America. As her researcher and project manager, I assisted her in all phases of the project, including data collection, coding, analysis, editing, and publishing. I solo-wrote my master’s thesis using data from this project, and Dr. Silva and I later published my thesis as a co-authored piece in the top journal in our chosen subfield, Gender & Society.

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Using interviews with 37 white working-class women (all the interviews with white women from the sample of 120) from a declining coal-mining town ("Coal Brook"), this project examined how white working-class women reimagine womanhood in the face of social and economic changes (e.g. rising single motherhood, declining wage-earning husbands and fathers, etc.) that make it difficult to see themselves as embodying normative femininity.  

Coal Brook Quick Facts

  • Deindustrialization has left the region one of the most economically troubled in all of Pennsylvania 

  • Historically been an overwhelmingly white area, but recent years have seen an influx of racial minorities 

  • Strong roots in union membership and the Democratic Party, but has flipped red

Glossary

  • Normative Femininity: The women in this study define this as being married to a man who is a provider and bearing and raising his children

  • Working Class: We define this as having less than a four-year college degree and/or working in a job that does not require a college degree

Research Design

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Findings

Our narrative analysis revealed that although a few women are unconcerned with normative femininity, the majority of women's stories fell into 3 overarching strategies that they deploy in their life histories to cope with disruption and pain.

 

These strategies are presented below. Tip: hover over each category to see a quote from women who use each strategy.

Unconcerned with Normative Femininity (n=6)

  • 2 among youngest in the sample-- focused on getting a job and becoming financially independent

  • 4 were in stable marriages or engagements (and thus achieved normative femininity)

  • All 6 openly critical of people on public assistance or had children with different fathers

“Yeah there are a lot of drug problems, I really don’t know why [my sister] turned out the way she did. I mean we all went through the same divorce…it was tough on everyone."

-Natalie

Embracing Pain as an Opportunity for Self-Growth (n=11)

  • Frame pain as an opportunity:

    • An explanation for past failure

    • A way to “stay grounded”

    • A protective armor against future vulnerability

“I can’t picture myself going to an all happy place ’cause if there is an all happy place where people are all happy, why aren’t they that way on Earth? I think we are who we are and just learn to better our souls.”

-Shelly

Dispelling Shame and Striving for Equality (n=14)

  • Self-empowerment and emancipation from shame

  • Shift from feeling ashamed to feeling independent can lead to:

    • Increased compassion for others

    • Willingness to question previously accepted systems of inequality

“I brought this lady from Women in Transition with me, and she said 'Listen . . . she cannot treat you like trash. You’re not trash.' And she kinda like talked me up and I thought, 'You know, you’re right. I’m going through a really hard time right now.'...I went in and I wasn’t rude, but I was very assertive...I said, 'I will not allow you to treat me like trash.'...I’m starting to get a backbone for myself, even though I’m in a really crappy situation.”

-Lucy

Enduring Suffering

(n=16)

  • Feelings of no control

  • Debilitating depression and anxiety

  • Turn to drugs, food, cigarettes, and digital games to endure pain 

  • Isolate themselves

  • Suffering doesn’t lead to positive change

  • Ability to endure pain framed as a sign of accomplishment while discounting others' suffering

“I know a lady that has six kids, never worked a day in her life, gets welfare for every single one of them; owns her home. You have fake boobs, fake hair, fake nails. I can pay thirty-five cents for a can of vegetables, and then I’ll go over across town to the meat market, and I get hamburger, chicken, and I just separate it all and freeze it for meals for the month.”

-Vivian

Insights

Numerous women indicated that the interview was the first time they were ever revealing their painful pasts, suggesting that there may be structural barriers such as lack of access to mental health care, distrust of social institutions such as criminal justice or medicine, or other barriers that prevent them from discussing their feelings of shame or failure with close friends and family members. Because the setting was a distressed area, there may be fewer resources for residents to seek mental health treatment, as well as social norms that prohibit community members from intervening in dangerous or unhealthy situations.

 

Even as the women tended to reject political engagement and focus on their own daily struggles, there were instances where they linked their personal pain to political issues, suggesting that there is a possibility of collective action.

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