A Seat at the Table for Disadvantaged Women

Suzanne Butler is a first year Sociology PhD Student at Newcastle University, researching the emotions of women in poverty throughout the life course. In this post, Suzanne calls for a new feminism for disadvantaged women.

Let me ask you a question: can you think of a feminism for the disadvantaged woman? I do not mean Black feminism or Islamic feminism, which undoubtedly take into consideration the marginalised, gendered experiences of those groups, and should be applauded for doing so. I mean a broad sweep of feminism for each and every disadvantaged woman. I cannot think of one.

What of the woman who must make impossible choices under impossible constraints simply because she is a woman with precious little money? She might be single or in a couple, but she will be responsible for the welfare of the family and the caring of children (Pew Research Centre, 2015). Sometimes she has to make a bag of potatoes last several days, stretching them out over various meals and for multiple family members. The woman who hides brown envelopes under her sofa cushion because she cannot pay the bills, and she cannot bear to look at them. And the woman whose daughter hides letters from the school because she does not want to put any more strain on her mother by asking for money for school trips. The woman who has so much weight bearing down on her to keep a roof over her children’s heads and food in their stomachs that she has no remaining energy to care for herself or contemplate how she might want her life to be.

These women are caught in the crossfire. Facing entangled social challenges like a punitive welfare system, stigmatising discourses and low paid, insecure employment. At the same time, there is an expectation for her to be a shining example of motherhood, raising the future ‘good citizens’ of our society; future workers and taxpayers. Disadvantaged women are positioned as both the cause of society’s problems by being welfare dependent, and the solution, by bearing the responsibility to bring up the next generation. These women have been left behind and they are just about surviving.

‘Women’s Empowerment’ (Credit:Culturemag.es, 2021)

Where to next for disadvantaged women’s feminism?

Feminism has made some fantastic inroads for women, from voting, to divorce and abortion rights. A male-dominated political and corporate world is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Women are increasingly occupying higher status and more powerful positions in the public sphere. They are demanding respect, dignity and acknowledgment. Women are slowly gaining seats at the metaphorical table. But mostly these are women that already have the status, resources and capitals afforded to them by their position in life (IPPR, 2013). Feminism is, by and large, a middle-class pursuit. It is harder to raise your head above the parapet in this way when you are already the subject of much of the world’s vitriol. The narratives of ‘benefits scrounger’ have been hard to escape in the media.

‘Single Mums and Benefits Scroungers’ (Credits: UK Tabloids, 2014; The New Statesman, 2017)

To demand equality requires considerable resources, time, money and energy, of which disadvantaged women have very little.  Moreover, with whom exactly would they be demanding equality? Disadvantaged men? Somehow this hardly seems worth the effort, and anything more than this looks like an elaborate fantasy, especially under current conditions.

After more than 10 years of austerity, of which women bore most of the brunt through cuts to services and benefits (The Socialist Review, 2020), came a global pandemic. This meant almost a year of home-schooling, with many juggling being a keyworker and a parent. Now we have a cost-of-living crisis, forcing women to choose between warmth or food for their children – and enough is enough. There is an urgent need for a policy response to this. The Equality Act 2010 does not include socio-economic status as a protected characteristic – while not a panacea, the inclusion of this would be a significant step in the right direction to address the intersection of disadvantage and gender for women. Like with any dramatic shift in attitudes towards and resource allocation for women, the push must come from women themselves. From us – if you are a woman reading this – and from others around you. We must include disadvantaged women in the policy changes we demand, and highlight their experiences of being marginalised.

I recently went to a social sciences networking event where the keynote speaker was a recent author of a feminist text. A member of the audience asked about classed intersectionality in her book, and the ways she had included working-class women’s experiences in there. The author replied that while she had read extensively on the subject, she had not found this in the literature and therefore had not included this dimension of women’s experiences. What is the state of a body of intellectual work that excludes such a large group of people in this way? It is now time to develop this work, grow this voice, and demand acknowledgement of disadvantaged women in feminism. If they are absent from this debate their experiences and issues are made invisible, and there cannot be any formulated response. So here I set a challenge to women: let us include our disadvantaged sisters in our tribe, make them welcome and stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their struggles. And I say ‘their’, when at times of my life, this woman has been a version of myself, or people close to me. Feminism has long sought seats at the table for women in boardrooms and policymaking. Now disadvantaged women need to be heard.


Culturemag.es (2021) “10 Songs about Female Empowerment”. Available at: https://www.culturemag.es/10-canciones-sobre-el-empoderamiento-femenino/. (Accessed: 11/11/22)

IPPR (2013) “Twentieth century feminism failed working class women”. Available at: https://www.ippr.org/news-and-media/press-releases/twentieth-century-feminism-failed-working-class-women. (Accessed: 04/11/22)

Pew Research Centre (2015) “Despite progress, women still bear heavier load than men in balancing work and family”. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/10/women-still-bear-heavier-load-than-men-balancing-work-family/. (Accessed: 04/11/22)

The New Stateman (2017) “Yule Pay”. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/welfare/2017/12/everything-sun-didn-t-tell-you-when-shaming-mum-buying-christmas-presents. (Accessed: 11/11/22)

The Socialist Review (2018) “How austerity hurts women”. Available at: http://socialistreview.org.uk/443/how-austerity-hurts-women. (Accessed: 04/11/22)

UK Tabloids (2014) “Scroungers on £85,000 a Year Benefits”. Available at: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/483925922432734567/. (Accessed: 11/11/2022)

New NHS Food Scanner: Handy government diet “hack” or virtual reality nightmare

Natalie Partridge is a third year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University, researching food policy. Adding to our longstanding thread of blogs on food, Natalie tries the NHS Food Scanner App: the UK government’s latest addition to the Better Health campaign.

New year, new me! I’ve been jogging, had salad for lunch at least twice and subscribed to a 30-day yoga ‘journey’ (cringe) on YouTube. So, on the 9th of January when the launch of the new NHS Food Scanner App was announced, I thought I’d better have a look.

I’m not really the NHS Food Scanner’s target market. The app is designed for parents and children to use, ideally while they’re out doing their food shopping. The promise is simple: “hack” your diet with mostly like-for-like food swaps to reduce sugar, salt and fat intake. On the face of it, that sounds benign. The promotional video even contains the sunny phrase: “actually, you can make a healthier choice and it’s still pizza!” What could possibly go wrong?

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App – the introductory pages.

I downloaded the app. The Google reviews are a little menacing, but it’s straightforward to get going with an encouraging four-step introduction slideshow (above). I can’t be bothered to go to the supermarket, so I head to the kitchen, grab a few typical breakfast ingredients and set them out on the table. I’m partly looking for positive reinforcement of my attempt at a super-virtuous January diet, so I pull out crunchy peanut butter, wholemeal bread, fruit (none of which is barcoded, disastrously) and coffee. I’m a bit irritated when the scanner doesn’t recognise the barcode on my bread, but it’s brown bread, so probably fine? My coffee is a “Go Go Green!” option, containing 0.8 sugar cubes per pack, whatever that means. The little green cartoon from Change4Life does a victory dance under a sprinkling of confetti.

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App

It all starts to unravel when I scan my peanut butter. I don’t eat peanut butter all that often, so I’m more motivated by taste than price, although it is a little salty. It takes a long time for the scanner to work. I stand next to the window to make the best of the dull, grey daylight. I suppose the lighting is better than this in supermarkets. When the Food Scanner does eventually find my peanut butter, I wish it hadn’t. I’m whisked straight to a page with an angry army of little grub-like fat blobs advising me that each pack of peanut butter (an utterly useless measurement) contains 35.9g saturated fat. I’m then invited to “see it to believe it” in a virtual reality world where the grubs chase and overpower a poor blue cartoon character and jump on the corpse. Disheartened and a bit indignant, I check out the swaps, all of which, oddly, are sugar-free jams. Even if I were to want jam, which I don’t, I can’t find the top item on any supermarket website. A similar product has a warning that it’s “best to eat less than 44g per day” to avoid a laxative effect from the sorbitol, the main ingredient. There is no mention of the recommended daily intake for children, so let’s hope it’s the same. I also notice the jam is over double the price of the (sugary) equivalent supermarket own-brand jam. I think I’ll stick to my peanut butter. Or at a push, marmite, which the app doesn’t recognise, or cream cheese, which I am advised to swap for lower fat but higher sugar, and differently flavoured, alternatives.

– Credit: Better Health Campaign’s NHS Food Scanner App

Has Better Health missed the mark with this app?

All this has left a bad taste in my mouth. I used the Food Scanner for 10 minutes and it failed to scan half the foods I wanted it to. I’m glad I’m in my own kitchen. But I spare a thought for parents with their children, in busy supermarkets, squeezed by price increases and shrinkflation, understandably worried about health not least because we’re in a pandemic, all while trying to navigate these messages. Despite the glossy promotional material, I’m not expecting this to be overly positively received or particularly widely used. Although maybe I’m just being hypercritical of a well-intentioned, free tool designed to make it easier to eat healthily at home – most newspapers so far have covered its release but reserved comment.

So, let’s bypass for a moment the strange, expensive ‘swaps’ you can’t find at the supermarket. Let’s also overlook the negative messaging reminiscent of the “Eat Them to Defeat Them” fruit and vegetable campaign (which some argue did actually work), and the fact the Food Scanner is aimed, at least indirectly, towards children. The most concerning aspect of this app might be the sheer unwillingness to query the consumption of highly processed and convenience foods. This feels unsurprising from a government that resists use of the descriptor “ultra-processed” in food policy contexts, potentially rightly, as the debate plods on. In any case, those interested in a more ambitious policy approach to improve nutrition outcomes will likely be disappointed by this addition to the Better Health campaign. I mean, the app’s promotional video tells viewers that large 2L plastic bottles of artificially sweetened lemonade are a “good choice”, without even a cursory attempt to suggest a swap to water. While the toddler in the video might be delighted by that, an alternative strategy might be to avoid the Scanner, buy as much fruit and veg as possible, and hope for the best with everything else.

Editor’s note: Having tested the app for five minutes it recognised almost none of the items I scanned and was difficult and clunky to use. I would agree with Natalie, probably avoid and just try and buy fruit and veg!

Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene event reflections

Audrey Verma is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow whose research revolves around the connections and frictions between humans, nature and technology. Her current research asks what it means to be human and a citizen in the digital Anthropocene, and the next project she is piloting examines heat inequalities. In the fourth post in our Imagining Better Futures mini-series, Audrey shares some of the context and motivations behind her event, Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, co-convened with JC Niala in February 2021. 

Much of my research has been a search for hope where there appears to be little. This goes a long way towards explaining why I chose to research digital environmental activism at a time when both the digital and the environmental are depressing domains. It is why I do research that has me doom-scrolling on social media for hours each day, with bad news broken up only rarely by concessions hard-won by tireless activist communities. My search may also explain the Hope and Resistance event. From one perspective, the event was borne out of a shared disaffection between my co-organiser JC and myself, with unrelentingly declensionist narratives on the Anthropocene. 

As necessary, paradoxically comforting, and even titillating as dystopian imaginaries can be, my sense has always been that the more challenging and critical task is to move past repetitious identification of the problems. Much as identification of issues is a strength of sociology, we need to move toward imagining and enacting change. The latter is frequently far less within the grasp and will of sociology.  

The atrophied imagining of alternatives (Fisher 2009) when it comes to current environmentally devastating modes of production and social organisation is also not simply down to the neo-liberal colonisation of thought and meaning. It increasingly resembles a series of political and agential choices that excuse action and facilitate ongoing opportunism with destructive projects. Heavily westernised dystopian visions of environmental ends can border on tasteless too. For colonised groups and species already gone or on the brink, there are multiple inhabited, real worlds that have already ended or been irreversibly altered (Danowski and De Castro 2017). 

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) a common edible plant from the rose family with distinctive silvery underleaf. The plant grows well perenially on many habitats, including sand dunes, and its yellow flowers are a source of nectar. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie. 

Our shared principles and vision for the Hope and Resistance event followed from these senses and were threefold: First, we hoped to move away from modes of resignation and decline discourses. We wanted instead to nurture the conceptual and empirical seeds of hope not in any banal sense, but in ways that ‘acknowledge catastrophe while imagining and enacting possibility’ (Tsing et al, 2019). Our focus was on the spaces of ecological hope and environmental practices that sustain us, to reflect on what it means to be citizens and humans in these times. Second, we wanted to create an event sensitive to unequal levels, flows and intentions of current consumption and extraction. The event would recognise and respect the differing capacities and impetuses of the Majority World to grieve, hope and resist compared with Euro-America (Head, 2016). Third, we wanted to create calm, collective thinking times and spaces, with research, stories and art from across a wide range of disciplines, perspectives and locations. We sought contributions that would bear witness to the many ways in which we cope, counter and confront life and loss in the Anthropocene. 

Creating spaces of hope 

The response to our call was humbling, generating a programme and participation we are proud to have drawn together. The excellent contributions we received serendipitously fit under four connected thematic sessions:  

1. Messy Worlds, with contributions that spoke not only to the actual stuff of mess, sewage and waste, but also to the complicated and complicating political and conceptual factors surrounding resistance and hope. 

2. Experiencing Worlds, which featured empirical entanglements with extinction, climate change, grief and the possibilities that come with the resurgence of life and rethinking our relations to the natural environment.  

3. Imagining Worlds, which revolved around the roles of literature, art, film and speculative fiction in actively shaping environmental futures. 

4. Growing Worlds, with vibrant engagements on plants, re-wilding and practices of growing.  

The shape of the event was itself a valuable experience too. It had a sense of glorious un-disciplinary unruliness. The spirit of sharing and collegiality was present throughout the day’s active discussion, and there were multiple digital interfaces facilitating conversations before, during and after the event with participants from across the globe. 

Across the lively event, several threads stood out for me: I found myself thinking about the varying scales of hope. My attention was drawn to the small actants and nano-utopias (McKnight 2020) often overlooked. From children in Yan Gao’s reflection on the changing shape of East Asian environmentalism to the beauteous detail of plant growth depicted by Michelle Lai in  Plantopia. The unexpected spaces of hope came across strongly, from the heterotopias of the Korean DMZ discussed by Myung-Ae Choi, Kolkata’s wastewater wetlands described by Jenia Mukherjee, conflict-fraught waste management sites in Kerala detailed by Ashish Prabhakar, and the charred earth in the aftermath of the Australian fires discussed by Helena Bender and Andrea Rawluk. Reflections on the timespans of hope and change emerged with Greta Schiller’s film The Land of Azaba and Katy Davis’ research on North American Arctic communities living with climate change.  

Kelp-rafting is an important way in which aquatic material and life circulates. With thanks to Dr Tom Dargie. 

Hope still feels like an airy, abstract and inadequate concept for the times we find ourselves in, especially when compared to intellectually profound ideas such as utopia, as Lisa Garforth articulated brilliantly during the event and in preceding posts. When JC and I first came together to start thinking about the event, the rank inequalities highlighted by the pandemic and gross extractive opportunism in its wake were starting to come into full view. My own ethnographic fieldwork was (and continues to be) marked by the palpable exhaustion of the environmental activists and communities I work with. Hope seemed to be one of the few things we could latch on to at the time; it still is. The difficulty of holding on to hope when the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism (Jameson 2003) can be instructive. Hope is the spark for activism and perhaps change, but it is itself an active doing, a habit and practice that requires care, cultivation and the creation of communities. 

If you would like to get involved in follow-up event activities or request resources from the day, please email Audrey (audrey.vermajames@gmail.com). 


Danowski, D. and de Castro, E, B. V. (2017) The Ends of the World. Cambridge, UK: Polity. 

Fischer, M. (2009) Capitalist realism. Hants, UK: Zer0 Books. 

Jameson, F. (2003). Future City. New Left Review. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city 

McKnight, H. (2020). ‘Chaos and Hope: nano-utopian moments of activist self-organisation’ Excursions, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.33-60.

Tsing, A, L., Mathews, A. S., and Bubandt, N. (2019) ‘Patchy Anthropocene: landscape structure, multispecies history, and the retooling of anthropology’ Current Anthropology, vol. 60 (S20), pp.186-197.