Feminism’s job is far from done. In Miriam David’s words, it’s “everywhere and yet nowhere influential or powerful”. Her book is both manifesto and lament; a journey through 50 years of post-second-wave feminist activism, celebrating women’s achievements while simultaneously acknowledging that we must still ask the question: “How inimical is the patriarchal neoliberal academy to feminism?”
David writes accessibly, punctuating her political and sociological commentary with personal reflections that are elegantly informed, and underpinned by her long career as feminist academic and activist. She closes the gap between academia and the “real world”, urging her readers to understand that university education must be shot through with feminist praxis because no one truly flourishes in a climate of inequality, and campuses can be perilous, misogynist environments for young people. Her book is a corrective to the underlying perniciousness that finds its expression in rape culture, and her emphasis is squarely on education as core to the feminist activist agenda.
The mixed genres of the book will undoubtedly grate on those readers who struggle with scholarship interspersed with memoir. As an unapologetically nosy person myself, though, I’ve always adopted an anti-Barthesian stance; I need reports of any author’s “death” to be very much exaggerated. And David is present throughout her text, from the first chapter, where she talks of now being in her seventies, and recalls hearing stories of her uncle’s detention at Dachau, to the last chapter, where she talks proudly of her daughter, a “feisty feminist teacher” whose generation desires to “put a different mark on the future, especially perhaps for their sons rather than their daughters”.
Reclaiming Feminism is a very current book. Jeremy Corbyn, the Women’s Equality Party and the Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black are among the numerous individuals and organisations that David namechecks, but references such as these will date quickly, and need at the very least to be accurate to avoid seeming too painfully “down with the kids”. The actor Jennifer Lawrence, for example, is described as “the very able Jessica Laurence, nicknamed J Law”, and 41-year-old Caitlin Moran becomes “a young British journalist on The Times without any formal education, and certainly not any university education”. While this description may be broadly true of Moran, its tone is, at best, infelicitous.
“There are new waves”, writes David, “of feminism that ebb and flow and take the lessons of previous waves to reclaim the agenda”. Musing on the disjunctions and continuities between feminism’s second wave and its third and fourth wave manifestations, she asks: “Is it more to do with new wine in old bottles?” It’s an appealing image and sentiment, but here, as elsewhere in the proof copy available to me for review, there are errors that intrude on the fluency of David’s argument.
At the heart of the book is a detailed account of the major players in second-wave feminism who have been involved in different ways with UK universities over the past 50 years. The start of David’s own university career in 1963 coincided with the publication of the Robbins report, the plan by the government of the day to predicate university entry on intellectual, not financial, capability. The report paved the way for more women than ever before to enter British universities, and David, understandably nostalgically, describes her personal indebtedness to the “Robbins principle” of “ability and attainment”. She recalls her father’s wishes that his three daughters should use what would have been their dowries for university, and not for marriage. But David’s nostalgia is rarely self-indulgent, because it’s punctuated by intellectual acuity: “While women have secured a foothold in universities”, she writes, “they remain belittled and subject to forms of sexual harassment, rather than being treated as equals”.
The section of the book that I liked least reflected on other beneficiaries of the Robbins principle, as David maps the evolution of feminism in British universities by discussing the lives of those women who, like her, were undergraduates in the 1960s and 1970s. Here, the namechecking of influential friends “honoured” with awards such as being appointed Officers of the Order of the British Empire grows a little tedious and off-topic. There are certainly many remarkable women described in her account, but why do we need to know, for example, that one “pioneering feminist”, appointed a Dame of the British Empire, “chose to change her name to her husband’s (but the marriage was dissolved in 2004)”? While it’s not a mistake to call these women, as David does, “pioneers of new ways of living and being”, the chapter does play into an extremely Establishment definition of women’s “success” that jars somewhat with the anti-neoliberal ethos of much of the rest of the book.
Finally, few readers of Times Higher Education can be unaware of the recent high-profile Stanford University case of sexual assault and intent to commit rape. Judge Aaron Persky (a Stanford alumnus himself) sentenced Brock Turner, a swimming star and Stanford student, to just six months (he will probably serve three) for brutalising an unconscious young woman behind a skip. The incident has showcased structural misogyny in formation; it is a symptom of a toxic campus rape culture that foments in the kind of climate in which Turner’s father can publicly lament that his son’s future will be forever blighted because of “20 minutes of action”. But another reason the case has received such widespread coverage is because of the victim’s own 7,000-word impact statement in which she displays an articulacy and poise as dignified as Turner’s father’s language is crass.
Because of the Stanford case, I found myself especially drawn to the chapter of Reclaiming Feminism that looks at “Feminists on campus”, emphasising how comparatively slow UK universities have been to challenge the institutional sexism that is played out on the student body and student bodies. By comparison, in the US, Barack Obama himself made a commitment in 2014, as David puts it, “to protect students from sexual assault, to deal with rape and sexual assaults on college campuses”, an initiative whose timeliness and necessity is only underscored by the Stanford assault.
But David acknowledges the work of those British feminist academics whose work on sexual violence on campuses is becoming more prominent in the UK higher education landscape. While offering cautious praise for the sexual consent sessions being rolled out in some universities’ freshers’ weeks, David writes that “This is a welcome start, but it is not enough”, adding: “Far more important is education, from cradle to grave, to change the culture and the zeitgeist of sexualisation”. As academics we have a moral obligation to heed her words, and to educate our students not only in literature, say, or geography or maths, but also in ensuring “that all learn about respectful lifelong relationships that should be maintained”, albeit in universities whose dominant ideologies continue to promulgate the idea that “The white male remains legitimately in power”.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies and director of the Institute of Gender Studies, University of Chester.
Reclaiming Feminism: Challenging Everyday Misogyny
By Miriam E. David
Policy Press, 256pp, £14.99 and £7.99
ISBN 9781447328179 and 8193 (e-book)
Published 15 June 2016
Miriam David, professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education, lives with her husband Jeff Duckett, a botanist, “in Tufnell Park, in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency – and I am a member of the Labour Party”.
She was born in Keighley in Yorkshire’s West Riding, to Jewish refugee parents. “My feelings of marginality, being a Jewish girl in a totally non-Jewish environment, contributed to my wish to change the world. I was also encouraged by my parents to stand up for social justice...but not so much for women’s rights.”
David “loved reading as a child; I read many of my mother’s books, including the ones she borrowed from the local library on a weekly basis. And my mother was very active in my secondary school parent-teachers’ association. My father encouraged political discussion and arguments around the dinner table.”
As a University of Leeds undergraduate, she was “gregarious and socially active”, involved in university theatre alongside Alan Yentob (“I made him a codpiece for a production of The Duchess of Malfi”) and in socialist politics alongside future Labour minister Jack Straw. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after university, as it wasn’t clear what paths there were,” David observes.
As for female academic role models, she says, there were none. “We didn’t have any female lecturers... and we didn’t really read scholarship by women. That all came later.”
Should women in the UK academy agree that they’ve never had it so good? David demurs. “Women, on the whole, are still treated less well, less respectfully, and still as sexual objects rather than as equals. Indeed, although there are more female academics than in the past, the neoliberal university uses old individual competitive criteria for the allocation of ‘rewards’.”