Mistress of her destiny

September 5, 1997

Postgraduate student Sue Wilks claims she faces discrimination over the title of her degree

Bachelors and masters degrees signify a period of disqualification when women were not allowed to achieve at high levels. No matter how deeply the diachronic origins of these titles are contested, it is evident that they were initiated in a patriarchal manner, and, because they did not change in line with the practise of allowing women to access qualifications at degree level, they refer to the male gender of the then intended achiever.

The most frequent reaction that I encounter, is that these issues are so trivial and ridiculous as not to be worthy of discussion.... "Its just a tradition", "she's being a bit pedantic don't you think". I find these reactions interesting. It seems to me that ridicule, trivia and anger are qualities that attach themselves to many sites of gender difference; female facial hair, the male persona of "God", the control of language etc., and while these may not seem to be issues of resounding consequence for humanity, their combined cultural affinities help to construct the insidious and seemingly insignificant makings of patriarchy that remain secured to the language and practise of people internationally.

Higher education does seem to be dragging its heels - fire men have become fire fighters, police men altered to police officers, the male equivalent of ward sisters are charge nurses, head masters are now head teachers etc.

I am studying for an MA in feminist theory, history and criticism at Leeds University, and had hoped that by insisting that I be awarded a Mistress of Arts that I might be able to establish a legal challenge for a review of titles, using the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

A legal adviser has explained that while I had a moral case, (in that the university was not providing an equitable service to women and men) I did not have a legal case, because the Sex Discrimination Act was designed to deal with issues of practicality, Had somebody prejudiced me on account of a given title, and could they therefore be sued? As I have neither BA nor MA at the moment, I cannot satisfy this criteria.

To me, this demonstrates a weakness in the law as it does not provide a defence for the affront to the identity of women. The failure of the authorities to provide qualification titles that recognise the abilities of all people in society, is evidence of their failure to recognise equity.

Current national debates focus upon the Government's decision to incorporate into domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights and the possible ways of implementing this. If, as Ian Bynoe (co-author of the forthcoming report on a proposed Human Rights Commission) says, "Legislation will soon bring into force the provisions of the Convention, with its guarantees of basic rights, such as liberty, freedom of expression, privacy and family life" then maybe there will be a legal challenge to mount in the future.

I would like to see the levels of debate being raised, and the emphasis shifting towards searching for possible alternative titles that embody the philosophy of education, and the achievements of people.

Higher educational establishments have emphasised their commitments to "customer satisfaction" (an emphasis made even more poignant recently with the introduction of tuition fees). I am appealing to students to use their status as customers, to show dissatisfaction with the "product titles" currently available. A petition destined for Harriet Harman (Minister For Women) will be sent to students union offices' in higher educational institutions around the country.

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