Still personal, still political

Miriam David’s reflections on her career as a scholar and feminist inspired her to interview a range of female academics about their paths to the getting of wisdom - and the pivotal role feminism has played in their lives

January 31, 2013

Source: Getty

This year began with numerous headlines and public debates about women’s issues, ranging from feminists openly discussing their hopes of Hillary Clinton standing as US presidential candidate to the wider global questions of sexual relations, especially sexual harassment, rape and violence. The Jimmy Savile affair continues to rumble on, with further allegations of public and prominent media figures abusing their privileged positions. The brutal gang rape and subsequent death from her injuries of a young female physiotherapy student in India last month continues to dominate headlines, as five of the accused go on trial, with a separate legal process for a sixth, who claims to be 17. We were also reminded of the Taliban’s violence against young women fighting for girls’ education when Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl activist, who survived a gun attack in October 2012, left a Birmingham hospital earlier this month to recuperate in a temporary place of safety with her family.

Why, this makes me wonder, are these questions of gender and sexual relations now so visible when they were not even on the public agenda 40 or 50 years ago? Is the way in which they are publicly debated a result of feminist activism or is the question more complex than that: is it more to do with the clash between globalisation and changing gender and social relations? What has really changed to make these matters the subject of such intense political debate, and will the resolution of some of the issues bode well for a more women- and feminist-friendly future?

Or is it the case that the “cycle of domination of top roles by men”, as Louise Morley recently argued in Times Higher Education, will continue to hold sway? What needs to be done to break out of that vicious cycle to make education - higher education especially - and wider society more feminist-friendly and less misogynistic? And can education be used to try to transform wider social and sexual relations and reduce, if not eliminate, men’s violence against women?

Looking back on my own life as a feminist academic, I remember that Savile was launching his career as a DJ when I was beginning my undergraduate studies in sociology at the University of Leeds. Among my friends and acquaintances in Leeds were young women who encountered Savile - and around the same time other female friends were beginning groups as part of the early stirrings of what is now often described as “second-wave feminism”. It was in these consciousness-raising groups that women began to talk personally about intimate sexual relations, but in the relative safety of the privacy of groups of like-minded women, reaching out towards some understanding of sexual power relations and how they were not only individual but political. Yet these discussions were certainly hidden from the public gaze.

The phrase “the personal is political” entered widespread use around that time, leading into discussions about the sexual division of labour, women’s rights and women’s work, and, more importantly, the rise of intellectual curiosity about how these structured gender relations had come about. Through the women’s movement, based, as it tended to be, around young female students or new graduates, feminists began to develop new “knowledge” and new approaches, including feminist pedagogies grounded in personal experience. At the same time, higher education was expanding and opportunities for women not only as students but also as researchers and academics were opening up: women, including feminists, quickly began to enter academia. Feminism became an essentially educational project to change women’s lives in the direction of gender equality, based on generating the research evidence for this.

I have been talking with a wide range of international feminist educators and academic activists based largely in anglophone countries of the global North for a forthcoming book, Feminism, Gender and Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies. I hope to capture the essence of academic women’s pedagogical engagement in higher education aiming for gender and social justice. I am reviewing the achievements of feminist studies and what still needs to be accomplished, thinking through what the obstacles as well as the opportunities have been and how the changing political and socio-economic contexts have facilitated or blocked educational and pedagogical innovations. How far has the knowledge economy the capability to transform sexual relations?

Using the now-established social and feminist methods of narrative enquiry, I aimed to involve an array of feminist academics from across arts and social science subjects, in diverse higher education settings and across several generations of scholars. Eventually, I approached an opportunity “sample” through a range of international networks that I have been involved with but largely in the social sciences, including educational studies, obtaining well over a hundred replies from an international group of female academics across the generations.

I was not surprised that the responses from older and retired women also tended to be fuller: those who had become, as I had, jaundiced by the constant struggles within academia to maintain an emancipatory place and space

Following the pioneering work of the late feminist sociologist of education, Olive Banks, in her 1986 study Becoming a Feminist: The Social Origins of ‘First Wave’ Feminism, I decided to divide my participants into three cohorts for the purpose of analysis. My female scholars fell unevenly into three age groups, namely those born before, during or immediately after the Second World War (1935-1950) and going to university in the late 1950s or 1960s; those born in the heyday of higher educational opportunities of the 1950s to 1965 and going to university in the 1970s; and finally a younger generation of feminist academics born in the late 1960s and across the 1970s, and going to university in the heyday of Thatcherism and neoliberalism.

The majority of women who responded were from the first cohort, with about half as many in the second cohort and only about 10 per cent from the youngest group. Given the increasingly intensive nature of academic work today, I was not surprised that the responses from older and retired women also tended to be fuller: those who had been fired by feminist passions for political activism and who had eventually become, as I had too, jaundiced by the constant struggles within academia to maintain an emancipatory place and space. Nevertheless, those women of the two younger cohorts were equally passionate about their feminist commitments while leading intensely busy academic lives. Indeed, they had come of academic age during an expansionary but constrained and constraining individualised academy, with its metrication of all forms of academic life.

All my participants feel passionately about how the “new wave” of thinking or the so-called feminist project was vitally important for them in their own learning and their subsequent creation of new knowledge and curricula for their own teaching. Comments such as “it changed my life” and “feminism has been my life project” peppered the interviews.

For example, a senior academic wrote: “My entire life has been shaped by feminism…at university…It was the beginning of the feminist movement, and I joined a women’s liberation group…We women were a small minority…” Another senior international colleague said: “In one sense I was always a feminist. I did not see why my mother, who was so intelligent, was a housewife and devoted to her children (us) without directly using her education. I did not want a future of cooking and cleaning.”

And yet another: “I was born a feminist - I did NOT want to ‘end up like my mother’ - frustrated by being bright and unable to complete her schooling…in other words I wanted to be INDEPENDENT…‘Women’s Lib’ hit the air-waves during my teachers’ college year (1969)…Organized feminism wasn’t around me where I lived and worked until my return to full-time study in 1975…I discovered feminist theory and incorporated it into my MA thesis…My mission became one of developing feminist education theory.”

I started with the assumption that I was exploring “second-wave” feminism in the academy, contrasting with the “first-wave” feminists of the late 19th and early 20th century who were the focus of Banks’ study. For this reason, I did not approach as many of the youngest cohort, thinking that they saw themselves as an entirely new generation, influenced by different contexts and ideas, and part of yet another new wave of thought, often referred to as the “third wave”. But it has become increasingly clear that the “wave analogy” is a contested notion and one that is challenged by women from the three cohorts of my study. Indeed, a recent collection of essays edited by Nancy Hewitt is titled No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism.

The select women of the youngest cohort had a strong sense of the continuing importance of feminist education: of a vital task yet to be accomplished. For instance, one of the women whose research focuses on sex and relationship education for young people wrote: “feminism’s woven through my personal journey which is mirrored by feminist theory’s journey from liberal to lesbian feminism to socialist feminism to queer theory. Feminist frameworks and politics feel the most central to me although green and anarchist politics (well, activism) is important too. My journey across and between the various social sciences has been through feminist work that didn’t respect the disciplinary boundaries and my finding that I could have sexuality as a legitimate research topic is down to this too. [It was] nice finding that the illicit reading on sexuality could be owned and legitimate. Later studies in teaching and learning (PgDip HE) looped back into feminist and queer pedagogies too. [It doesn’t occur to me] to not be ‘out’ as a feminist in the academy in research or teaching. [I] tend to assume it is OK to be a feminist at work and have to be corrected sometimes.”

My study is made up of a diversity of female academics, across the generations and ages, and also extremely varied in terms of their social and geographic locations. They are illustrative of the mobile, transnational academics who are characteristic of the academic profession in the 21st century, as Terri Kim, a specialist in comparative higher education at Brunel University, among others, has argued so cogently.

Inevitably, all the women are highly educated and almost invariably have doctorates. This generation of second- or third-wave feminists serves as a dramatic contrast to the first-wave feminists of Banks’ study, less than a third of whom had any higher education and were political rather than academic activists. Nevertheless my participants are similar to earlier generations in that they are from a variety of social and ethnic groups: while they are mainly white, they are not all from middle-class families, and many are from migrant or refugee backgrounds. And the vast majority of the women in my study, whether from upper, middle-class or working-class backgrounds, were “the first in the family” to go to university.

This runs counter to current policy assumptions about the use of higher education for social mobility where “first in the family” is often assumed to imply people from working-class or minority ethnic backgrounds. These women exemplify how university education has expanded and how vital these educational opportunities have been for their working and personal lives, transforming them into passionate academic activists for future generations. All have been researching and teaching for social transformations.

Yet feminist academics now feel much less sanguine about the future, despite the achievement of gender equality in terms of numbers of students. And we are right to feel like that. David Willetts, minister for universities and science, has yet again expressed a form of political “misogyny” (as prime minister Julia Gillard put it in her speech in the Australian Parliament): he has pitted middle-class women against working- class men as beneficiaries of university education. In his 2010 book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future - And Why They Should Give It Back, he commented that “feminism has trumped egalitarianism”. His argument, repeated over the Christmas break, suggests that working-class men should be given priority over middle-class women for higher education to right the gender balance. But the education he wants them to be given is clearly of a traditional Conservative kind: not at all transformative of gender and sexual relations.

To paraphrase Morley, this is “misogyny masquerading as metrics”; such attitudes are pervasive in policy arenas and serve to prevent the further development of creative thinking for future generations. As the stories of transformation told by the feminist academics in my study indicate, only an emancipatory education can help to forge new ways of thinking and begin to develop more appropriate and less violent gender relations. Education, and higher education especially, could be the way to transform the future. For now, however, it feels as if the wave analogy, as expressed poetically by Stevie Smith, is, after all, apposite: we are “not waving but drowning” in a sea of misogyny.

Liberation through education

Scholars participating in Miriam David’s study discuss their evolution as feminists.

“I became a feminist during university (as a mature student after an Access to HE course) mainly through my own reading … good experiences taught me about inclusive pedagogies. Feminism has been crucial to my learning, indirectly and explicitly. When I was in a women’s aid refuge I first explicitly encountered feminism and this was a lifesaver in terms of understanding and making sense of my traumatic experiences of domestic violence, and also learning about my rights and my position as a woman. This was strengthened at university when I started to read feminist theories for my coursework - theory has been more directly influential to me than activism.”

“Feminism has been absolutely central to my life. It allowed me to gradually gain a perspective on Catholicism that eventually allowed me to leave the established church. For a long time I felt that my intellectual theological knowledge was battling with my intellectual feminism. I would say that through the twists and turns of my life, the one intellectual endeavour that I have never doubted is my feminism. I passionately believe in people’s right to equality and especially to have freedom over their bodies. I would say that I still teach from a feminist perspective even if my students would not always recognise this.”

“I began to self-identify as a feminist when I was a graduate student in 1970…I went into the academy after completing my PhD in education policy studies. Feminism is woven through every fibre of my being and has been since the early 1970s…My family was not impressed with my move towards radical politics in general nor feminism more specifically. They in fact took issue with who I was becoming both intellectually and personally.”

“I became a feminist at university [in the] late 1960s…My whole adult life is lived as a feminist and has shaped everything I have studied and written. I have been an activist in the women’s liberation movement and continue to be involved as an activist. As a scholar, I write from a feminist perspective.”

“I became a feminist at university. I went to an all-girls school and moved into a mixed environment at Cambridge. In my college I was the only girl of the 14 doing maths in my year. Some other students and tutors had sexist attitudes. I guess this is what provoked the move…The influence has been huge - most obviously in my work but also in how I dress, what I eat, my friendships…I do not do much in feminist activism…but feminism in daily life, for example, teaching.”

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