Resurgence of interest in feminism in face of 'attacks'

Discrimination by prominent media figures comes under fire at symposium. Matthew Reisz reports

April 14, 2011

A "Neanderthal" David Willetts came under attack alongside Andy Gray and Richard Keys, the "Stone Age" former Sky Sports commentators, at the UK's first Feminism and Teaching Symposium at the University of Nottingham.

The symposium on 8-9 April was organised by a committee of 10 Nottingham postgraduates from a range of disciplines. Eva Giraud, who is completing a PhD in critical theory, said there had been "a huge resurgence" of interest in feminist politics in the UK.

"Our symposium reflects widespread demand from students, academics, teachers and activists, who see feminist critique as an indispensable part of education," she added.

The event hosted speakers from around the world, including grass-roots activists and those able to offer insights into the links between feminism and counselling or religious education. Several addressed the challenges within the academy.

Sara Mills, professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, argued that feminism today was "both under attack and in resurgent mode".

Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister, could say that "feminism was probably the single biggest factor for the lack of social mobility in Britain, because women had taken university places and well-paid jobs". Yet she welcomed the response to his comments, as "many within the trade union movement and in political parties have attacked him as Neanderthal".

Mr Willetts has insisted that his comments were not intended to deride the growth of opportunity for women, but merely to point out the effect on working-class men.

Professor Mills also cited research on the University of Sheffield revealing that there were 53 male and 13 female professors in its Faculty of Arts, even though most of the students were women. She said the disparity had nothing to do with merit, since the "women professors had an average of 185 citations on Google Scholar and males 55".

Within her own institution, Professor Mills added, there had been a decline in women applying for professorships since 2006.

In a culture where "women are more reluctant to put themselves forward ... or managers less likely to encourage them to put themselves forward", traditional feminist initiatives such as women-only training courses could make a huge difference, she suggested.

Ben Brabon, a lecturer in English literature at Edge Hill University, noted that although "some men marched with and for women" during the "second-wave" feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, it was then widely believed that "men could never truly be 'sisters'?", since "their ties to patriarchy afforded them social, economic, cultural, sexual and racial advantages (which) always made them suspect (at best) and potential enemies (at worst)".

Dr Brabon described his experience of "teaching two modules that involve situating men and masculinity within feminism". This involved examining "unstable and violent hegemonic masculinities in works such as (Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel) American Psycho".

He stressed the importance of remaining aware of the ethical dangers of "a pedagogical act that institutionalises texts that represent graphic acts of violence against women".

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