Many British academics are ardently opposed to Brexit. Others are passionate in their commitment to the idea that women can do what they like with their own bodies. But Victoria Bateman – fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge – must be highly unusual in bringing the two causes together, most recently in a performance titled Brexit: The Naked Truth, where audience members got a chance to create a living anti-Brexit petition by signing her bare body.
So how does she link the two issues?
“Freedom is at the root of both my opposition to Brexit and my feminist activism,” she replied. She had spent much of her career “trying to work out the recipe for economic prosperity” and had come to see the key as “a free, tolerant and open society”. With Brexit, “the type of society many people have voted for – one that is, for example, unwelcoming to immigrants – is one that will likely feed back to cause real harm to the economy”. Yet it was “also a feminist issue”, most obviously because an economic downturn might well lead to “cutbacks to childcare services and social care”.
During her teenage years in Oldham, when she and her peers had been “dismissed as ‘trashy girls’ because of the way [they] dressed”, Dr Bateman had initially responded by covering up. Now, however, she is determined to “challenge the underlying assumption…It’s when a woman’s value is thought to hang precariously on bodily modesty that we end up putting in place all kinds of practices and regulations in an effort to ‘protect’ women from harming their modesty, but which actually greatly restrict them, resulting in persistent gender inequalities.”
Along with amusement and mockery, Dr Bateman acknowledged that she has “encountered lots of genuine anger and hostility online, but also in person from one or two senior female economists – including when I protested naked against sexism in economics at an economics conference last year. Some women believe that by using your body as a form of protest, you are doing a disservice to other women.
“I very much disagree. Women’s bodies are one of the big battlegrounds we face today, whether in terms of women’s access to birth control, sex workers’ rights or clothing, including burka bans…By covering up the body, these problems don’t go away. Instead, we fail to address them because we think of the body as something that’s embarrassing and not to be talked about in polite – or academic – company.”
It was also crucial, in Dr Bateman’s view, to put “the concept ‘my body, my choice’…at the heart of feminism. That requires women being tolerant of other women making choices about their bodies that differ from their own. When I protest naked, it seems to bring to the surface a lot of intolerance and hypocrisy in regard to ‘my body, my choice’ – and it’s that same intolerance to women who make choices about their bodies that are different from our own that is driving, for example, some feminist groups to recommend polic[ies] that harms the livelihoods of voluntary sex workers.”
Cambridge economists have often had an impact on government policy, either in formal consultative roles or through suggestions whispered over the port in gentlemen’s clubs. Dr Bateman has also “written thousands of words on why Brexit is bad for the British economy”, but was there any reason to think that taking off her clothes was remotely likely to be an effective way of influencing policymakers?
As she saw it, however, “the relevant question is not ‘Why use your naked body?’ but ‘Why not use your naked body?’ Reversing the question in this way helps to reveal people’s inner thoughts or presumptions about women’s bodies: that when a woman shows her body it devalues her worth or decreases the respect people have for her.” She also “believe[d] in the power of art to go beyond what academic writing alone can offer…I’ve condensed all my words into one simple message: that Britain has been sold the emperor’s new clothes.”