We're women, not girls

April 10, 1998

We need look no further than the title of the article "Thinking like a man is good for the girls" (THES, March 13) to refute its claim. Men are men, it seems, while women remain girls, not allowed to grow up. We can only take our full place in the academy if we become like men. Thinking like a man, then, is very definitely not good for girls, as to do so we can never take our places as adult women.

Jennifer Davey appears to accept the argument that men in the academy, particularly in the elite halls and corridors of Oxbridge, are the ones with originality and confidence. Perhaps this is because such patriarchal institutions set the terms of what counts as original and what it means to be confident.

My PhD research with women students shows a different story. I have been following a group of women through their three years of a degree course that has included women's studies combined with a range of other subjects. This has given me clear comparisons of a range of subjects, and of any differences within women's studies enabling people to be academic in different and original ways.

For most women there are clear differences in their descriptions of women's studies and their other subjects. While women's studies is about people, women and the personal lives of the students, the other subjects were more often than not about theories that were not in the main described as connecting to the lives of the women in any way. Not surprising, then, that women find it hard to be original in such subjects. "Being pushed to think critically and responsibly about texts" has not helped these women. Indeed, why should it? To whom do they have a responsibility to engage with the standard texts of "Derrida and Habermas"?

In contrast, women's studies was described by several of the students as "exciting" and "challenging", stretching them to think about and develop their ideas in new ways. For them the "masculine" approach of other subjects stifled originality, but women's studies had a lot more scope for individuality and style, even creativity - the "flair" that is valued so highly in reaching for a first. Indeed, most students were gaining higher marks in their women's studies assessments than in other subjects. One student accounted for this by stating that she was enjoying developing a theoretical framework in which to find new and original perspectives.

Women's studies, said one student, both recognises and values women's culture, and it was important to learn to "criticise male culture - the dominant one".

However, it was not always easy for the women to survive in university structures that used an "academic" language far removed from them and their experiences. This was particularly an issue for women with regard to social class, with most of the women identifying themselves as working-class.

For some of the women, undertaking degree work was not only about learning a "new" language, but about trying to exist in an institution with hidden and unwritten rules. One student described this as a "game" for which the lecturers know the rules but not the students. Some students do manage to work out the rules for themselves, but "some people will always stay outside the game, and can't figure it out". Another student stressed that students have to learn the "game" and give "what the examiners are looking for", even if it "is a load of bull".

Despite the very positive feelings of the women I interviewed regarding women's studies, most women at university will not be working within a "women's culture" - far from it. But what is the answer? Is it, as Davey suggests, to universalise the patriarchal discourse and language of the academy, or could it be that other challenges could and should be made?

Cambridge University, another bastion of male power and privilege, has recently been engaged in examining why more men than women are obtaining firsts (THES, October 13, 1996), and has been trying to find ways to enable women to become more equal. However, the question remains: equal to what? To what extent are women being helped to become more like the men to ensure a more equal division of firsts? Are there other possibilities?

Sue Wilks, a postgraduate student at Leeds University, is fighting the university for the right to become a Mistress of Arts, so banishing the "archaic, male-dominated" language of the academy (THES, August 15, 1997). Sue Wilks has stated that although she is "against subsuming women into male categories", at times she feels it is a "foolhardy" endeavour, leaving her very lonely.

Sue Wilks says that she is "trying to raise the level of debate I to 'what possible alternatives are there?'" This is the question I ask us all to consider.

Sue Jackson

Women's studies programme Faculty of arts and humanities Roehampton Institute

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