Classic Review: Surviving Sexual Violence

Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.

I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.

In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).

The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):

• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.

Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’

Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that

most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).

The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).

Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.

Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice

The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.

Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.

Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.

Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.

Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’

Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV

. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).

This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.

Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy'; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.

The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.

The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.

Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247).  Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.

Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.

Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’

Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)

Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.

Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.

New times and new challenges

Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.

Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.

Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.

It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:

Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)

We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.

A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).

If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.

References

Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)

Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.

 

A Rock and a Hard Place

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Delilah Campbell has more questions than answers.   

Imagine that three women, wearing face-masks and armed with automatic weapons, went into the office of a leading pornographic magazine and shot several pornographers dead. Imagine that as they left they were heard to shout ‘men are scum’ and ‘we have avenged the women’. Imagine, in other words, a version of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris where the perpetrators were feminists, and the offence to which they were responding was not the circulation of cartoons depicting the Prophet, but the circulation of images depicting the violent sexual degradation of women.

I do not believe I know a single feminist who would defend such an action. Even committed feminist anti-porn campaigners would deny that violence and killing are legitimate responses to the harm they believe pornography does. ‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.

But in other ways the feminist response would be different from the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I don’t think we’d be carrying placards saying ‘I am Hustler’, or tweeting messages of support adorned with that hashtag. I don’t think we’d be exalting the freedom of men to make and use pornography as one of the defining features of a civilized society. I don’t think we’d be sharing pornographic images as a tribute to the victims.

I also don’t think we’d be saying, as some people have said about the cartoons that provoked the attack in Paris, ‘they’re only pictures, FFS’. I don’t think we’d be saying that even if the attack had targeted men whose products were not photographs of actual women, but—for instance—the pornographic drawings of girls which are a subgenre of Japanese manga (and are explicit enough to be illegal under the UK’s child pornography laws). Most feminists who oppose pornography do not think its harm is limited to the women actually depicted in it. We think it harms all women, because it influences the way they are looked at, thought about and treated by those who use it.

I am using this imaginary scenario to explain why I have found it difficult to frame a response to the events in Paris. My view on the killings themselves is unambiguous: there is no possible justification for what the killers did. I am also absolutely clear about my opposition to Islamism and other forms of modern religious fundamentalism. These are right-wing political movements and the submission of women to patriarchal authority is a central tenet of all of them. On these points I’m not conflicted, nor at odds with the prevailing view. But my difficulty begins when the conversation turns to the more general issue of freedom of expression.

Before this week I’d never looked at what Charlie Hebdo published, but when I saw the cartoons that were reproduced in the wake of the killings, I found them even more offensive than I’d imagined they would be. I know they belong to a French tradition of overtly and deliberately crude caricature, but even so I was struck, looking at recent covers depicting Muslims, by how much they reminded me of some of the iconography of the Nazis. Take away the turbans, and these malevolent hook-nosed figures could have come from the pages of an anti-semitic pamphlet in 1930s Germany.

Many commentators have made the point that Charlie Hebdo was even-handed in its offence-giving: there was, in fact, one cover in the montage I saw featuring a Jewish subject, and there were also some grotesque depictions of non-Semites, from the Pope to the leaders of the fascist National Front. But the problem with this argument—‘it’s OK because they treated everyone with equal contempt’—should be obvious: the context in which these images circulate is one in which everyone is not, in fact, equal. In France, where Muslims are the main targets of racism and religious bigotry, racist representations of Muslims are not ‘the same thing’ as stereotypical representations of white politicians or Catholic priests. They reinforce a view of the group that contributes to the real social injustice suffered by members of that group. You might as well say that pornography is even-handed because it depicts men as well as women in gross and objectionable ways, or because some of the men who work in the industry have suffered abuse or been coerced. The point remains that in the world at large, pornography does not affect men in the same way it affects women.

Although I think pornography is harmful, I have never supported campaigns for outright censorship, because I think the dangers are on balance greater than any benefits more restriction would bring (I say ‘more’ because it is nonsense to suggest that there is no censorship in western democracies at all). There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.

But none of this means I feel impelled to join in with the chorus of ‘we must defend freedom of expression at all costs!’ Of course I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state where I could be arrested and imprisoned for saying anything the government disapproved of. But still, the rhetorical celebration of free speech in capitalist democracies can feel a bit naive and self-satisfied. Catharine MacKinnon once remarked that what free speech often comes down to in practice is the freedom of the wealthy and powerful, who have privileged access to public platforms, to drown out all other voices. Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Times, the Sun, Fox News, etc., has the freedom to broadcast his views to millions of people every day; in theory I have exactly the same freedom to broadcast mine, but since I don’t have my own global media empire, that does not make me an equal player in what liberals refer to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

For feminism that marketplace is a particularly unequal one. The idea that women are commodities for men’s use is one of the oldest and most entrenched ideas there is; it is also one of the most profitable. It will inevitably dominate the most powerful forums in which the right to free speech (or in many cases, ‘paid for speech’) is exercised.

Charlie Hebdo is not a global media empire, but in the pictures that were published of the contributors who died, it looked a lot like the (white, male) French establishment it lampooned. It may be irreverent, but it’s closer to the centre than the margins of French society, and that has given it a license to provoke the powerful which might not be extended to more radically dissenting voices. If disgruntled Muslims had made what liberals consider the ‘proper’ response to offensive speech—set up their own magazine with liberal secularism as their target—they would probably not have had to wait very long for a visit from the security services, who would have taxed them with aiding and abetting terrorism, and banned their publication as an incitement.

Of course that doesn’t mean that my imaginary Islamist cartoonists, or feminist anti-porn crusaders, are entitled to take up arms and kill people. But it might help to explain where the rage comes from. Nothing is more conducive to rage than being constantly told that you live in an equal, tolerant society, a society in which you suffer no structural oppression, no systematic social disadvantage, no unreasonable constraints on your freedom or irrational prejudice from others, when your entire life experience screams otherwise. And when you know that however reasonably you present your grievances, you will not be listened to by anyone who counts.

Being told we’re not oppressed as women, and being ignored or pilloried when we try to draw attention to injustice, is a common experience for feminists too. It is fortunate for the world that we do generally reject violence as a political strategy, and that we do not belong to the sex which is socialized to see it as a solution to both political and personal problems.

So, although I condemn the actions (and the motives) of the men who killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to glorify the symbolic violence that may be committed in the name of free expression, or under the illusion that it actually exists.

The truth about dogs and cats

It’s been a full-on year here at T&S: we’ve covered obesity, domestic violence, feminism in universities, female serial killers, science, language and more. But there’s one debate we’ve hesitated to tackle: are dogs the new feminist cats?

Media commentary on this issue has been dominated by the liberal argument that companion-animal preferences are a matter of individual choice. For radical feminists, though, the personal is always political. So, as we head towards a new year, we have invited two radical feminists with sharply differing views to explain where they stand on one of the most important–and most divisive–questions facing our movement today. Planet Cath explains why she believes a dog is woman’s best friend, while Finn Mackay makes the case for staying true to our foremothers’ feline traditions. Their feminism will be about pets, or it will be bullshit.

 

Planet Cath: ‘Dogs are the number one companion for feminists’

Traditionally, feminists have been drawn to our feline friends. We believe that cats have all the qualities a feminist needs. They present as independent, aloof yet affectionate when needed. They aren’t needy, or demanding of your time, or wanting more than you can give. I say we’re kidding ourselves. Cats are not a feminist pet. They have no sense of community or sisterhood. They will destroy anything and everything to sharpen their claws, not caring that it’s a much loved piece of furniture. Cats don’t care. They don’t care about other cats, and they don’t care about you.

Feminists need to face the truth. We kid ourselves that our cats love us, wait for us, are happy when we return home from work. Not so. Cats are only interested in food and heat stealing.

In fact, the best pet for a feminist is a dog.

I stand before you a long time cat owner, but recent dog convert.

I have to nail my animal colours to the mast now; it’s all about the dog.

Not that I don’t love my cats. They are each, in their own special way, amusing and entertaining. They have their own personalities and characteristics, and a couple of them aren’t averse to a cuddle. But my Basil? Basil literally jumps into your arms. Just coming back into a room you left ten minutes ago is a joy to him. “Where have you BEEN?” he cries. “I thought you had gone FOREVER!!!”

He runs around in circles, leaping with joy, and then brings you a present. I admit, the presents are not necessarily the best ones I’ve ever had. A well-chewed ball or soft toy, often covered in spit or dirt. However, I will take that over my cats’ last offering, which was a dead rat, insides ripped out and deliberately positioned on the kitchen floor en route to the kettle for the optimum, barefoot-6am-half-asleep effect.

Cats are affectionate, don’t get me wrong. But they are not willing companions. They are independent, often aloof and walk their own path. They are stubborn, difficult to engage and refuse to do anything that might make your life easier.

Whereas dogs love nothing more than pleasing you. They will watch TV with you (literally sit and watch TV), accompany you on walks, listen to your problems with an interested expression, and treat every word you utter as a meaningful statement to be considered and obeyed.

But you know, it’s more than that. For the single lesbian, dog-walking opens up a whole new potential dating world. You can’t walk your cat, but take your dog out to the park, armed with a variety of toys, and watch women flock to you. In just a few weeks, we’ve made friends with Lisa and Rosie, Emma and Alfred, Karen and Jack. We are all on the local park at 7am, staggering around half asleep, clutching flasks of tea and watching our dogs run and play like proud mothers.

There’s no doubt in my mind that dogs are the number one companion for feminists. If you don’t believe me, take a good look at your cat right now. Chances are, they are washing themselves, seemingly ignoring you but actually waiting for you to leave the room so they can help themselves (aka steal) to the milk jug you’ve left out. Basil, on the other hand, is gazing at me with adoring eyes and waiting for the signal that he can come and snuggle up and lick my ear.

Women. You know I’m right.

Finn Mackay: ‘Cats are enlightened spiritual beings’

Let’s face it, we all know the real problem with dogs. Do you have a property without a garden? Don’t live near a park? Do you work a normal job rather than running your own self-employed equalities training and consultancy business from home? Are you required to be out of the house or away for any length of time ever? Do you live in a flat and have a fancy for Huskies and Alsatians? If so, then all well and good; fascinating. A person of your standing will be well aware, then, that the main problem with dogs is their support for the capitalist patriarchal military and state industrial complex.

That’s right. If only Battersea could address this, their kennels would empty in a flash. If you for any second doubt this fundamental flaw, just ask yourself – have you ever seen a police cat? A bomb disposal cat? A drugs sniffer cat? No. Unlike their equine and canine fellows, cats have never sold out. Amongst the liberals, the sell-outs and the ‘just following orders’ types, they stand tall, sometimes even nine to ten inches high from paw to ear.

A cat is the perfect Feminist companion, and will fit right in to any commune, caucus or conference. We are uniquely placed to live with cats and, in turn, they mirror our own behaviours and proclivities, meaning that we can be comfortable around their all-too-familiar habits. Just like Feminists, cats are triggered by almost everything. Bin bags, for example. Hoovers. Car journeys. Vets. Which of us can honestly say she has not felt the same at some point over our life course? Luckily we are familiar with the proactive use of quiet rooms, mindfulness and healing circles, and we share this with cats, who are impressively skilled at being quiet and mindful; we could all learn a thing or two from them. My cat is in fact running a workshop on this over International Women’s Day next year; watch this space for entry requirements and inclusivity statement.

If you are still doubtful as to the merits of cats, it is worth pointing out that it is precisely at this time of year that cats really come into their own. Like us, cats display their distaste for the seasonal consumerist atrocity that is Christmas. If ever you should slip, and be seduced by the globalised nothings on offer in the stores, which can happen when suffering from postmodern anomie, a cat will tear down your Christmas tree for you and shred your presents, thus helpfully reminding you of your principles.

Like Feminists, cats are enlightened spiritual beings. They walk their own path, the path of the heart. This means they don’t need to be taken out for walks on a lead, like the less advanced canine. While they are walking their own walk and delicately tipper-tappering their own path, they will not roll in fox poo or rabbit entrails. This is a major plus.

Cats are certainly clean of habit, and clean of coat. They do not smell of dog. This is very important. Glade plug-ins were invented by dog owners. Cats on the other hand, like the Buddha, are odourless. This means they are ideally placed to fit in with your home rituals, such as Shamanic smudge stick cleansings, and they may even be qualified to lead minor domestic shadow work for example–unless they find shadows triggering or over-stimulating, which some do.

Unlike dogs, but like vaginas, cats are self-cleansing. Very occasionally however, cats may shed some fur. This can be gathered up and used for jumpers, merkins or art installations. In addition, while dogs must always toilet outside, despite most Western homes having the imperialist legacy of indoor plumbing, if need be cats can take care of their own bodily waste via the provision of a small recycled plastic box and some environmentally friendly and tree conscious woodchip. Like a gift, cats offer up to us the experience of managing this waste as a symbolic reminder of own bodily liminality, and challenge us to face Kristeva’s feminist theory of the abject.

Like Feminists, cats are independent, unlike simpering dogs. This means we can respect cats, and that is so important in a companion animal. As we must always eschew all those creatures who continue centuries of oppression by demanding a maternal reaction, it is vital that we turn to a pet we can look up to rather than look after. This is why cats have infamously been the totem of choice for self-respecting lesbian feminists the world over. Sisters, some traditions are worth maintaining, feeding, worming and flea treating. Get a cat, you’re worth it.

 

You can follow @PlanetCath and @Finn_Mackay on Twitter.  Their non-human companions have so far elected not to maintain a social media presence.

New article: We need to talk about process…

Conflict among feminists isn’t new, but in ‘We need to talk about process’ Emma Stonebridge asks if it’s time for a new conversation about it.

From the archive

At T&S we think it’s important to keep making connections between past feminist struggles and those of the present.

This autumn there’s been a lot of media debate on affirmative consent policies on college campuses. They are not an entirely new departure, though: here‘s an interesting article in which former student Bethany Salter remembers the pioneering consent policy adopted at Antioch College in Ohio in 1990, and reflects on the differences between then and now.

Debbie Cameron went to Antioch in 1993 and reported on the policy for T&S: you can read her article in our archive

New article: Minding our language

Once we had ‘isms’, now we have ‘phobias’.  Is this just a trivial terminological detail, or does it have a deeper political significance? In her article, Minding our language, Debbie Cameron considers what’s in a name.

Let Me Stay

Carol Ackroyd reviews Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay, a play that challenges our attitudes to people living with dementia

Let Me Stay is a 50-minute, one-act, one-woman show, performed by playwright Julie McNamara, with two performances recently at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. It is billed as a love letter from Julie to her mother who lives with dementia: ‘………a celebration of life and love; a homage to Shirley McNamara, Queen of the Mersey’.

‘I have watched my Mother drifting away from me’, says Julie. ‘But I have to acknowledge the sorrow is mine. She is quite happy. Quite honestly Shirley’s having the time of her life!’ The play unpicks Julie’s efforts to keep her mum close and continue to know her through her changing persona. My friend Liz A’s description of a ‘poetic response to a much-needed sisterhood of mother-daughter chaos’ sums up the play’s feminist sharing of love and support for her mum conducted through surreal conversations and real-life frustrations.

Julie’s theatre company Vital Xposure aims to ‘engage with hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell from people on the periphery of our communities’. The play has been written using her mother’s words and with involvement from her mum: ‘Thank you everyone – my audience – thank you for coming. I’ve had a very long career. Julie is my lover’s daughter. No, my daughter’s lover. No…yes. Thank you all! I’m a star’.

Director Paulette Randall makes great use of Julie’s ability to transform her character seamlessly from her own, questioning, doubtful or wicked self, into her bossy, cantankerous, boisterous or unsettled mother, the Catholic priest or middle class social worker. She keeps the flow through constant changes of mood and tempo.

Shirley enters the set blowing kisses, issuing personal greetings and ‘thanks for coming’ to random members of the audience. In a restaurant she hugs and greets the other diners, pinching and patting their cheeks to make them feel loved and welcome. At a formal ceremony where Julie is getting an award, Shirley arrives dressed in old gardening clothes and takes on the role of hostess, swiping champagne from the waiters, and explaining to a bemused reporter that she never knew Julie’s father. It’s a beautifully observed, loving and very funny account of how Shirley, living with dementia, has found ways to reinterpret her world and keep herself, as she has always been, centre stage.

Libby Watson’s set reflects the play’s theme. It consists of bare space with chair, part-encircled by white boxes stacked, somewhat haphazardly, to form a screen. Onto this screen is projected a slide show of faded and blurred monochrome images of Shirley’s past. Fragmented by the box-screen, the images appear, trigger a new partially understood thought, and disappear with a click. From time to time, the sign language interpreter appears to be a useful prop and gets briefly drawn in. It is a good metaphor for a mind becoming stripped of meaning and purpose, pulling in new interpretations.

Perhaps this play is in part a response to those ageing feminists whose longstanding preoccupations with patriarchal and corporate power structures sometimes seem at risk of being replaced by fear of personal decline and, in particular, of dementia. Alzheimers seems to represent a particular terror to many of us. Maybe it’s time to reassess these fears, and understand them as a manifestation of our own prejudices. Disabled people have long insisted they don’t want a ramp at the back of the building – they want accessible buildings as the norm. We may have begun to understand these physical or sensory access needs, but as a society we’re a long way from recognising what this means for people with dementia.

Each time we express frustration and impatience with someone in a queue taking time to find the right change, or don’t step in to help someone who’s struggling to manage, we make their lives a bit harder and reinforce and perpetuate their exclusion. Throughout the developed world we do this so effectively that we’ve managed to all but exclude people with dementia, as well as those with learning disabilities, from most public spaces and activities. Generally they are hidden at home with carers, mostly family, mostly women. Whenever they do appear in the outside world, they need an escort, a guard, since the rest of us can’t be trusted to look out for people with impaired cognition.

This play proposes an alternative. When football supporters in the pub join the frenzied chants of the crowd on the overhead TV screen, Shirley hears them chanting ‘Shirleee … Shirleeee ….. Shirleeee’ and turns to thank the pub crowd for her rapturous reception. Julie concludes that if you can’t beat them, she may as well join in the chanting : ‘Shirleee….’. Let Me Stay starts to consider what it means to be the same person when so much has changed and been lost. By finding threads and continuities and constancies of character, and working with these, Julie maintains and develops her relationship with her changing mother. It ends with Julie supporting and coaxing Shirley to sing along with her ‘let me stay, let me stay in your arms’.

The play doesn’t tackle the harshest realities of dementia – either the immense frustration, distress and fury experienced by many people with dementia struggling to understand or manage things that used to be effortless, or the mirror distress of relatives and friends, mainly women, managing a seemingly impossible and never-ending caring role, with minimal or no recognition or support. Nor does it address care services based on minimum wages with no recognition of the skills required to support someone with these impairments to lead a fulfilling life. These are brutal truths about dementia, but not what this play is about. Rather, it concerns our own, societal, attitudes to dementia, and challenges us to understand that our prejudices are just that, and are not inevitable. A world where the crowd is indeed calling ‘Shirlee ….. Shirlee …..’ as an expression of love and support is not impossible. The play is enormous fun, beautifully performed, and it makes you think. If you get the chance, go and see it.

Straight Expectations: extracts from Julie Bindel’s new book

Cover of the book Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel‘From picket line to picket fence’, a quote from the back cover of Julie Bindel’s new book Straight Expectations, is a good indication of the content, style and tone of the book, in which she laments the decline of the gay liberation movement, with all its creative political resistance, in favour of assimilation and complacency. In this book she takes issue with gay marriage, the commercialisation of gay life-styles, and the lack of political solidarity amongst more privileged gays in the UK (those who have experienced a sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality), with gays and lesbians internationally who face ongoing oppression and persecution. We here publish two extracts from the most controversial chapter in her book, Is It Something in the Genes?, in which she argues that gays and lesbians are ‘not born that way’, an argument which will be welcomed by most lesbian feminists, and readers of T&S, for whom the social construction of sexuality has long been a central plank of our politics (see the archive section for numerous articles on this subject, for example: Stevi Jackson Taking Liberties, or Deborah Cameron’s Old Het? ).

Nature or nurture?

The ‘nature versus nurture’ question has been bothering scientists, religious fundamentalists, parents and gay people themselves for over 100 years, with the first scientific study into the issue being published by the experimental psychologist Evelyn Hooker in 1956, and it was indeed her pioneering work that helped to establish the fact that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.

It is still a hotly debated subject. In July 2007 the New Statesman ran two articles on the topic in its ‘Gay Special’. One was by a gay man who had converted himself back to heterosexuality, and the other by a gay man who had spent two decades trying and failing to do the same, both with the ‘help’ of the anti-gay Christian conversion movement. The former argued strongly that being gay is a choice, the latter equally strongly that he was ‘born that way’.

For anyone vaguely liberal, it is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives – that is, the need and desire to uphold the status quo. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice.

The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument is it allows some gay people surviving in a hostile environment not to have to feel responsible for their actions and desires; it can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless.

The flip side of this is that those young men and women growing up in a hostile environment who do not wish to pursue a straight life and feel dissatisfied with their lot are being fed the line that some people are born gay and some straight, and that biology is most certainly destiny when it comes to sexual orientation. The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight.

Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual. However, it’s unlikely that any bigots will be reassured by the fact that some of us insist we are happily and proudly choosing being gay or lesbian over heterosexuality, even if it does mean more potential candidates for conversion therapy for them. Anyway, since when did a proud liberation movement allow its enemies to define the terms of the debate?

I have always believed that pushing nature over nurture plays straight into the hands of anti-gay bigots. By arguing that we are born this way, gay men and lesbians do not represent a challenge to the status quo. A gay gene is, by implication, something that is not really supposed to be present, and so to adopt this theory means that we are accepting that heterosexuality and straight folk are normal and we are outside of that, looking in.

When I argue that for me, being a lesbian is a positive choice rather than something imposed upon me by a quirk of nature, I am roundly criticised and viewed with suspicion. I have been accused of being a fake lesbian, a cold fish and of appropriating the term ‘lesbian’ to further my man-hating, anti-heterosexual agenda.

I made a conscious and happy choice to be a lesbian and reckon that when we have less anti-gay bigotry, more people will be free to do so. But when I use the word ‘choice’, I don’t mean in the same manner that you choose your cereal. Rather, I am suggesting that if we were not under such extreme pressure to be straight, and if we did not fear the inevitable prejudice and bigotry, we might be more open to falling for someone of the same sex.

In November 2012 I gave a speech on this very topic at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, Newcastle, which was later broadcast on Radio 3. It was entitled ‘Not Born That Way’, and I argued that sexuality was a choice and not inherent, and that much of the science claiming to have discovered a gay gene was weak and had proved nothing. Following my speech, which was in front of a live audience, several heterosexual women and men approached me and told me that I had significantly challenged their beliefs – all had, prior to the event, assumed that sexuality was innate and therefore fixed and static. They all said that my arguments made sense to them, and that they had only ever heard anti- gay bigots suggest that gay people ‘choose’ their sexuality.

I abhor the bigoted view that promotes the notion of a cure for being lesbian or gay. My position is that if something is not a sickness or disease, there is no need to find a cure. I came away from the event feeling pleased that I had opened up some people’s minds to the possibility that being lesbian is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality it is good enough for some of us to choose it.

Yet clearly not everyone thinks this way. Why has so much time and effort been invested in discovering a cause for being gay or lesbian? So parents can decide whether to abort? Or is it because the majority of people cannot get to grips with the fact that bigotry and prejudice are the problems that need solving, and we do not need a cure. All the comments us lezzers have endured over the years – such as ‘you don’t you know what you’re missing’ – come from the mistaken belief that batting for the other side is a disadvantage. Actually, a lot of us know precisely what we are missing. That is the point.

 

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How beliefs about sexuality have changed over time

Despite the domination of the ‘born that way’ theory these days, it is interesting to note that it is a relatively recent phenomenon and has only become prevalent in the last couple of decades. In her 1999 book Generations of Women Choosing to Become Lesbian: Questioning the Essentialist Link, Australian academic Lorene Gottschalk interviewed three different generations of lesbians on whether or not they believed in biology. Gottschalk found that those who became lesbians in the 1970s believed they chose their sexuality, but those who became lesbians in the 1990s thought it was biology. More evidence that what we’re talking about is a set of fashionable ideas, rather than something that has a scientific basis.

Certainly, starting in the 1950s to the 1960s and 1970s, social constructionism was fashionable among scientists and academics generally. In 1968, for example, British sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote a wonderful piece entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’, which argued that the idea of the homosexual was constructed to keep the rest of the hetero-patriarchy safe: as long as they separated it out and said it was biological, everybody else was OK.

It seems, therefore, that gay sociologists were questioning the notion of innate sexuality as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And before this time it was fashionable to believe that turning out lesbian or gay was all down to the parents: for men, an emotionally distant father or stifling mother; for women, an under-emotional mother and father, who took her to the pub often due to the absence of a son.

But by the 1980s this began to change and the idea of the gay gene (or, as anti-gays refer to it, ‘gay germ’ – homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection) was born. Work began in earnest the following decade to try to track down the elusive gene. Such research was often perceived as pro-gay because it presented homosexuality as something that could not be freely chosen. However, biological accounts continued to describe gays and lesbians as somehow ill, deficient or imbalanced, and to suggest that heterosexuality was the norm.

The GLF, as evidenced in its 1971 manifesto, spurned the idea of a gay gene. But today we have an almost 180-degree shift in thinking. I asked Peter Tatchell, who was a member of the GLF, his views on the debate.

‘My argument at the time [of the GLF] was: “Let’s not play fast and loose with the truth. Let’s stick to the principle that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. We don’t have to be the same to get equal respect; we shouldn’t have to be the same to get equal respect and equal rights.” In this period there was very little evidence that gave any biological credibility to the coordination of homosexuality. A much more plausible explanation was the Freudian one that everyone is born with bisexual potential and that homosexuality is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality. My view at the time was: “What causes homosexuality or heterosexuality is irrelevant; we are human beings and we deserve human rights.”’

In recent years, however, Tatchell’s views have shifted towards believing in a genetic or biological basis of sexual orientation, as he argues that the science is now more advanced. He believes that there is a ‘genetic component to sexual orientation’ and that there is ‘some significant influence from hormones in the womb’. He continues: ‘I say that as someone in the past who in the absence of this research was very sceptical about the biological factors having anything other than a small marginal influence, but I think over time the evidence has grown. However, I don’t believe it is the whole story, only part of it.’ Indeed, he retains an essential clarity as to the reason why so many people wish to argue in favour of the ‘innate’ argument: ‘I think there was really this kind of desperate sense to make whatever appeal might work. It was all about sympathy and appealing to people’s conscience regardless of the facts or the truth.’

The idea of being born gay has always seemed bonkers to me. I don’t know about you but I was born a baby, not a lesbian. At least, I don’t remember fancying the midwife. But perhaps my holding such strong and contrary views on this topic is partly because of the fact that I was exposed, while still in my teens, to the radical but commonsense position of some feminists on sexual preference – ie that it, like gender, is a social construction.

These feminists, living in the West Yorkshire city of Leeds, subscribed to the theory of political lesbianism that came from the early US feminists such as Jill Johnson and Adrienne Rich. In 1981 small group of them had written the infamous booklet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. It reads: ‘All feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.’

Appealing to their heterosexual sisters to get rid of men ‘from your beds and your heads’, the authors of Love Your Enemy? called for all feminists to embrace lesbianism. ‘We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality,’ the manifesto reads. ‘Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed.’

The message of Love Your Enemy? immediately provoked a strong and often negative reaction. While some radical feminists agreed with the group’s arguments, many went wild at being told they were ‘counter-revolutionaries’, undermining the fight for women’s liberation by sleeping with men.

The publication of Love Your Enemy? was one of the first times that the notion of sexuality as a choice had been publicly raised in the UK women’s movement. Many feminists considered sexuality purely a matter of personal desire, and the idea that lesbianism could be a political decision was perceived as ‘cold-blooded’. Heterosexual women tended to believe that one did not choose sexual orientation or feelings, but was overcome by them.

I learned from the feminists that, to them, lesbianism was a choice that women could make, not a condition we are born with. ‘All women can be lesbians’ was the mantra. I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality. Rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud and see it as a privilege.

 

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Julie Bindel, Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean to be Gay Today? (Guardian Books, London, 2014)

For some current commentary on the book, see:

Review by Rosa Bennathan in Bad Housekeeping Magazine

Review by Alex Hopkins in The Huffington Post

Interview with Julie Bindel by Patrick Strudwick in The Independent:

New article: Time gentlemen please!

In Oxford there’s been a sustained feminist campaign against The Lodge, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ on the edge of the city centre. T&S talked to two of the campaign organizers, Louise Livesey and Beth Penfold, about the successes, the setbacks and the lessons we can learn.

University Challenge

Drawing on the experience of three generations of feminists, Miriam David’s new book Feminism, Gender and Universities reflects on the difference higher education has made to women’s lives, and on the difference feminism has made to higher education. Here she talks to T&S about the past, present and future of feminism in the academy.

T&S: In your introduction you point out that there are lots of histories of feminism and the women’s movement, but not much work looking specifically at the history of feminism in the academy. Why did you feel that was an important story to tell?

Miriam David: I believe that feminism is an educational project as well as a political project, in the broadest sense of ‘educational’. I wanted to show how important learning has been to women, and how transformative in terms of their/our social and sexual relationships. I also wanted to show how feminist knowledge – the basis for feminist activism – has developed apace in higher education, universities especially, and how this has facilitated campaigning and social change.

T&S: You asked the women who participated in your research a number of questions about how they became feminist academics. How did you become a feminist academic yourself?

MD: I first became involved in the women’s movement in London in the late 1960s, after graduating from Leeds University in sociology, and becoming a researcher at various colleges of London University. I had been involved in socialist movements in my teens, and continued until I began to experience political campaigning around issues such as abortion and birth control through the women’s movement. After a year in the USA in the early 1970s, I went to Bristol University as a lecturer in social administration and quickly became involved in the women’s movement there. It was an incredibly active and vibrant time with campaigns for the working women’s charter, including equal educational and employment opportunities, birth control and abortion on demand. We also began to develop courses, but mainly outside university walls rather than for undergraduates. It was one of my first PhD students who convinced me to use the term ‘feminist’ proudly, since hers was a feminist study of birth control in the 1920s and I had to defend her use of the term to an assembled Academic Board. From that moment, I became a feisty feminist academic concerned with policy and politics.

T&S: You divide your research participants into three generational cohorts: women born before 1950, women born between 1950 and 1965, and women born after 1965. What were the similarities and differences among the cohorts?

MD: The first cohort (my cohort), nowadays known as second-wave feminists, tended to be political rather than purely academic, whilst developing feminist scholarship and knowledge. The second cohort tended to develop feminist knowledge and learning through their interaction with other feminist scholars on campus, often at the postgraduate and doctoral stage; the third cohort learned their feminism from undergraduate courses in women’s studies and their social interactions with other feminist academics and colleagues. These are fine distinctions, though, as the vast majority felt passionately about being feminist pedagogues – teachers and learners – and how feminism had transformed their lives.

T&S: In the early years a lot of feminist knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing went on outside universities—you mention institutions like the WEA and Ruskin College, but also specifically feminist initiatives like Women’s University Without Walls and the Bristol Women’s Studies Group which you were involved in yourself. Have these ‘alternative’ spaces become less important because feminism is now part of the academic mainstream?

MD: Yes, to some extent feminism has become incorporated into the conventional structures of academe, and especially as part of a scholarly and research culture. There is much less of a counter and campaigning structure than in the past, but that is also because of the countervailing changes towards neo-liberalism, marketization or commercialisation of universities.

T&S: There’s a perception that academic feminism used to be closer to the concerns of feminist activists in the ‘real world’. Today’s feminist academics are often criticized for being preoccupied with a kind of theory that’s irrelevant and incomprehensible to anyone outside the academy. What do you think about that argument?

MD: It’s both true and not true. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of a more politically aware feminism in academe with projects around everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse, and engaging with feminisms in schools, contesting sexualisation and sexting in an increasingly pornified society, and doing training work with teachers and youth workers around violence against women and children.

T&S: Fifty years ago, only a small minority of people had any access to higher education, and women were a minority of that minority. Today women are an overall majority of students in UK universities, and that statistic is sometimes cited to argue that gender inequality is no longer an issue. In the book you’re very critical of this idea. What problems do you think women face in universities now?

MD: There has been an increase in overt misogyny on campus both directed against students and academic staff. For instance, the culture of ‘laddism’ is pervading campuses and needs to be addressed, given increases in sexual harassment. Secondly, feminist academic staff are subject to sexist and discriminatory practices, as ever, and including in leadership and management. There is a pressing need to change ‘the rules of the numbers game’, directly confronting patriarchy and misogyny in university leadership.

T&S: The idea that equality can be measured just by counting heads is part of a more general trend towards managerialism and target-setting as universities become integrated into the global, neoliberal order. How has this affected the position of feminism in universities?

MD: Adversely, as feminist academics are not routinely included in any ‘metric’ or performance indicators and feminist courses and curricula are subject to early closure. And the ethic of academic freedom seems to have been lost in this melee of figures.

T&S: What do you think feminists in the academy should be fighting for now?

MD: Feminists still need to fight for women’s rights in the academy and the world, for an end to patriarchy and misogyny, and especially violence against women and girls whether symbolic or ‘real’. Having a vision of a feminist-friendly world and feminist places and spaces enables one to imagine a better world: one in which women are treated with the same respect, reverence and inclusion as men.

 

Becoming a feminist, becoming an academic: stories from three generations

Feminism, Gender and Universities draws on the life-histories of more than 100 feminist academics who participated in Miriam David’s research. We’ve picked out some short extracts from the accounts given by three women of the paths they took to feminism and to academic careers.

The first generation: Sandra Acker

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. My parents encouraged all of us to do well in school and go on to higher education and into careers (though we were also to get married). I think my first exposure to feminism per se was reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which I loved. However, I can’t remember when I read it. I think it must have been when I was at graduate school, not undergraduate. The late 60s were such a time of upheaval and feminism came along with student protest and civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests. Students formed CR groups and I belonged to one of them. It was exhilarating …

I think I have approached most of my scholarly pursuits through the lens of feminism – both research and teaching. I also have a feminist way of looking at relationships, family, media, and everyday life. I have never been an activist in the usual sense but have tried to change people’s thinking through my teaching and writing.

The second generation: Heidi Mirza

I went to an all girls’ school in Trinidad, which was quite high achieving in a gendered way. High achieving girls didn’t mean careers for girls, it meant good wives for husbands! The school was started up by my grandmother about thirty years before I had gone there. So there was a tradition of education among the women in the family. My aunts in Trinidad were all teachers – so there were strong female “role models” in my early life – but they lived very traditional lives in a very patriarchal culture. Growing up in Trinidad I was very influenced by the black power movement in the early 70s – I remember seeing Angela Davis on the TV speaking confidently to crowds and raising her hand in a black power salute. I thought she was amazing. We had an attempted coup on the island – black power was an empowering political vision and a crucible for my postcolonial/black feminist thinking.

When we came back to England in 1973 we lived in Brixton and I went to the local school. The racism there was incredible.I was determined to show the teachers and the girls in the school that I was as good as them, if not better. And that’s what really drove me to do quite well in my O and A levels. I do think I was racialized before I was feminized! That came later at university when I got married. It was so important to get a place at university that was funded! I think if it weren’t a free place at university I would never have gone! There was this whole expansion of education in the late 70s, there was a grant system. If I was growing up today I would not have that chance. It was an opportunity that was there for everybody. Higher education was being opened out for the working classes, and for girls as well, and it was seen as a natural progression.

When I graduated … it was very racist times in the UK, with the National Front in its zenith. It was very hard to get a job and on top of that I had a young baby. I had got a first for my dissertation so I sent off to Goldsmiths College sociology department and I got an ESRC quota award in 1981. This amazing opportunity changed my life! My PhD thesis was a small-scale ethnography of young Caribbean girls like myself in a London school. Because of my experience I wanted to write about the interplay between career choices and educational structures. So in a way the thesis was about my own life, it was a process of exploring the practices of racism and exclusion which I saw around me. Young Female and Black became a best-selling book with Routledge. It was a cathartic thing to see it in print. I am amazed it did so well. At the time it was very exciting for me … [but] there was a lot of sexual harassment of young women students by male lecturers in universities … a group of women academics … got together to speak out about their transgressions … but … no one would … risk everything … At least as women we felt some safety in numbers and found common ground and solace with each other. … My life chances shaped my feminism which then spilled over into my academic development.

The third generation: Fin Cullen

I was born in the 70s in Lancashire. The second of four kids, and the only girl…I was first-in- the-family to go to university. I saw university as an escape. I chose one as far as I could from the family home and saved all summer. After leaving home at eighteen, I never returned during holidays, and spent the vacations in the university city working as an office worker, a security guard and an usherette to fund my studies …

I became a feminist probably from the age of ten or eleven. By the age of twelve, I was writing to the editors of the now defunct Shocking Pink magazine asking to contribute. My father [a policeman] intercepted a missive from the radical feminist collective (based in a squat in Brixton) which somewhat thwarted my early dream of feminist journalism. By fifteen I was organizing a debating society at my school, on themes such as “Should page 3 be banned” and by eighteen I had read Valerie Solanas, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and happily introduced myself to a local feminist library … The feminist library and community centre in the large city I moved to was a bit of a shock to me as a small-town teenage feminist. I met women there who described themselves as “political lesbians” and afraid that I might be found out for dating a boy, I promptly had my hair cropped short, wore dungarees and big boots. …I tried to “pass” as gay throughout my first few years at university, fearful that my heterosexual relationship might somewhat destabilise my “authenticity” as a “true” feminist.

Of course, as my feminism developed it became more nuanced. I read more widely and peculiarly, it was my retreat from activism that gave me the space and air to deliberate and explore in a more thoughtful manner a broader range of issues from personal and sexual ethics, societies’ attitudes toward sex and women’s bodies, attitudes towards porn, to women’s position in the labour market… My professional background is very much tied up with the history of identity politics and an interplay between the theoretical, my practice and my activism is entirely possible.

My feminism for the most part has been largely self-sustaining. I grew up knowing few feminists in “real life”. Those I knew were in books, or by the time I reached my teens in the few feminist youth workers, and teachers I came across. My family have at various times been bemused, confused, irked, ashamed, surprised, and amused by my feminism. I think they saw it as a phase – a bit like dyeing your hair pink, when I was in my teens. My mother is of the “second wave” generation, but the women’s movement if it indeed ever indeed reached our town – didn’t seem to have made much of a splash in our circle. I do wonder what might have happened if my mum had attended a CR group rather than a Tupperware party in the lounge of a friend in the mid-70s … I like to imagine a more content life, although I am not sure feminism makes any of us more “content” …

Miriam David’s Feminism, Gender and Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies is published by Ashgate Press in July 2014 (details available here). Thanks to the author and publisher for permission to reprint extracts from the book.