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.