Posted on 28 July 2014.
FEMINISM, GENDER & UNIVERSITIES: POLITICS, PASSION & PEDAGOGIES (London: Ashgate 2014)
Miriam E. David
Feminist scholarship, feminist knowledge and feminist pedagogies are all celebrated in this book and I hope to tempt you to read the book and engage with the arguments by offering you some of the examples of how these have developed in higher education over the last 50 years. I make a plea for more careful attention to education and how the processes of knowledge-making influence (and are influenced by) gender and sexual relations and how we need to maintain our vigilance in these times of neo-liberal austerity and campaign for transformations against gender and sexual violence in education and the wider society.
My main aim has been to demonstrate how feminism has become an educational as well as political project and, in particular, the robust and positive impacts that feminism has had on higher education. I also look at the ways in which issues around gender equality in education have come onto the agendas of higher education and wider socio-economic and political systems, and what both the opportunities and obstacles to further gender equality in higher education are. How can we create a feminist-friendly future? How do we transform current business and managerial approaches to higher education and neo-liberal tendencies to ensure that feminist knowledge and feminist pedagogies are a continuing source of transformative potential? What kinds of policy changes do we want to advocate?
Using feminist methods of biography, life stories and narratives, I set out to develop a life history and collective biography of feminist activism in academe. Being totally passionate and committed to feminism, I sought out many social networks in higher education across the generations. So this is a partial study in every sense: partial to feminism and partial in that it is about a small group of pioneering pedagogues in academe. I drew on many networks such as the Bristol Women’s Studies Group (BWSG) in which I was involved in the 1970s, the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA), the Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE), sociology of education, linked through the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and especially the Gender and Education Association (GEA) in which I had been involved since its beginnings. I also reached out to international feminist educators and talked to over 100 activist academics in humanities and social sciences, illustrative of the changing forms of global academe in changing socio-economic contexts.
I identified three generations or cohorts of feminists to reveal what a life-changing experience feminism has been and how important education, especially higher education, has been to this. While the three generations have different biographies, in that increasing numbers are ‘first-in-the-family’ (and not only from the working classes) to go to university, all talk with passion about how feminism transformed their lives in both in the family and through university. Through careful attention to the ways feminism has transformed academic feminists’ lives, across three generations of women entering higher education, the importance of creating feminist scholarship and developing feminist knowledge is illustrated. Not all agree that they are ‘second-wave feminists’, nevertheless all feel that they are part of a ‘new wave’, whether wave refers to air, hair, or sea. I discuss critiques of the wave analogy.
Most of the oldest cohort, women born before or in the shadows of the Second World War tended to sign up more to being second wave when ‘the second wave broke on the shores of academe’, to use Lorna Marsden’s lovely phrase; whilst the second cohort (those born in the 1950s and early 60s) were part of ‘the ripple effects of second wave moving into academe’ and saw themselves as ‘riding the waves’; the third cohort (those born from 1965 up to 1980) were ‘on the crest of the wave of academic feminism’ with all the contradictions of being in the neo-liberal global academy today.
Examples of how feminism is central to these feminist activists’ identity include:
- ‘It changed my life’
- ‘Feminism has been my life project’
- ‘My entire life has been shaped by feminism…at university…it was the beginning of the women’s movement…we women were a small minority’…
- As a scholar I write from a feminist perspective…
- I began to self-identify as a feminist when I was a graduate student in 1970…Feminism is woven through every fibre of my being…My family were not impressed…
There are differences across the generations in the personal and political influences on becoming feminists. An example from the first cohort is that feminism came after being a student and was initially about political action rather than university influences:
‘I went to university in London …in the late 1960s…I became a feminist when I went to do an MA at Louisiana State University from 1969 to 1971. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and immediately joined the National Organisation of Women (NOW) and consciousness-raising and campaign groups…I still am a feminist but think that things have got more rather than less difficult in academe…’
Women in the second cohort tended to struggle with feminism as part of their intellectual identity and through being in the academy:
‘Feminism has been absolutely central to my life. It allowed me to gradually gain a perspective on Catholicism that eventually allowed me to leave the established church. For a long time I felt that the intellectual, theological knowledge was battling with my intellectual feminism. I would say that through the twists and turns of my life the one intellectual endeavour that I have never doubted is my feminism. I passionately believe in a person’s right to equality and especially to have freedom over their bodies. I would say that I still teach from a feminist perspective…and it informs my personal life profoundly…’
Women in the third cohort tended to learn their feminism as undergraduates and developed this through good inclusive pedagogical experiences. This is the case for both mature students and for those women attending elite universities at the traditional age for undergraduates:
‘I became a feminist during university (as a mature student at Middlesex after an Access to HE course) mainly through my own reading…good experiences taught me about inclusive pedagogies. Feminism has been crucial to my learning – indirectly and explicitly-eg when I was in a women’s aid refuge I first explicitly encountered feminism and this was a life saver in terms of understanding and making sense of my traumatic experiences of domestic violence-and also learning about my rights and my position as a woman- this was strengthened at university when I started to read feminist theories for my coursework-theory has been more directly influential to me than activism…’
And contrast with:
‘I became a feminist at university. I went to an all girls’ school and moved to a mixed environment at Cambridge. In my college I was the only girl of the 14 doing Maths in my year. Some other students and tutors had sexist attitudes. I guess this is what provoked the move…the influence has been huge-most obviously in my work but also in how I dress, what I eat, my friendships…I do not do much feminist activism…more urgent is peace but feminism in daily life eg teaching…women’s studies came gradually…’
Altogether, feminism has enabled them to become the passionate teachers in global academe, and continues to help them to struggle against the changing and constraining conditions of the neoliberal academy. Feminism helps to resist the more overt misogyny that now pervades global academe, despite changes toward gender equality in numbers of undergraduate students. I discuss how feminists’ struggles achieved gender equality in education on the international public policy agenda but how the notion of gender equity has now been incorporated into neo-liberalism and managerialism and lost its critical and radical edge.
Gender equality in higher education amongst undergraduate students has become a numbers game and ‘metrics mask misogyny’. Gender equality amongst academics globally as well as nationally remains a chimera, as the EU’s nicely named She Figures illustrate. We need to transform ‘the rules of the game’ in higher education to move beyond continuing masculine domination of leadership and management in global higher education. We also need to transform education more generally to raise more respectful and inclusive men and women and combat increasing sexual and gender violence: the so-called lad culture of higher education today. Raising questions about what the implications for a feminist-friendly future the changes in the socio-political and economic contexts have been, I argue for policy and practice changes in universities and wider systems of schooling today.