In My Own Words: A Feminist Narrative

In the second of her autobiographical interviews with feminist academics, Carol Taylor talks to Valerie Hey. Currently Professor of Education at the University of Sussex, Valerie is well known for her theoretical and practical commitment to exploring the entanglements of class, gender and feminist politics, and for her subtle analyses of the constitution of subjectivity. Here, Valerie reflects on her career, muses on education in Con-Lib times, and speaks of the enduring importance of feminism.


How did your early research come about or emerge as a topic for you?

The first paper I ever wrote, for an academic output as we now have to say, was called The Woman In The Moon and it was reflecting on my experience on a women’s studies course in Kent. I’ve got this kind of imagination that tries to theorise what I’m doing, it’s like a bodily reflex not even reflexivity, it’s that kind of curiosity.

A bodily curiosity?

Almost. Maybe I’m just a social obsessive, who knows, or self-obsessive, I don’t know, but that’s part of who I was as a baby. I can remember sitting in my pram, observing the world. I’ve always been curious about the circumstances I find myself in. But my research proper began when I undertook my own doctorate, after getting an ESRC scholarship. That was 1982, 1983. I started my PhD out of reading Angela McRobbie’s work on disaffiliation, it might have been in Feminism For Girls: An Adventure Story, where she is musing about the incipient forms of feminism and the kinds of identities it made possible. It was clearly the moment – the 80s were the Foucault moment of identity and the constitution of the self – of trying to move away from reproduction to people having opportunities, in some circumstances, to do things differently. That’s why I was interested in disaffiliation, and why I was interested in girls.

I suspect, rather horribly, it was because I was interested in how come me, got into being a teacher in the first place, I had a professional identity, where that wasn’t the expectation of my family at all. In fact I was encouraged at 14 to think about being a receptionist. God I’d have been one hell of a bad receptionist. These were respectable white working class feminine service jobs and I’d worked against that to become a professional and then I found myself becoming interested in academic study. I was interested in when reproduction ‘broke down’, and I was interested in what girls were up to in schools, what were the dynamics of class and gender reproduction. As a teacher, I was intrigued in what went on on the other side of the desk. One day, they were scribbling, they were writing notes to each other, they were doing illustrations, and I said ‘look, I want to collect in all the stuff you’ve been doing because I think it’s really interesting’. They were intrigued also, and I collected them in and, with their permission, read them back to them. I began talking about the imagination and about how complex learning and being is and how girls were making of their social worlds. The PhD was a fantastic opportunity to push that forward and go back to school but with ‘no responsibilities’, it’s a massive privilege. It’s one I’ve never been able to repeat.

When you say privilege, what do you mean by that?

Well the permission that, if you like, the lowly role as a researcher gives you. It gives you permission to do really quite eccentric things. If you think about it, you are standing in a classroom, you’re not doing anything, and nobody expects you to do anything. There are some uncomfortable things about it. It’s kind of that voyeurism as well. It’s a living laboratory, but one I’m not experimenting on, hopefully, but making sense of.

Were you aware then about the role that gender played within education, within learning and teaching?

Yes, I arrived to do my MA out of becoming a feminist, as part of my professional re- education, because gender wasn’t in my professional training at all. It was part of my engagement with the national association for the teaching of English and that doesn’t sound like a vanguard movement does it, but in there, there were people like Dale Spender, and a very important woman called Margaret Sandra, who changed her surname, who lost her surname actually and there were a whole host of practices, challenging how that organisation was run. It was, like, wow this is interesting, very interesting indeed.

So what are your personal reflections on finding feminism?

I think it was quite frightening in the way that when you’re forced to rethink who you are and why you are who you are, it’s a complete challenge to your ontology, at least I experienced it like that. I think you can’t underestimate the kind of psychological shock that can be … I felt it bodily, having to rethink bodily practices, everything. It was exciting, but it was also challenging and frightening too. But mostly fun, because it’s fun to think politically, about the conditions of your own production, and work hard to hold on to things.

Were there any other key incidents or experiences which shaped you with regard to feminism?

A good question. At the time I was living in this very bucolic, sleepy, deeply feudal city, and this group of women, they were just my real rock you know, and I suppose I became a ‘leader’ of them in some way, partly because I had the most time, I didn’t have children at the time. I had a very close friendship with another woman within the same city, also teaching English and well established in her career, it was like a finding of soul sisters really, because we were from similar class backgrounds. We were also from the same part of the country – the North – and it affects your formation and subjectivity. I find as I have spent most of my life in the south, I feel more northern by the moment.

It’s interesting.

The North for me is laced, it’s imbued, with a radical tradition actually. It’s easy to romanticise that, but I’m from the town that started cooperation, the Cooperative Movement.

Which town is that?

Rochdale (in Lancashire, England). I went to college in Manchester. You know, the Peterloo Massacre, working class traditions, I’m damned if I’m going to deny that they are very much part of one’s history. Now that’s a class trajectory not a feminist one. I began to think about resistant identities and I got really fascinated by the whole history of socialist feminism or socialist history that was written by Sheila Rowbotham, for example, and Bea Campbell and the Marxist, or quasi-Marxist take. So it was a re-vivifying of my own kind of sense of self and place. Then thinking about my own family, I had a grandma I never met, and she was a bit of a trade union organiser and so on and so forth.

So, how have you managed to hold those competing identities together?

I don’t necessarily think I have (laughter). I mean sometimes I, you know, I’m sitting here with this identity as a professor, and I think, how the hell did I do it? How the hell did I get here, and they’re going to kind of find me out! I’d better have a Plan B. I think it’s actually through theorising it and through thinking about it and reading about it and making contact with other women. The discussion of class within feminism itself has been immensely helpful in a way that a discussion about race had been immensely painful for me. Some spaces buffer and restore and repair any damage of the past, in a way that stepping into other spaces … you’ve got be a hell of a lot more robust for and be prepared to find yourself in a very uncomfortable position.

Earlier you used the phrase feminist sisterhood, what is your view on what that was and what’s happened to it?

Well this causes me immense kind of – it causes me a lot of pain, because I think I’m a bloody romantic, (laughter). I did experience a form of sisterhood at a particular time and I did try and constitute that by a political imagination. We are multiple, of course, but there are certain points, certain coherences, where the fact that we are women is enough to bring things upon us. So it’s not that I was a rampant activist, I was pretty blinking average I think in terms of ‘where were you when’, I went to Greenham Common on the day when women ringed the site, and that was fantastic, and you know, I wish I’d done more of it, as I come to my maturity. But for me, whatever it’s shaped by, whether it’s class solidarity or feminist solidarity, I think that if we don’t do some solidarity pretty soon around some projects or a more optimistic future, we’re in for terrible parlous times.

I agree. So, do you think that sisterhood was of a certain moment and isn’t any longer?

I always think it’s a becoming. It brought agency with it, a sense of possibility, power and confidence, and it brought with it, ‘we can do this, you know’. Yes we can, and we did. Not the whole damn shoot for sure, but some things, we achieved things.

Things which became legislation.

Yes exactly.

And became part of what younger women expect.

Yeah, we established a new vocabulary. But one wouldn’t want to overstate that, the gains are fragile, there can be losses, it’s a project, you have to work at it, I mean, beyond the fragments.

So, what’s your view of the different waves of feminism and how can the first or second generation feminists speak to women who are third wave or even want to see themselves as post-feminist?

Oh, that’s a knotty one. I think there’s the tendency to speak down to, you know, from the privilege of experience if you like, cashing in on ‘I was there then’. Also, getting it wrong. Because if it’s a project, it’s got to be won from the cultural, material, psychological and cultural signifiers at the time. I wouldn’t expect young pro- feminist activists, to do things as I did them or we did them, and there was never a fixed, absolute ‘we’ anyway. But the fights have got to be taken up and they’ll be different fights, there’s just something intractable about that. We, and I mean me, can’t tell younger women ‘well you’ve got this wrong’ or ‘you’re reinventing the wheel’. We just simply can’t … the conversation between generations is one of the most important to be had in the light of what’s going on, in terms of the coalition trying to set generations against each other, as a deliberate policy, the new haves and have nots.

Given where we are with the coalition, how do you see the political project of feminism going in relation to that particular articulation of politics?

Well, it needs to be central. Given that the welfare state’s been further hollowed out, and the public sector cut back, and 90% of the jobs are female in the public sector, if feminism isn’t in that space, then gosh knows where it ought to be, but I think that’s a space to win, and I think people are, I’m dismayed at the Labour party, I mean they always disappoint really.

Sometimes more profoundly than others.

Yes I know. It’s as if they’ve lost their courage, like the rest of us you could argue. We’ve lost our courage because it looks there is no alternative. So I think to step into that space, do some post structuralist politics, how difficult that is to do, but I think there’s a space and it’s to be won. So I feel both pessimistic and optimistic by turns. It’s psychologically healthier to think optimistically, although I got told off for that rather naïve optimism.

Can we generate leadership from within the feminist movement?

That’s interesting, because we’re in a bit of a contradiction about that, we don’t kind of do leaders in that way, do we? We’re not a political party. We’re a spirit. The same conundrum confronts people in Tahir Square and Russia. And Iran and Iraq, America or Stop the City. That struck me as a fantastically exciting, entirely contingent thing, absolutely unintended and brilliant. Capitalism is not likely to tumble down, but Stop the City got a lot of positive legitimacy from a much wider constituency which gives it a broad base of support.

Yes, and I think you can relate something like that to SlutWalks?

Oh yes. I read Jessica Ringrose writing about it and, again, this is where I think the tension points of generations gets played out. I thought, ‘oh what are you doing? Slut walks! You’ll be re-inscribed in a particular way’. But that’s too deterministic, I don’t think it’s like that and I was, I might be tempted to go on the next one.

Yes, you’ve got to dress up though.

I’ll probably show my legs off, that’s the best part. I was talking to my daughters about it and it allowed a conversation between different generations, and they could think about it, think about bodies, representation, owning your body. Some of the slogans were absolutely sparkling. I think we’ve got to be sparkling. It’s being, literally being, metaphorically and intellectually, on your feet, on your toes. I think we have to appear and disappearI think on its own it’s not enough, though, and resistance has got to take stronger and more organised forms, but the spontaneous and the symbolic I think do an enormous amount of work.

Can I shift the conversation into a different direction, how would you describe your career?

Well, on the one hand I’ve never experienced myself as hyper ambitious. On the other hand, I look round and I think, this is not accidental. I was fortunate, luck played a part. Paradoxically, the very oppressive conditions of the research exercise framework worked in my favour. My semi-casual life as a contract researcher meant I had quite a lot of time to burnish my publications, which was my portfolio to an established post. Now I’ve been in an established post for about 10 years, I can’t ever imagine again having the time to write the things or the productivity I had then, because you just get incorporated into other kinds of responsibilities, systems of audit and accountabilities that discipline us to become good citizens as it were. I feel fortunate, I cashed in my chips and I think several, similarly positioned women did the same. It continues to be one of the logics that drives the thing. It wasn’t planned [but] I was absolutely determined, passionate, to improve myself, and not to reproduce my mother’s life, which is, as we know, a constant narrative in white working class women’s stories. On the other hand, I don’t ever remember saying, ‘I want to be this by then or this by then’ or ‘I’m going to network here’, or ‘I’m going to quote somebody here’. There wasn’t that kind of calculated, planned, reflective, constructing of a CV and a career trajectory. Absolutely not. Unlike many young people I see or colleagues, they’ve crafted their career, but then that might be just me looking in from the outside, to the inside. And, as the stakes have got higher, I think the planning to achieve them, the strategising about them, has got much more violent … it’s very interesting to think about calculation. Calculation and desire, and the space between them.

How do you see your academic identity fitting into what’s important in the rest of your life?

No-one could stop me writing. To me, being a writer, crafting things and trying to understand and get to grips with things, is always an absolute pleasure. I can see that continuing. But the rest of the stuff, being head of department, institutional life, I could quite happily say goodbye to that. Institutions are run by these regulatory regimes, and academics and old colleagues get trammelled by this, what did Bourdieu say, the logic of necessity? You can get written over and run over by that. I’ve been writing about what’s going to happen under austerity, that vocabulary of putting students at the heart of the system, how it gets played out in interpersonal demands, and students have some grounds for legitimacy if they pay £9,000 on a loan. I think paradoxically, academics are really good at not confronting the realities they’re in. The moment you start engaging with it you’ve got to be psychologically robust, because it’s grisly. I think we’re in for some awkward encounters.

It’s going to be a rocky road.

I think you’re right. We’d be wiser to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, than pretend it’s business as usual. Because it isn’t. I think the elite institutions, they’ll carry on, they will carry on business as usual, it won’t affect them one dot or jot. The only ghost in their machine is this fear that the Office of Fair Access is going to come in and say ‘where are your WP (Widening Participation) students, with their big cloggy boots?’ They don’t want the oiks in.

What are your thoughts on the future of education?

I think it’s going to be a struggle. There are some interesting emergent counter discourses, Stefan Collini with a return to the past, that never was anyway, and John Homewood in defence of the public university. There are voices out there and it’s about bloody time, we’ve been so compliant. I think it behoves us – and I think it’s in part a generational responsibility and it’s more than standing on the picket line – it’s about arguing. We have got a job, and its to develop a public understanding of higher education. We’ve haven’t been good at that at all. People have got to be persuaded this is worth it because, at the moment, I think the argument’s looking the other way, ‘if you want it, pay for it’.

We ought not to be timid.

No, no. And the wittier we can be, the fleeter of foot, the better, we’ve got to be deft. We could begin to practice that.

It’s been fantastic talking to you, Valerie. Thank you.




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