Are female undergraduates aware of feminism, and what do they think of it? Whilst studying at Cambridge, Shaira Kadir was surprised and frustrated at the attitude of her fellow students. Here she shares some of her experiences.
I almost choked last year at a farewell lunch for the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, when a female student sitting close by declared with aplomb that: “feminism is futile.” She argued that patriarchy was entrenched in an immutable society, that British women on the whole did not object to the status quo, that the feminist movement had failed to win the battles it had launched and should effectively hold up the white flag. I then spent the next half an hour refuting the claim that feminism was on its deathbed.
At the inauguration ceremony of the new Master, the dearth of female representation in the higher echelons of academia was visually articulated. Rather disturbingly the paucity of female ‘fellows’ at the college fails to provoke concern amongst many female Trinitarians. This imbalance is also mirrored in the student population, in which women constitute only one third. Trinity began admitting female graduates in 1976 and undergraduates in 1978, but it still essentially remains a bastion of male privilege and power. Male dominance and the perpetuation of an ‘old boys’ club’ atmosphere, are not acknowledged as problematic and in need of eradication by female members. Many actually view the situation in a positive light- it provides a larger pool of men to select a boyfriend from.
Men at Cambridge are awarded more Firsts in their exams than women. There are a number of factors, such as low-self esteem, affecting female achievement. At Trinity, female students in Economics and Maths (traditionally identified as ‘male’ subjects) often have to work in a hostile and highly uncomfortable environment. A friend who studied Economics told me that the men in her supervisions (tutorials) frequently belittled her academic abilities, and became visibly annoyed when her answers were better than theirs. Her confidence level was damaged quite severely, and she believes that this had an adverse affect on her enjoyment of the subject and her examination performance.
Last June, I overheard a relatively large group of male mathematicians voicing their astonishment and lamenting the fact that a number of women had gained First class degrees. The men had been so convinced of their superiority, that they had categorised the female mathematicians and had predicted what each would achieve (a 2:1 at best). When the women proved them wrong, it was a tremor to the foundations of the male dominance, which constituted a source of immense anxiety and jealousy.
A worrying tendency, however, is that many female students feel that there is ‘more to life’ than studying, getting a First, and climbing the career ladder to the highest positions in society. So what exactly constitutes their notion of ‘more to life ‘- partying as much as possible as a student and then settling down to have children?
I’ve observed the behaviour of women towards men at the college bar, and I have been struck by the number of times women ‘play dumb.’ Some of my friends readily appreciate that many men do not like strong-minded, independent women. However in order to find a boyfriend, they deliberately conceal the extent of their intelligence and ambition, so as to prevent weakening the ‘masculinity’ of their potential partner and increase their chances of forming a relationship. Why do such highly intelligent women wish to comply to these socially constructed modes of behaviour and retreat from confrontational sexual politics? Another noteworthy tendency is that they find particularly macho, assertive, and aggressive men appealing. Men who don’t conform to gender stereotypes are deemed not to be ‘real men.’ These women are legitimizing the attitudes of those men who ensure the subordination of women in society.
Female students constantly voice the opinion that it is inevitable that they will have to sacrifice their careers in order to raise children. They recognise that men do not equally share in the responsibility of raising a family, but they are not determined to alter this phenomenon. Some even believe that a feminist stance would be detrimental to the quality of family life, thus echoing the cry of men that feminism is the true contemporary scourge. The notion of the ‘primitive female self’ identified with caring, nurturing, and motherhood has a particular resonance. They espouse the essentialist view that men are less capable of raising children full time. A fellow Classicist, who had secured a lucrative job with a top investment bank, once spoke of the need to work extremely hard for five years, forging some semblance of a career, before quitting to start a family. When I challenged this view, she said that it was very unattractive to be a career-obsessed feminist.
Being a feminist has become somewhat of a dirty word amongst female Trinitarians. The term is associated with ugliness, prudery, man-hating, and lesbianism (it is unfortunate that homophobia creeps in). Some women argue that feminist aims can only be achieved at the expense of a happy and fulfilled personal life. Men at Trinity demonstrate unease and disapproval when feminist ideas are expressed. I have often been mocked when advocating the need for greater female representation in politics or for allowing women to fight on the front-line.
Alongside this trend, female Trinitarians are very often victims of the ‘beauty myth’. I have to confess, that I myself have on occasions fallen into this luring trap. It is clearly manifest at formal college dinners, which serve as small-scale beauty parades. Conversations between female students often revolve around diet plans, hyper-awareness of their bodies, and fears that their physical attributes are not sufficient to attract the desired man (who I’m sure does not undergo such a harsh self-assessment and harbour equivalent anxieties).
One of the most disconcerting aspects of Cambridge University is the Pitt Club – an elite, conservative, all-male society, to which many Trinitarians belong. Members only invite women whom they feel match the ideal of feminine beauty. Some of my acquaintances (including those who have punished their bodies through excessive dieting) spent hours putting together the perfect outfit and doing their make-up in order to enhance their standing in the eyes of Pitt Club members (although they justified their personal adornment with the cry of ‘I’m doing it for myself’). Receiving an invitation (which proved that they had conformed to the criteria established by men to secure their privileged position in society and ensure the subordination of women) gave these women a substantial confidence boost. It is disturbing that these academically gifted women fit so well into socially constructed gender roles, and are oblivious of the real implications in doing so.
I have depicted a grim picture of the predicament of women at Trinity, and it may appear to some that I am blaming them for the ills of patriarchy. However, it would be very wrong to assert that the observations outlined above permeate throughout the female student body. There are a number of strong-willed, highly ambitious women, but there could easily be more if the dynamics of college life were altered. There needs to be significant shifts in the mindset of both male and female students with regards to socially and culturally constructed gender roles. An appreciation of the highly gendered structures which underpin our society, coupled with a recognition that they need to be eradicated, are essential if we are to have equality and progress (all of this is nothing new to feminists).
The prevailing culture at Trinity has killed the potential of many of its female members. The motto above the college crest in the dining hall reads “semper eadem” – “always the same.” I pray that this will not be the case.