University students are used to applying feminist theory in their academic work, but this fails to transfer out of the classroom, reports Lizzie Dearden
I realised I was a feminist when I was studying AS level sociology. Suddenly, feelings I’d had about the world for years were staring back at me from a textbook page titled ‘Liberal feminism’ (and some under ‘radical feminism’ too). But I was shocked. ‘Feminist’ was a word that was never uttered in my household, that conjured up dim visions of separatist communes and bra-burning mobs. To have everything I knew about the term blown apart, and to realise that it defined me in the same instant, came as quite a shock.
The rest of the class seemed unimpressed. Boys cracked jokes, girls sat unmoved. Only my teacher showed enthusiasm and understanding towards the theorists we were studying. From that point forward, I decided that academia was the haven where I could explore and express my views, and I looked forward to my approaching time at university as a utopia of like-mindedness and support.
Disappointment struck early. In my first English literature lecture, the professor unexpectedly commanded “stand up if you’re a feminist!” About three people, including myself, leaped to their feet. A handful followed more tentatively in the subsequent pause. We remained standing as the lecturer began challenging the room on feminist issues. “Stand up if you agree with the right to birth control…stand up if you support same-sex marriage…stand up if you believe abortion can be justified…” In the end, everyone in the packed lecture theatre was on their feet. This taught me my first lesson about feminism at university. Students may agree with it, but they might not know it and they probably won’t admit it.
In English literature, the use of feminist criticism and arguments is widespread. Entire modules are devoted to women’s writing and gender studies, and many students are comfortable using feminist analysis in essays and, at a stretch, seminars. But for the majority of students I know with feminist sympathies, their views are confined to the academic field. The weight of misunderstanding, prejudice, and stereotyping behind the term ‘feminism’ itself, is maintained, even in one of the most liberal and free-thinking of environments. Feminism at my university, as a political and cultural movement, rather than academic concept, does not exist.
The one feminist presence on campus is the student union’s women’s committee. I have recently discovered its role and many good initiatives, but I was unaware of its existence until the pre-election hustings, when two male candidates running for the position of women’s officers (chairs of the committee) took the stage.
The two second year students had achieved the necessary recommendations to officially run for the post and were treated as genuine contenders. But when they appeared alongside their opposing candidates and were questioned by the audience, they unleashed a barrage of anti-feminist satire and misogyny.
They claimed that “some people are more equal than others”, that they didn’t see the aforementioned “epidemic of unfairness” and went on to outline policies including “death to men”, banning all fat women on campus, displaying attractive women on plasma screen televisions and improving women’s prospects as housewives.
They were promptly booed by the audience and banned by the student’s union from any further campaigning. They did, however, still run in the election and receive a significant number of votes. Thankfully, they still lost to genuine candidates. Despite the student union’s action, retribution from the student population at large was sparse. Most people I talked to about the event repeated the boys’ maxim that anyone complaining had ‘no sense of humour’. Many students failed to understand the implications of the so-called joke, partly in the view that the position of women’s officer was unnecessary anyway. But as the successful candidates pointed out, the incident only served to demonstrate how much the position is needed.
Admirably, the winning candidates spent the rest of the academic year raising publicity, improving awareness of safety issues and creating a more visible and inclusive committee. The women’s committee will be advertised at the next fresher’s fair by posters adorned with a medley of faces under the title “this is what a feminist looks like”. But will this be enough to break down the boundaries which are so deeply entrenched? Will seeing the aesthetic range of feminists make young people willing to self-identify? I don’t know. It’s a step to breaking down boundaries, but I’m afraid that it could be too late.
My generation has grown up with the legal and formal equality that feminism helped to achieve. It is too easy to take our apparent equality for granted and to view feminism as outdated or irrelevant. Many students I have spoken to, even those who have studied the movement, believe that feminism’s aims have been achieved and that current activists are therefore either radical or without cause.
People arrive at university with most opinions pre-formed and, regardless of their background, will have been exposed to feminist stereotypes from an early age. The constant stream of negativity and sensationalism from tabloids and the right-wing press is inescapable. And this combined with the lack of coverage of feminist activism and events, such as International Women’s Day, makes a positive and accurate portrayal of the movement very hard to find. For most students, the negativity of the mainstream media is tempered by increased knowledge of the history of the movement. But this does not create feminism or even post-feminism. In my experience, university is an environment of non-feminism. No interest, no understanding, no identification.
I have found the truest gauge of opinion to be people’s response when I tell them I’m a feminist. Usually, the admission is greeted with a shocked and vaguely disconcerted ‘Oh!’ But in some instances I have been taunted, cross-examined on the validity of my views, exposed to anti-feminist tirades and several people have simply laughed in my face. On these occasions, I find myself wondering if we are moving towards equality or slipping further from it. The students of today will characterise the society of the future. And if this prejudice against feminism, or even just the reluctance to show support for it is maintained, what hope do we have of progress?
With students, as with all sectors of society, the problem still lies in the perception of feminism. Few young people are willing to identify with such a loaded term. Many of my friends have said that if ‘feminism’ was replaced with a different word that centred on equality rather than female equality, they would be happier to identify with it.
But naming disputes aside, it is clear that boundaries need to be broken down. Initiatives like the women’s committee’s “this is what a feminist looks like” posters are a step to changing stereotypical perceptions, but feminist organisations also need to reach out to the student community to create awareness of current movements and encourage participation. At the moment, the feminist media is attracting a self-selecting audience. If young people were attracted into the readership, knowledge of contemporary issues and campaigns would increase. And perhaps feminism at university could move beyond its academic uses into a cultural and political force.