|Feminism: theoretical framework and social movement
Gaby Weiner, Sussex University1 (slide 1)
This presentation focuses on the field of gender and education and its development over the last two decades. It has become a strong academic field, theoretically and empirically but, in doing so, has moved away from sustained interest in how schools and education practitioners might actively challenge and minimise gender inequality. My presentation highlights a number of issues: first, the success of academic feminists in penetrating Academia; second, the emergence and changing nature of the field that has come to be known as gender and education; third, the gap that has grown between feminists working in the university sector and school teachers and other education practitioners; and fourth, and perhaps most important, the disparities that continue to exist between men and women, in the UK and worldwide in an era when neoliberalism predominates. The question I want to pose is: to what extent is 21st century Academia compatible with political activism?
[Slide 2: Timeline of feminism]
I became an academic in an era before the onset of neo-liberalism. My work originated in the ideologies of 2nd wave feminism and my academic career (as was) grew out of feminist politics and the exhilarating social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. I drew on theory, it is true, much of which I found exciting and illuminating. But my values and practices were based on a wish more to change the world than to explain it. This presentation expresses my concern about the growing gap between feminist academic scholarship and feminist practice. I want to explore to what extent 21st century Academia iscompatible with political activism.
[Slide 3: Questions]
The presentation draws on a number of issues: first, the success of academic feminists in penetrating academia; second, the emergence and changing nature of the field that has come to be known as gender and education; third, the gap that has grown between feminists working in the university sector and school teachers and other education practitioners; and fourth, and perhaps most important, the disparities that continue to exist between men and women, in the UK and worldwide in an era when neoliberalism predominates; and therefore the continuing need for a politics of gender.
I want to discuss whether the interests, passions and choreographies that feminist academics have developed in order to climb the greasy pole of Academia in a period of neo-liberalism and corporatism, are productive or counter-productive to gender and education as a field and to practitioners and the children they teach and care for. Put another way, have feminist academics lost sight of their aspiration to challenge and reduce inequalities between men and women within and outside education – or has neoliberalism done that for them? The author of a recent popular book on feminism thinks so. Caitlin Moran says that academic feminism has ground to a halt, and is of little help to newer generations of girls as they struggle to become women:
[Slide 4: Has academic feminism failed]
Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions....but found that what had once been the one most exciting, incendiary and effective revolution of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read (Moran, 2011, 12).2
[Slide 5: Moran and Penny]
Moran argues that feminism is too important to become the exclusive concern of academics. She castigates academic feminism for concentrating only on ‘heavy’ issues (e.g. pay inequality, domestic abuse) – not to say that they are unimportant but more that feminism also needs to engage with the everyday life of ordinary women and their concerns and worries.
Laurie Penny (2014) similarly argues that the feminism of the past is out-dated in dealing with the issues of a new generation. Like others of her generation she question previous feminisms that concentrated on what she sees as predominantly middle-class white women’s interests and its sometimes hectoring manner.
[Slide 6: New feminism]
Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking question, and carrying on answering them even when the questions get uncomfortable.
For example. A question about whether men and women should be paid equally for equal work leads to another about what equal work really means when most domestic and caring jobs are still done by women for free, often on top of full-time employment. The answers to that lead to a whole new set of questions about what work should be paid, and what is simply a part of love and duty, and then you start questioning the nature of love itself, and that’s when it really starts to get uncomfortable (Penny, 2014, 16-17)3
Drawing on her own autobiographical material, Penny reflects on adolescence, mental illness, the internet and social networking, the Occupy Movement, love, work and so on. She encompasses all kinds of people in her discussion: lesbian, gay, bi-, trans, hetero, black, brown, white, under-, working- and middle-classes and so on, though he made target of contempt is neo-liberalism which, she argues, reduces everything (human interaction, love and lust, personal choice) to ‘the logic of business and money’ (2). Its impact on women has been particularly toxic.
Neoliberalism, while extolling the ‘career’ woman, reviles poor women, women of colour, sex workers and single mothers as hopeless dependants, sluts and thieves. That’s why the ‘career woman’ is a neoliberal hero: she triumphs on the market’s own terms without overturning any hierarchies (p3)
Moran and Penny are journalists rather than academics and I deliberately highlight their work because of its passionate polemic. Their critiques are nonetheless valid: do feminist academics have the desire or the energy to make the difference that makes the difference? The world has changed since I went into academia. This was a time when the experiences of teacher practitioners were valued in academic discussions and explorations of education and there was a general consensus around values such as social democracy and social inclusion – even if sometimes practice did not match ideology. Now, the neoliberalism and corporatisation of universities and academic life prioritises different sets of values around privatisation (rather than public good), around league tables and competition, creating star researchers as well as teaching dogs-bodies.
[Slide 7: Argument]
Feminist academics working in education
As already mentioned feminist and gender researchers in education have been successful in scaling the walls of academia, and in getting gender recognised as of serious concern to educational research. Gender has become accepted over the years as a valid topic for research (rather than as a joke as in the 1970s) and it is to the credit of serious and brave feminist scholars that this has been achieved. Once thought of as a risky and low status career option, ‘coming out’ as a feminist in university education departments is now no longer a handicap in terms of career progress, as can be seen by the number of academic feminists rising to the position of professor and beyond. Gender is also popular as a subject with authors and publishers alike. Following the example of the feminist publication imprint Virago in the 1980s which successfully published feminist literature often long out of print, publishers have found that gender sells.
Researching gender in education has come to offer a potentially productive career and publications pathway, at least for those whose language and cultural milieu is western-oriented and English-speaking (Öhrn and Weiner, 2009). However as I shall show, in seeking credibility as serious academics, feminists have not been able to sustain their original challenge to the education status quo and their responsibility for engaging in the struggle for equality. Bell hooks, the noted American-African feminist scholar sees revolutionary feminist potential in universities, particularly in Women Studies which has been the main forum for development and dissemination of feminist thought, but likewise notes that feminist activism has become secondary to the ‘goals of academic careerism’(hooks, 1989)4
The changing field of gender and education
[Slide 8: Journal and Dean book]
The field of gender and education has been remarkably successful in its short period of existence. Following a number of individuals, small projects and supportive local authorities in the UK, all of whom threw their lot in with gender change (in schools mainly but also in higher education) at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, the field found legitimisation in the establishment of an academic journal Gender and Education in the late 1980s. Since then interest in gender and education has grown and the field presently: ‘owns’ what has now become a high-ranked international journal, runs a well-attended biannual international conference as well as sponsoring regional conferences and seminars, and has instituted an academic society of the same name.5 In 2011, there were more members of the Gender and Education Association than ever before, and for the first time, non-UK members outstripped members from the UK. However, it seems that the field, originally created to expose and eradicate bias, has missed the opportunity to forge a discipline that embraces practitioners as well as academics, practice as well as theory. For example, rather than challenge the conventions of academic writing and publication to make the field more permeable and inclusive, feminist referees and gatekeepers have (in my experience) been among the harshest of disciplinarians in terms of their comments on, and reviews of, the work of would-be entrants to the field. This is justified on the basis of a new discipline which needs to achieve acceptance; however this position offers a contrast to others such as action researchers (also representing a new sub-discipline of education) who have been braver and more sustained in their challenge to elitist academic conventions.6
The field’s lack of support for its earlier values was evident from a small survey I conducted a few years ago, of the content of articles published in the Gender and Education Journal between 1980 and 2007. The survey was useful, I argued, because the content of the journal was indicative of the development of the field since it was generally the first choice of gender researchers working in education, in the UK and in other countries.
The growing popularity and maturity of the field could be seen in the increased number of articles and issues over the period. Other trends include greater emphasis on theory and abstraction over the years, less attention given to policy/practice and practitioner viewpoints (missing altogether from some later issues) and a preoccupation with issues of Western feminism rather than of other parts of the world. The journal’s inclusion in the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) gave the field added academic status, but has also made practitioner and less theoretical viewpoints yet more difficult to include.
More recently, the journal has become more ‘international’ and more conscious of the dangers of Anglo-centrism.7 My survey and other publications on gender and education over the years have confirmed my perception, also from doctoral these and new career researchers, that the field has become increasingly dominated by theory, often drawing heavily from outside education, in particular from sociology, cultural studies and other social sciences. Indeed, doctoral students with an interest in gender have appeared to have little option but to throw in their lot with the latest intellectual icon. Of concern to me has been that gender researchers who were previously school teachers or the like, gradually move away from their earlier interest in researching and changing practice in favour of what I have termed, an addiction to theory. Over the years, theorists have come and gone - a seemingly endless roll of French sociologists and cultural theorists with a few American feminist philosophers thrown in. Where can we see the feminist curriculum specialists or the serious feminist pedagogues? Why haven’t they attracted similar kinds of reverence? It was always thus, you might say. Educational scholars have rarely been up among the greats. But my response is that I had greater hopes for education feminism.
Rift between academics and practitioners
I have also witnessed a growing gap between feminist academics and school teachers and other practitioners, in particular in the English-speaking world. I provide an example from personal experience. A couple of years ago I was invited to a government-sponsored seminar on gender, to give a lecture and to spend some time with teachers who had already carried out or were interested in carrying out research on gender. Having been away in Sweden and then in Scotland for over a decade and after years spent in higher education, I welcomed the chance of re-engaging with teachers and looked forward to hearing how the greater awareness of gender issues for which I had fought in the 1980s and 1990s was being interpreted and carried forward by today’s teachers. The website blurb about the seminar seemed neutral enough, although emphasis on ‘under/performance’ and ‘improving learning’ might have alerted me to what was to come.
My contribution on the day was to present a literature review that I had undertaken for the European Commission (EU) on the state of gender and education across Europe (Weiner, 2010). Assuming I was talking to a relatively informed audience, I provided a critique of the EU’s increasing focus on boys’ underachievement and the relative ineffectiveness of cross-national surveys such as PISA in identifying causal factors for gender differences. I also emphasized as have many other gender researchers in recent years, the interweaving (intersectionality) of different social factors that impact on gender in schooling and wider society and the relative complexity of the relationship between curriculum, pedagogy, schooling, families, labour market and so on. The message was that there were no simple solutions.
The participants at the conference were far too polite to tell me what they really thought about my input, but in the small group discussions that followed I found little interest in what was going on in the rest of Europe or indeed in any of the issues that I raised in my talk. Attention instead was concentrated on how teachers could improve the examination results of their underachieving pupils, particularly boys; indeed it seemed that the teachers’ futures and that of their schools depended on it. While these were clearly committed, well-meaning and professionally-engaged individuals, their interest in gender was narrowly focused and their knowledge of gender issues such as the significance of gender gaps, theories which explain such differences, previous research etc. was minimal. Stereotypes abounded in the discussion about the whys and wherefores of gender differences, and assertions were made about the intrinsic nature of girls and boys that made my hair stand on end. It was as if I was stepping back 30 years.
How was it, I pondered, that the huge efforts made by education feminists of previous decades had all but disappeared? I was aware that gender research was flourishing in university education departments, and being published and highly ranked; but the important link between feminist work in universities and those working in schools seemed to have been lost.
Certainly, the increased pressure to do research, intensification of work demands of the corporate university and the narrow interpretation of gender taken by governments and policy-makers have not helped. Gender policy across Europe is increasingly equated with statistical analyses of differences in patterns of boys’ and girls’ under/achievement (e.g. DCSF 2007) and interpretations which ignore school gender processes and the lived experiences of children, schools and families (GEA, 2009). Popular critiques of government policy on gender have been few and far between. An exception has been the Gender and Education Association (GEA) which has sought to provide a platform for critique through its website and responses to government policy.
Disparities between girls and boys, men and women
A problem for education feminists in Western countries has been their initial arguments for focusing on gender which concentrated primarily on girls’ poor representation and achievement in public examinations, and the consequent impact on university and career prospects. It is these sorts of arguments which Moran and Penny have criticise: gender difference expressed as a yo-yo; if one side goes up, the other must come down. It is a pointless exercise.
Although other arguments were used concerning what was termed the ‘hidden curriculum’, i.e. the socialisation aspects of schooling that underpin stereotyping, and the range of masculinities and femininities available to young people, the main thrust was on examination difference. Thus many, including governments, now perceive education feminism as only to do with improving girls’ access to, and success in, examinations. So, given that girls in many countries are outperforming boys in many subject areas, the main goal of education feminism is seen to have been achieved. Indeed, the perception of boys’ relative exam failure has turned the original argument on its head so that now it is boys who are seen as the oppressed sex, and the main concern of the gender and education field. This interpretation, as Moran, Penny and others have shown, is simplistic in its failure to address, for example, the relationship between schooling, the professions and the labour market or the intersectional complexity of gender, social class, ethnicity and sexuality.
Other arguments continue to be made: that girls still lag behind boys in many parts of the world, or are excluded from education entirely; that educational achievement is more than just about examination success or failure; that schools initiate girls and boys into socially acceptable but also highly differentiated forms of masculinity and femininity, that schools are sites for girls’ earlier and heightened sexuality, and so on. But these are not the arguments that are being heard or listened to.
Meanwhile disparities between men and women continue. For example, even in a so-called advanced country such as UK, men outnumber women four to one in Parliament, earn on average 16.4% less than men in fulltime work, constitute 64% workers categorised as low paid, and are only 10% women of directors of top FTSE 100 companies. 45% women experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking at some time in their lives, and so on (Fawcett Society, 2010)8 - ‘yo-yo’ terminology yet again
But despite evidence of continued inequality, academic feminism does not seem to feel able to (publically) to take the high moral ground or provide a justification for action. Enthusiasm for and debates about, feminist and political action now come from elsewhere, in the UK at least: from, commentators and journalists (such as Caitlin Moran, Laurie Penny, Julie Bindel, Tanya Gold and Suzanne Moore) researchers of feminist activism (such as Jonathan Dean), as well as from new forms of grassroots activism such as SlutWalks, ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches, feminist workshops and summer school, and social networking initiatives such as Everyday Sexism.
The new calls to feminism offer different perspectives. For example, the feminism that Caitlin Moran advocates is ‘shouty’ and strident. A newspaper columnist and sometime TV and music critic, Moran uses her own experiences - of being fat as an adolescent, of masturbation, of developing breasts, of having her first period, of suffering sexual rejection and falling in love, of being married, having children and having an abortion – experiences that most of us have had but have rarely admit to in print. All this provides the context for what she admits is a ‘rant’ about the need for young women (and men) to become strident feminists.
For Caitlin Moran, feminism is ‘serious, momentous and urgent’ but also thrilling and fun. For her, today’s feminism should include the popular substance of women’s lives such as pornography, Lady Gaga, the OK magazine, £600 handbags, hen nights and big weddings as well as the serious ‘big stuff’ of pay inequality, female circumcision and domestic abuse. Drawing on Germaine Greer, Moran demands zero tolerance of what she terms ‘patriarchal bullshit’ but advocates humour and ridicule as a means of challenge. Feminism is re-defined by Moran as the ability to act individually and to take on the world. It is portrayed as attractive and empowering, fun and exciting, dare-devil and dangerous. It is no wonder that her recent book is walking off the shelves.
Laurie Penny’s book is more seriously political, emerging from the Occupy moment in political activism. Her feminism derives from a more or less Marxist analysis of neoliberalism and what it does to human relations. She writes that ‘neoliberal patriarchy gives us choice, but not freedom’ (243). Her response is to reject participation in the old ‘fucked-up’ ways. She sees feminism as one of a number of tools to build a better world ‘in the wreck of the old one’. ‘Revolution begins’, she says, ‘in the human imagination’.
There is a power in societies of broken kids growing up to change the world, and when it comes down to it we are all broken kids, fucked up girls and lost boys just waiting to be found. We find each other in unwatched spaces, the secret places, for as long as they last.(241)
A more scholarly re-presentation is that of a male feminist researcher, Jonathan Dean whose recent book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics explores groups and events that characterise feminist politics in the UK in the first decade of the twenty-first century9.
[Slides 9-11: Fawcett, Women’s Aid, F-Word]
He reports on three organisations, the Fawcett Society, a feminist campaigning organisation (liberal suffragist in origin, well-organised and well-funded; Women’s Aid, a single-issue activist and campaigning organisation on domestic violence (roots in second-wave feminism, autonomous, well-organised and relatively well-funded); and The F-Word - an Internet feminist magazine established in 2003 (third-wave feminist, open-ended, specifically for young feminists). Each of these organisations is seen by Dean as having elements of respectability/managerialism/individualism on the one hand and ‘radicalisation’ on the other.
Dean makes the argument that UK feminism has maintained a ‘vibrancy’ and radicalism but has been undermined by discourses of pessimism and disappointment of left-leaning theorists - what he terms ‘left melancholia’. He shows that the three organisations’ pathways to feminism have been different. For example, after a long twentieth-century history of fighting for women’s equality in the workplace and civil society, Fawcett underwent a rebranding in 2005 to embrace third wave feminist issues and to take in the activism and discontent emerging from feminists ‘at the moment’ (p88). Women’s Aid has over the years consolidated its position as the campaigning organisation on violence against women in the UK at the same time as renewing its radical agenda by constantly evoking a rediscovery of domestic violence as a feminist issue. The F-Word encourages ‘a new sense of continuity among UK feminists’ (p130), especially among younger feminists, and to foster a new updated version of feminism, different from previous generations. Dean concludes that there has been no death of feminism but rather, an increased feminist vitality and a renewal of radicalism.
[Slide 12: Amnesty]
So, if feminism is alive and well in the UK, what can we say about activism? Is it possible, given the work pressures on academics today and the neo-liberal shift in education policy? A good example is Amnesty International which has campaigned for human rights with much success for more than 50 years. Launched in 1961, it sought to challenge human rights abuses, coined new terms such as ‘prisoners of conscience’ and introduced symbols such as the candle (proverb: ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’) which caught the public imagination. It supported high profile prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and inaugurated postcard writing campaigns for lesser known detainees. It led campaigns against capital punishment, abolition of torture and women’s domestic abuse. It used popular comedians and well-known faces to support its cause through events such as the Secret Policeman’s Ball, Live Aid and Comic Relief. It showed that activism is possible on a large and sustained scale, and what can be done. 10
[Slides 13-15: Feminist Actions]
Other achievements more recently include the Slut Walk movement which spread quickly round the world earlier in 2011 triggered off by a Canadian policeman who told law students that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to become victimised’ . Tanya Gold (2011, 711) described Slut Walk as ‘a scream of dirty, unfeminine rage ripping through conventional gender stereotypes’. The Everyday Sexism Project was established to draw attention to incidents of gender prejudice and discrimination in a society where it is generally believed that women have attained equality with me. Laura Barton, its originator, aims to provide a place where stories of sexism faced on a daily basis, by ordinary women, in ordinary places, can be told.
The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest. Say as much or as little as you like, use your real name or a pseudonym – it’s up to you. By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and it is a valid problem to discuss.12
There is also a reported ‘massive appetite’ for feminist courses and summer schools which suggest young women’s discontent and a perception that ‘feminism is an unfinished revolution’ (Davies, 2011)13, and a renewed interest in feminism as a movement.
Towards revolutionary feminism
So far, I have put forward the arguments for feminist activism and provided some feminist and non-feminist examples of activism. What might we do as education feminists that is exciting, compelling and urgent and which reduces the gap between university theorising and school practices? Well, first of all, we need to re-connect and to catch the zeitgeist, the feeling of the moment: workshops, websites, networks perhaps.
[Slide 16: GEA]
Making gender knowledge available and accessible on the web in the form of, e.g. summaries of research, definitions, references, web links and topics, together with regular posts uploaded to its website on popular gender issues of the day is the role that the Gender and Education Association (GEA) has taken on14. But we need to do more than just write posts or strive to do well as gender researchers or rest on our laurels as successful academics.
[Slide 17: Questions 2]
Specific questions about change may help us, based on our greater understanding of how gender is played out in terms of power, relations, representation, identity and so on: including:
Is there such a thing as feminist praxis or pedagogy?
What role has (feminist) research in feminist action?
Which (feminist) theories best aid transformations of practice and action?
To what extent can (feminist) leadership models be effective and/or transformative?
How can networking and social media be best utilised in the interests of feminist activism?
We need to see teachers less as research subjects or dollar/pound signs as purchasers of courses, and more as collaborators and professional equivalents, albeit working in a different educational sector. We also have to put much more effort into learning about feminist activism, what works and what doesn’t, and develop theories around feminist action. We need finally to unlearn our hard-won sobriety and respectability, and strive to be revolutionary once more.
So, is this just a blast from the past, a polemic from someone who is resistant to change, out of date, boring, or all of these? Is this just one more sign of 2nd wave feminism’s failure to give way to their daughters of the 3rd wave and beyond? I sincerely hope you think not. New forms of feminism have emerged, that are positive and dismissive of ‘left melancholia’ and discourses of pessimism on the one hand, and ambitious and disruptive on the other. They are primarily active feminisms of the young who seek to layer their prevailing values of individualism, pleasure, justice and hope over the more sober and restricting practices of feminists of previous generations. They want to create something new, immediate, exciting and relevant to their own lives. Can we as researchers help them do that?
We have also seen a break, a schism, between the serious theoretical work on gender going on in the universities and what teachers, other practitioners (and parents) understand about gender and how they work with it in their schools. Can we do something about that? Where does academic feminism fit in to activism?
[Slide 18: Where does academic feminism fit in to activism?]
[Slide 19: Gaby Weiner contact details]