Focus: Feminism in the Academy and Beyond

Focus: Feminism in the Academy and Beyond

Victoria Robinson

More than ever, we need to talk about the continuing, and frankly, not very helpful demarcation between the academy and the ‘real world’. The current UK higher education impact agenda is framed so that academics are increasingly asked (required even) to work with ‘external partners’ and to foster knowledge exchange across this assumed spacial and intellectual chasm. Theorists consistently define their work in terms of how their ideas have ‘real life’ implications. They make efforts to demystify the ‘ivory tower’ and allow greater access for previously marginalised groups outside of it. Government rhetoric demands that higher education provides students with transferable skills to equip them for work in ‘everyday life’.

But, in breath-taking changing social, economic and political times a failure to re-examine the linguistic premise of this terminology, and the terms in which the resulting dialogue takes place, can unwittingly maintain these barriers and not break them down. Not that these impact intentions do not have merit, or indeed, have not had meaningful consequences at local and national levels. However, looking at Women’s and Gender Studies in historical, contemporary and global contexts serves as a reminder that these fields have always strived, and still do, to problematise the relationship of the academy to the evolving and shifting world ‘outside’.

Audre Lorde’s (1979) oft cited quote that ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, has been interpreted differently, in diverse and sometimes oppositional contexts. These have ranged from those in the women’s movement who opposed the establishment of Women’s Studies in the 1970s and 1980s (or later in different parts of the world) in patriarchal higher education, to those feminists who have put unrecognised and unpaid time and labour into setting up such programmes. These efforts, later finding voice in the establishment of Gender Studies as a separate area, or within the disciplines, have been defined as activism. The attendant labour associated with this created spaces for students and academics to reformulate the epistemological and methodological malestream (see  Spender, 1981; Stanley and Wise, 2008; Robinson and Richardson, 2015).

As is now well documented, paying attention to diverse critiques of a white, western, middle class Women’s and Gender Studies has been a theoretical, political and moral necessity. Such debates reveal the field’s determined capacity for self-reflection, even, if seen in retrospect; such revisions and re-conceptualisations are uneven and continuing. However, feminist activism within the academy, if taken as but one aspect of the need to think across barriers between the academy and ‘the outside world’, takes place in diverse economic and political global contexts.

Recent debates in the European context have highlighted how feminists are striving to effect change which as Mia Liinason and Sabine Grenz argue, reveal ‘…the potential for collective forms of resistance against the neoliberalization of universities, against the framing of productivity as the key goal in academia, and against the view on gender equality and diversity as ‘covered’ (as goals that have been reached) in today’s academic landscapes’ (2016, 79). In practice, this resistance is taking different forms. In the Croatian context, Biljana Kašić argues that we need to open and extend possibilities ‘for challenging our so-called comfort zones’ (2016, 136). For her it is listening to her students’ demands that effective solutions to women’s precarious employment position are discussed, and that what we mean now by female solidarity and how we confront commodity feminism in a globalised era of communication are debated.

The articles in this special issue of Discover Society, edited by Victoria Robinson, and all written by staff and students linked to the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, attempt to get to grips with these questions amongst other pressing issues. An overarching concern shown here is the expediency of challenging what is seen and verified as knowledge, how such knowledge attains (hegemonic or popular) legitimacy, and /or political power, which actors are involved in this knowledge creation and, furthermore, what is their status across different spheres.

Stevi Jackson’s contribution is centrally focused on the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s. She looks back at what has been achieved by UK feminists since that time. A very personal introduction to the article reveals the continued importance of the now iconic feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. Her recollections also show how sexist and discriminatory practices and attitudes inside and outside of academia were, and still are, related, crossing over and mutually informing these supposedly separate spheres. Though she outlines advances made since the original demands of the WLM, she points to the urgent need to both question the neo-liberal emphasis on free choice, and the importance of seeing women’s struggles in a global perspective. Thus, she makes it clear that complacency is not an option for feminism.

In her ‘On the Front Line’ piece, Ting Fang Chin reports that Taiwan is now poised to become the very first country in Asia that will legalise same` sex marriage. That this has happened is due to the efforts, since the 1990’s of the LGBTQ movement there. Yet dissenting voices under-pinned by religious doctrine and Confucianism, are seeking to ensure it does not come about.

Though closer to a landmark victory than ever before, campaigners for same sex marriage are taking nothing for granted, and are active in local communities putting forward alternative discourses to the anti- same sex marriage argument.  This is being done, primarily, by refuting misinformed and damaging narratives about the LGBTQ community itself. Recent reversals of women’s rights, for example, in the US, with abortion funding and in Russia over domestic violence, means hard won rights cannot be taken for granted in the current global order. Importantly, her evocative phrase ‘This civil revolution is happening not only in the meeting rooms of the Legislative Yuan, but indeed, also on the streets and around the dinner table’, reveals the need for activists to engage with the public imagination in new ways and on diverse fronts.

Pelin Dincer’s main concern in her article is with the perennial issues of women’s solidarity and working across differences, which have long informed international feminist movements theoretically and in activist terms. In an effort to theorise the current fragmentation of the women’s movement in Turkey, she employs the spectacle of women marching after Donald Trump’s recent inauguration as US President, in protest against his racist and misogynistic policies, as a metaphor to think through difference and collectivity. In so doing, she points out that the critiques from women of color and trans people of these marches is important to note, but argues that feminism must debate whether we define such differences as barriers or solutions to solidarity. In so doing she insists that the wider political context, if seen in conjunction with a micro-analysis of women activists, enables the notion of solidarity itself to be interrogated in changing national times.

In another national context, Manel Zouabi is concerned to frame the growing popularity of Facebook in its complexity, as a ’politicized and popularized platform for the communication of ideas in post-revolutionary Tunisia’. In so doing, she uses a semiotic analysis of representations of women and their configuration in relation to this phenomenon. Further, she problematises received opinions of her research on Facebook as not being about the ‘real world’. Such a view, she argues, denies, or underestimates Facebook’s capacity to be a force which both stereotypes on gender grounds, but also allows for post-revolutionary socio-political debate and critique. However, adding another layer to this matter is her question of whether and how such discussions ‘had really mattered’, in relation to women’s lives once the revolutionary dust had cleared, given for instance, the online stereotyping of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ archetypes of Muslim women.

Ann Kaloski Naylor’s premise, in the Viewpoint article, is both imaginative and timely. Her central argument is that we must think more creatively to produce different visions of resistance than the ones we currently have if we are to keep (feminist) hope for the future. This entails harnessing our academic knowledge and scholarship, but also ‘our bodies and our posters on the streets and our ideas and petitions on the net’. This need to rethink both our tried and tested ways of constructing knowledge, as well as imagining new forms of protesting against both established and new injustices, is not a diversion nor is it mere frippery and self- indulgence. This is essential if fresh ways of thinking and acting and relating to others are to be real possibilities.

To envisage how we can imagine these visions of resistance, she re reads Donna Haraway in the light of current social and political contexts, and takes from this that, as both academics, and protesters, being out of control with our comfortable and assumed narratives and ways of being in the world with others is sometimes essential. Thus, she also insists on our ‘staying with the trouble’. Thus she makes no distinction between the potentially effective activism of academics and those on the streets, which necessitates being both bold and also at times afraid, if change is to occur.

Feminist teachers have long theorised the dynamic nature of the Women’s and Gender Studies classroom. The interrelationship of passion, politics and pedagogy is one that Evangeline Ts/ao attempts to untangle in her reimagining of feminist pedagogic theories. She does this in relation to a number of thorny on the ground issues such as difference, encouraging critical thinking and the political involvement of students. Through carefully reflecting on her personal experiences as immigrant, student, tutor, and early career researcher, she theorises how these have shaped her own pedagogic practices, and her interpretations of her students’ experience in the classroom. What is innovative here is the call to be mindful of these teaching practices outside of the formal classroom, and consider both the public interactions students and teachers have and the global context, which influences the complex formation of fluid identities and (power) relations in a myriad of ways.

From bodies protesting on the streets to the embodied feminist tutor and students in academia, Jamie Koo’s piece is concerned with the cultural conventions of both our clothing practices and the material garments themselves, along with how we create ‘self’ through the representations and performances of our clothed bodies. She asks how flesh and blood women conceive of and create a discourse for themselves, both symbolic and material, about their own bodies and body image. Using the online video series the  What’s Underneath Project, she cleverly deconstructs an ‘authentic’ sense of self which often underlies and informs these fascinating discourses around ‘work, family, relationships, trauma and of course, bodies – as they remove items of their clothing down to their underwear’.

Her focus groups and interviews reveal how clothing may serve as both sword and shield (Wilson, 1985/2003) but also gives off messages of ‘self’ which themselves are socially and culturally constructed. She concludes: ‘The idea of the ‘real self’ then is not so much in what is presented as some illusive unified whole, but as the various constituent subjectivities that are revealed in the telling of those narratives.‘

Whose narratives are heard and listened to is an important concern of Lotika Singha’s Policy Briefing. Here, she starts to rethink feminist orthodoxies around issues of women and work through the topic of the current outsourcing of domestic work. The women who do such low paid work she defines as working in a variety of positions: ‘..directly employed by one (or more) households, as an employee of a third-party (for example, a cleaning services agency), an independent declared own-account worker or an undeclared worker.

Through a focus on the lived experiences of these women, she questions two central tenets of current policy thinking. Her plea to policy makers and feminists is to consider whether this relationship in question is necessarily best conceived as an employer–employee relationship.  Many of the working women in her sample preferred not to be seen as employees, and she refutes the idea that by following traditional ‘good’ employer–employee relationship-based business practices’ is necessarily in their best interests. Rather than always encountering ‘Mrs Mopp’, as she puts it, in the field, and assuming the women would identify as working class, some of the interviewees were running small businesses and were relatively well educated. Her proposal, and that feminist policy research should listen more closely to the diverse narratives of such women, could be seen as provocative. However, it shows the importance of policy makers listening carefully to the heterogeneity of voices in the ‘outside world’. If we start to see those involved in outsourced domestic work as having intimate, as well as monetary relationships with the people who employ them, then both intimacy and how it is theorised, start to take on new meanings.

Shuang Qiu‘s piece is concerned with Chinese heterosexual couples who live apart but are together (in LAT relationships) and their ‘doing’ intimacy at a distance as a result. Her ongoing research extends existing UK research on LAT relationships, by seeing her participants’ lives through the lens of Confucian philosophy, in which the centrality of the family and normative ideas of couple relationships are integral. Within the context of comparing western and eastern patterns in globalised living arrangements, in this emerging study, she identifies the diverse, and sometimes surprising reasons for people choosing, or otherwise, to be involved in this way. As well, her reflections here on her own identity as a young, unmarried and well-educated Chinese woman, offer tantalising insights into the recruitment process and interviews.

Importantly, she emphasises the need to investigate the doing of intimate private practices in relation to the social and political dictates of local contexts. When we see pictures of Donald Trump with his carefully assembled family on the global stage, ‘doing’ both intimacy and hegemonic masculinity for what I would argue are for strategic reasons of accruing political capital, then the pressing need to theorise intimacy and its performance within and across spheres is apparent. Other articles here are more centrally concerned with masculinity in the domestic and familial spheres as well as ‘doing masculinity’ through commodification practices.

Joanne Heeney’s article ‘Bodies and spaces: theorising embodied relationships between autistic children and fathers’ creatively blends together the concept of hegemonic masculinity and feminist /disability studies, with intersectional feminism. Her interest, though case studies of working class men in Northern England, is the largely neglected topic of the everyday embodied and social lives of fathers and their autistic children. Her central premise is that men’s bodies are seen as a problem in relation to gendered and disabled bodies in specific spacial and emotional contexts. The research reveals how these fathers can be seen as being ‘othered’ across public and private spheres, and on gender and class grounds. Thus, the consequences are that this then ‘legitimates the surveillance of autistic and paternal bodies as they relate to each other’. Her participants talk about their fathering practices in the spaces of bathrooms, bedroom and public spaces such as the schoolyard, and the moral and normative judgements that are often made by others of them. She makes a compelling argument that a focus on intersectionality can offer an informed understanding of the strategies that these men engage in, to allow for a more meaningful and unscrutinsed relationship with their children.

Structural masculinity and intimate embodied and symbolic practices by women priests in the Church of England are the concerns of Sharon Winfield, who vividly illustrates how women in this space are often conceptualised by male priests, in terms of pollution and witchcraft. Though she argues that the Church has come some way, since 1992, when women could be ordained as priests to now recognising their legitimacy, a contradictory attitude exists still. What is original about her research, which she is clearly passionate about, is an engagement with a semiotic analysis of everyday religious rituals in the lives of her respondents. Her research foregrounds a nuanced examination of ‘the doctrine of taint’, where women’s bodies are seen as polluting the public and private religious spaces that some male priests think only men should legitimately inhabit. A central question of the research is whether the female clergy can shift the symbolic ground enough to shed their polluting power, through their agency. Just how yielding, she asks, is the ‘entire tradition’?

Indeed, how yielding is another structural area for gendered relations, that of the academy itself (of which the critical study of masculinity is now part (Hearn, 2016))? Clare Bielby carefully delineates the emergence and continuing establishment of the field of ‘Perpetrator Studies’ from the 1990s to the present. In this area the perpetrator of, what is more often than not, political violence is the main focus, but within the wider social, political and historical framework.  A gendered analysis is crucial, and as Bielby argues, the field should also be ‘queered’. In this way, both gender and sexual identities, including both femininity and masculinity, can be problematised and seen from new angles. She rightly stresses the need for those engaged in this field to be reflexive about its future trajectory in the academy, and to interrogate the terms used. Her argument that ‘As a result, masculinity has functioned as a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to the question of political violence and perpetration, whilst there has been little discursive space to imagine the female violent actor or perpetrator outside of sexist and sensationalist tropes.’ She urges feminist scholars not to turn away from these sometimes uncomfortable but much needed interrogations. In this way, the field has great potential resonance for questions around gender, sexuality and violence more broadly in Women’s and Gender studies.

The article by Siyang Cao moves between theorising individual masculine identity and its interrelationship with powerful conflicting discourses.  She is primarily concerned with those Chinese men whose identities are caught between contemporary representations of the Chinese male celebrity or ‘urban elites’ as portrayed in national TV series and more traditional gendered discourses. It is accepted by society that these men are allowed to unashamedly pay close attention to their bodies and beauty regimes. However, her research found that in everyday life, her male heterosexual interviewees were resistant to such depictions. What is particularly telling here is that the study reveals the embodied lives of ‘‘ordinary and ‘mainstream’ men—in contrast with those ‘new rich’ or migrant workers who have been foregrounded in existing sociological studies’. Revealingly, she argues that ‘ordinary’ Chinese men navigate, sometimes uneasily, but sometimes with agency, traditional and modern masculine traits. Further, her research reveals that Confucian philosophy’s insistence on the importance of ‘looking good to others’ rather than ‘looking good to oneself’, informs how men construct masculinity within powerful historical and contemporary discourses.

In sum, the articles here are conceptually and empirically focused on the structural manifestations of questions around knowledge and activism, in the academy and beyond. The authors define the structural as being, for example, the political realm, the academy, the family, the media, the workplace and the women’s movement. But they also stress the personal and relational implications of these spaces for the actors involved in their research, in the context of their everyday gendered, classed, sexual and ethnic lives. In so doing, the boundaries between academia and academics, civic and political society, those who construct knowledge ‘outside’ of formal institutions and in everyday lives are necessarily fissured and blurred.


Victoria Robinson is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. She is co-editor, both with Diane Richardson, of Palgrave Macmillan’s international book series Genders and Sexualities in the Social Sciences and Introducing Gender and Women’s Studies (4th edition, 2015).

Image credit: By sijeka