International Women’s Day Talks and Debate

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

The School of Literature and Languages (SLL) International Women’s Day Talk and Debate has become established as an annual celebration. I first organised this student-facing event with RUSU FemSoc in 2010, and I have led it with the help of DEL students and staff from around the university since then.

Our celebration of IWD takes the form of a series of short talks followed by a student-led debate on the issues we’ve raised and on other issues that matter to the attendees. What is so positive about this event is that it involves joining our students in conversations about equality, diversity, and social justice: it involves not only talking but, more importantly, listening to each other’s views.

In 2018, IWD assumed particular resonance because February marked the centenary of the extension of the franchise in the UK to include (some) women. It would be another 2 years before women could graduate from Oxford University, and women would have to wait until 1948 to graduate from Cambridge University, but female householders over the age of 30 could vote for an all-male parliament from 1918 (though the first female MP was elected in 1918, as a member of Sinn Fein she did not take up her seat). Despite the limitations of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, it undoubtedly gave women a ‘foot in the door’ and, as such, International Women’s Day 2018 linked with an important historical landmark.

Our IWD celebration this year was the culmination of the ‘Feminism 100’ series (see my previous Diversity and Inclusion blog-posts here and here) and was generously supported by the Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund. Dr Carol Fuller (IoE) joined me in delivering the talks and presented a fascinating discussion of the intersection between gender and class focused through her work on the ‘Whitley Mums’ Programme. The talk was a crucial reminder that issues of ‘privilege’ have to be factored in to all discussions of feminism and equality: race, gender and class are core determinants of disempowerment and IWD encourages us to remain mindful that ‘us’ must mean ‘us all’.

My talk raised some of the noteworthy and notorious news stories of the year and included Trump’s attacks on the Planned Parenthood Programme in the U.S. and his re-imposition of the ‘global gag rule’, sexual abuse scandals, and Carrie Gracie’s campaign against systemic, sexist pay disparity at the BBC. Plenty of positive stories were included as well, including progress (if limited) in Saudi women’s campaigns for human rights. I led a toast to all the women of the world who work so hard to make a difference to other women’s lives; included in this was Jess Phillips MP who visited us at the university in November 2017 and who reminded us that brave, clever women are fighting on our behalf every day.

The second half of the event was given over to a student-led debate. Professor Simon Chandler-Wilde, one of our Diversity and Inclusion Deans, attended and engaged with students’ contributions (several emailed me afterwards to say how much they appreciated his attendance). The RUSU Diversity Officer Leen Al Najjab also joined us and connected with the ‘Feminism 100’ students, offering her help and support for the re-formation of FemSoc. The generous contribution of £200 from the Endowment Fund allowed us to conclude the ‘Feminism 100’ series, on International Women’s Day, in style:  the money was spent on a party where our students could strengthen relationships with staff in a ‘feel good’ event.

‘Feminism 100’ has had clear demonstrable outcomes: RUSU FemSoc is going to be re-formed after two dormant years, and new events and campaigns are being planned. Inter-disciplinary collaborative relationships have been forged between Humanities and SLL, and the RUSU Diversity Officer and the Diversity and Inclusion Dean are in contact with our students – productive, exciting conversations and actions will be produced by this network.

SLL students and I are extremely grateful for the support of the Endowment Fund for this event: the positives generated from the evening, and from the ‘Feminism 100’ series as a whole, speak to the value of extra-curricular staff-student collaborations. The funding we received to celebrate in this important centenary year was particularly welcome: the conversations triggered by the three ‘Feminism 100’ events, and the networks arising from them, suggest that, at UoR, ‘we will persist’ via deeds and words.

Celebrating Forgotten Women

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies, School of Literature and Languages

Thursday February 8th 1918 marked the Royal Assent to the Bill that gave the vote to property-owning women aged 30 and over: on the evening of the same date, 100 years later, staff and students gathered in the Edith Morley Building to hear a series of talks and to enjoy an exhibition and a party, ‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’.

The evening was the second in a series of three events organised from the Department of English Literature and the Department of History and supported by the Diversity and Inclusion Fund. We called the series, ‘Feminism 100’, and the first event, ‘Debates and Doughnuts: Is Feminism Dead?’ involved a rigorous student-led debate which achieved the revival of RUSU FemSoc, inactive for two years.

‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’ was also student-led: Part 2 English Literature student Imi Snell contacted Dr Jacqui Turner and myself in relation to an idea she had for a work placement on the SLL module, ‘Literature and Education’. Imi wanted this placement to be informed by Vote100 and to celebrate the centenary of the extension of the franchise. Because the placement required an emphasis on both ‘literature’ and ‘education’, Imi’s idea involved an exhibition of Suffrage material and a series of talks in which the forgotten women of literature, history, science, and culture could be discussed and celebrated.

Up to 100 staff and students, including the D&I Deans, braved the discouraging February night to join us for the celebration. Colleagues from English Literature and History contributed fascinating talks on a variety of ‘forgotten women’. Dr Mary Morrissey (Lit) spoke with great wit about the first known published English female poet, Isabella Whitney; Professor David Stack (History) discussed the work of palaeontologist Mary Anning; Dr Natalie Thomlinson (History) discussed Jayaben Desai; Dr Jacqui Turner (History) introduced the evening and spoke of the suffrage movement, and I discussed the neglected significance of the work of translator Constance Garnett. Part 2, Part 3, and PhD students from English Literature, History and Classics delivered confident, reflective and inspiring talks on Harriet Tubman, Cloelia, Emma Gifford, Libby Lane, and Ching Shih, and the Q&A session produced well-informed questions from our largely UG student audience. WSPU-Coloured lanyards and commemorative postcards were given to our guests, a badge-making operation in the exhibition space produced highly professional badges of our ‘forgotten women’, and an exhibition managed by Guy Baxter from Special Collections displayed the Cliveden House visitor’s book and a Suffragette ring amongst other exhibits. WSPU-coloured balloons festooned the Edith Morley First Floor Foyer, Blackwells ran a book-stall, and the wine flowed. The event ran for three hours in and outside the Van Emden Lecture Theatre.

A Twitter feed commented on and responded to the talks, and Facebook live streaming of the Q&A section was managed by Part 3 English Literature student, Victoria Matthews, who had led ‘Debates and Doughnuts’. The Twitter feed produced a steady stream of very positive feedback, Imi was interviewed by Radio Berkshire, ‘Spark’ is writing about the evening, a Press release was produced with Pete Bryant’s help, and Jacqui Turner took three samples of our lanyards to the Vote100 Project Team at the Houses of Parliament where they will be on permanent display. In terms of ‘impact’, the event exceeded all expectations.

Perhaps the most positive impact of the 2018 celebrations at UoR is the close partnership that has developed between the staff and students of English Literature, Classics and History, all of whom are working together to revive feminist debates on campus. ‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’ showcased the benefits to learning of work placements, and demonstrated the strength of the staff-student partnerships and inter-School collaborations at Reading. Above all, it has showcased that of which we are most proud at Reading – our students.

Our sincere thanks to the Diversity and Inclusion Fund for making ‘Feminism 100’ possible. The celebrations are not yet at an end and we hope that students and colleagues will join us at more events and discussions as this important centenary year unfolds.

‘Debates and Doughnuts: Is Feminism Dead?’

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

Students in the Department of English Literature last week organised an event titled ‘Debates and Doughnuts’ designed to reignite conversations about gender equality on campus. One of their aims was to gather the necessary 54 signatures to re-form RUSU FemSoc which has been dormant for two years. The ‘Diversity and Inclusion Fund’ supported the event, and I helped the students to set it up.

Our students hoped that they would be able to attract enough students to the session to largely complete the RUSU Society ‘petition’ – on the day, well over sixty students and colleagues attended and the petition gathered more than enough signatures to revive FemSoc.

The debate asked the question, ‘Is Feminism Dead?’, as the decline of FemSoc suggested that it might be. The two-hour debate, full of strong, well-articulated opinions, clearly suggested that it was far from ‘dead’ and that it was, in fact, on the edge of an exciting new life.

Attending the debate were students drawn from all over the university, and colleagues from English Literature, History, SPIER and IoE. We were pleased to see such a high attendance from male students, and we appreciated their thoughtful contributions to the debate: in response to a question, ‘what can feminism do for men?’, a male student argued that feminism implicitly works to support men as well as women and that it does not need to concoct an artificial ‘masculinist’ agenda to announce what it already does.

I was particularly pleased by the way in which contributions that contested feminism as a body of ideas, and that advocated ‘International Men’s Day’ and other Men’s Rights activities as a ‘counter-balance’ to feminist action, were listened to with respect by other students. The ideas raised by attendees less sold on feminism than others were debated in a reflective and sensitive way. I was struck also by the range of issues that were raised, from concerns about ‘language’ and ‘lad culture’, to the ‘#Me Too’ movement, through to media constructions of sexual assault victims.

The debate was managed with admirable skill by the Part 3 English Literature students who organised the debate, Vicky Matthews and Jack Champion. Their manner was welcoming, inclusive, and confident, and the skill with which they drew in all voices and opinions was truly impressive. I am so often struck by the quality of our students when they manage events of this kind: their eloquence and their ability to negotiate complex arguments with tact and intellectual rigour is a tribute to them.

‘Debates and Doughnuts’ was the first in a series of three events grouped under the ‘Feminism 100’ banner which celebrates the centenary of the extension of the franchise to include (some) women. On February 8th, ‘Inspired by Vote 100: Celebrating Forgotten Women’, presents another student-led event involving an exhibition organised with MERL and Special Collections, and an evening of talks and contributions from staff and students. Imogen Snell, a Part 2 English Literature student on a work placement module, has organised the evening with a History student, Sophie Crossfield, and has drawn on the practical support and subject expertise of Dr Jacqui Turner from the Department of History, and myself; Professor David Stack, Dr Mary Morrissey, Dr Jacqui Turner, Dr Natalie Thomlinson and I are contributing to the event by delivering mini-lectures on forgotten women, and students are presenting talks on ‘why this forgotten woman matters to me’. Supported by the Diversity and Inclusion Fund, we are able to hold a full celebration of the franchise centenary, even offering lanyards in WSPU colours and badges with the images of the women we are discussing. Taking place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and foyer (Thursday 8th February, 6-9pm), the event will combine the voices of colleagues and students, working collaboratively as partners. We would be delighted to see as many staff as possible at the event, not least to express their support for our students’ commendable initiative.

The series of events will conclude on March 8th with our annual International Women’s Day Talk and Debate (Edith Morley, G25, 5-7pm) where Professor Roberta Gilchrist, Dr Carol Fuller, Dr Jacqui Turner and I will deliver presentations on issues continuing to affect women, and will debate the implications of them with our students. Again, we would be delighted to see our colleagues at the event: this has traditionally been a lively, affirming evening where issues are debated with warmth, mutual respect and good humour. This year, we are supported by the Vice Chancellor’s Endowment Fund so we can fully mark the annual IWD celebration in this important year.

 

Please contact Dr Madeleine Davies (m.k.davies@reading.ac.uk) or Dr Jacqui Turner (e.j.turner@reading.ac.uk) if you would like any further details or if you would like to contribute to either of the upcoming events. The series as a whole provides clear evidence that, at the University of Reading, feminism and issues of diversity, inclusion and equality are well and truly alive and kicking.

 

Cross-border recognition of same-sex marriages in the EU

Guest post by Dr Alina Tryfonidou, Associate Professor in EU Law, University of Reading

Since 2001, when the Netherlands opened marriage to same-sex couples, a number of other countries have taken the same step. At the moment of writing, marriage is open to same-sex couples in 24 countries around the world, with 15 of those being in Europe, and 13 in the European Union (EU).

Photo: Mr Adrian Coman (right) with his spouse, Mr Claibourn Robert Hamilton (left)

As more and more countries have opened marriage to same-sex couples, the number of same-sex couples who are married is increasing every year. What happens, however, when a married same-sex couple moves from a country that recognises same-sex marriages to a country that does not? Is the latter obliged to recognise a same-sex marriage contracted elsewhere? This question has been answered affirmatively in the US context: in 2015, in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, the US Supreme Court held that marriages lawfully performed in one US State must be fully recognised in all other US States.

Although the above question has been lingering in the EU context for almost two decades now, the EU’s highest court (the European Court of Justice ‘ECJ’) has only recently been called to adjudicate on this matter, in a case (C-673/16 Coman) where a same-sex couple that married in an EU Member State (Belgium) was faced with a refusal by the EU Member State to which they wished to move (Romania) to recognise their marriage. Mr Coman (a Romanian national and thus EU citizen, who had left Romania and was living abroad for a number of years) married his same-sex partner (a US national) in Belgium in 2010. The couple wished to move to Romania and when they contacted the Romanian authorities for this purpose, they were told that Mr Coman’s spouse could not join him in Romania, as same-sex marriages are not valid in that state. The couple brought an action before a Romanian court arguing that this refusal amounted to a breach of EU law. The Romanian court referred a number of questions for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ, asking it, in essence, whether EU law requires Romania to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who has exercised his EU free movement rights.

EU law provides nationals of EU Member States (i.e. EU citizens) with the right to move freely between EU Member States. In order to ensure that this right can be exercised without any restrictions, EU law requires the State to which an EU citizen moves to accept within its territory certain family members of the latter; these family members include ‘the spouse’ of the EU citizen. This is laid down in secondary EU legislation, namely Directive 2004/38.

Given that the word ‘spouse’ is sex- and sexual orientation-neutral, one of the main questions that the ECJ has been called to answer in Coman, is whether this term (as used in the above Directive) includes both the opposite-sex and the same-sex spouse of an EU citizen who has exercised his/her EU right to move freely between Member States.

As argued elsewhere, it is clear that this should be answered in the affirmative, and this is so for the following reasons.

  1. Directive 2004/38 provides (Recital 31) that it ‘respects the fundamental rights and freedoms and observes the principles recognised in particular by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union’. Accordingly, the provisions of the Directive, including the provision stating that the ‘spouse’ of an EU national must be allowed to join the latter in the host Member State, must be read in a way which does not violate fundamental human rights, including the right not to be discriminated against on the ground of sexual orientation, as this is laid down in Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This means that the term ‘spouse’ in this instrument, must be interpreted in a way which does not discriminate on the ground of sexual orientation and, thus, it should not exclude same-sex spouses from its scope.
  2. Directive 2004/38 requires Member States to implement it without any discrimination on, inter alia, the ground of sexual orientation (Recital 31). Therefore, national legislation which provides for the family reunification rights of EU citizens must include the ‘spouse’ of EU citizens within the category of family members that can automatically accompany them in its territory, and must make it clear that this includes both opposite-sex and same-sex spouses.
  3. The refusal of an EU Member State to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who wishes to move to its territory and the consequent refusal to accept within its territory the spouse of that national, can clearly discourage EU citizens from exercising their right to free movement and residence in any EU Member State, which is a right that is bestowed on them by the EU free movement provisions . Accordingly, such a refusal can constitute a breach of the EU free movement provisions.
  4. The failure of an EU Member State to recognise the same-sex marriage of an EU citizen who moves to its territory may, also, amount to a breach of a number of fundamental human rights, as these are protected under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, namely, the right to family life (Article 7 of the Charter) and the right to human dignity (Article 1 of the Charter).

The hearing of the Coman case was scheduled for November 2017, and it is expected that the Opinion of the Advocate General and the Court’s judgment will be delivered in 2018. The case has attracted extensive media coverage and a number of LGBT NGOs have intervened. The judgment is, therefore, awaited with great interest as the question at issue involves a delicate matter with huge constitutional implications

An Inspiring Voice: Jess Phillips MP at the University of Reading (16th November 2017)

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

Meeting heroes is a dangerous enterprise but hosting Jess Phillips MP proved that this is by no means always the case. At her talk at the university on 16th November, organised by the Department of English Literature (Dr Madeleine Davies) and the Department of Politics and Internal Relations (Dr Mark Shanahan), the MP showed us all that she is not only a razor-sharp thinker but also a warm, generous and inspiring human being.

Jess Phillips’ talk included her childhood experiences as a campaigner with parents who were both committed to socialist causes: she remembered attending a day-care centre run by activists and helping to produce the banners that would be used on the drive-way to Greenham Common. She also discussed a brief period of political apathy when, in the early years of the Blair governments, many situations improved and the need for constant campaigning declined (she noted that she was more a fan of Blair’s ‘early work’ than of his later concepts). The election of David Cameron reignited her political activism and her years of experience with ‘Women’s Aid’, a refuge charity, finally galvanised her entry into Parliament. Her speech also included issues of class and privilege, questions of fairness and responsibility, and all her comment was laced with wit, humanity, and a deep-seated commitment to social justice.

In the speech and in the Q&A session that followed it, it was clear that Jess’s passion is for equality, not in the highly theorised sense of ‘academic’ feminism, but in the ‘lived’ sense of fairness, human rights and plain decency. The audience was largely comprised of students and I was extremely encouraged to see their interest in Jess’s comments about gender equality. I have taught women’s writing and literary feminisms for many, many years and it can be an uphill struggle to persuade students that, contrary to their beliefs, the battles have not yet been won. Jess noted that she would not see equal pay in her life-time, and she discussed ways in which women are silenced, abused, and devalued. A lively Twitter feed from the event demonstrates that the statements with which the students most connected were those that spoke to issues of gender equality: ‘women pay the price [of government cuts] while men reap the benefits’ was one re-tweeted comment. It was also encouraging to see how many people were following her talk: 185 attended the event, 3,465 viewed on the university’s Facebook stream, and one tweet alone was viewed by over 1,300 people (and ‘liked’ by 47).

Jess’s generosity in allowing us to live-stream the Q&A, in taking time and care to sign copies of her book Everywoman (posing for photographs whenever she was asked), and in taking such an interest in conversations with students and colleagues restores all faith in politicians. Jess Phillips is the warm, witty and intensely clever person that she seems to be in her book and in her media appearances. She also defines honesty and integrity – never has a reminder that these qualities can exist in politicians seemed so timely.

The effect of her visit was galvanising: the day after the talk, two students emailed me because they want to start a feminist society, and another student emailed to ask for help organising a ‘Vote 100’ event in February (working with Dr Jacqui Turner in History, and involving the Department of Literature as well). The event and the results of it remind me of the value of university education, of involving students in ‘public’ talks so that they can hear for themselves a range of ideas, and so that they have the opportunity to engage as citizens in debates of national and international significance.

In terms of the university and its work with Athena Swan, the talk reminds us all of what can be done to achieve the equality that this recognition indicates. The final question, from one of our excellent Student Ambassadors, asked the MP what three things could be done to campaign for gender equality: Jess’s answer suggested that making voices heard, never letting go of the struggle for women’s recognition, and being prepared to fight to make real difference is key for us all.

Jess Phillips MP is a hero who I am delighted to have met. I’m delighted also that the audience connected with her ideas so strongly and that so many students came along and engaged with the MP’s belief in equality and social justice. Many will, I’m sure, follow Jess Phillips’ invaluable advice in Everywoman: ‘Tell the world what you care about, because it makes them care too, and we need people like you to speak up.’

Seeing the B in LGBT

Guest blog by Dr Allán LavilleSchool of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences

Bi invisibility

In 1998, Michael Page designed the Bi Pride Flag to increase the visibility of bisexuals within the LGBT community and within society as a whole. In a BiFlag.com blog, Page discusses the symbolism of the components of this flag:

The pink color represents sexual attraction to the same sex only (gay and lesbian), The blue represents sexual attraction to the opposite sex only (straight) and the resultant overlap color purple represents sexual attraction to both sexes (bi).

The key to understanding the symbolism in the Bi Pride Flag is to know that the purple pixels of color blend unnoticeably into both the pink and blue, just as in the ‘real world’ where most bi people blend unnoticeably into both the gay/lesbian and straight communities.”

In the above quote, Page discusses how bi individuals are often invisible within various communities and this has been termed ‘bi invisibility’. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that bi individuals are visible and supported within our society.

Bi visibility

In relation to bi visibility, from 1999, Bi Visibility Day has been celebrated annually on the 23rd of September. There are various events held across the UK (as well as internationally) to encourage and promote bi visibility. This day also highlights biphobia which is the fear or dislike of someone who identifies as bi.

When considering biphobia, Stonewall, the largest LGBT charity in Europe, state that bi individuals suffer from dual prejudice. This is from within the LGBT community and outside of it. This prejudice can lead to mental health problems and risk taking behaviours. Therefore, the aim of Bi Visibility Day is a reminder that we need to address biphobia whenever and wherever we see it.

 

Bi visibility in the workplace

Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers Report 2017 found that only 18% of bi men and 14% of bi women are comfortable being out to all colleagues, managers, and customers or service users. Furthermore, the same report identified that only 23% of bi people could identify a bi role model in their workplace. In summary, this report highlights the need for bi individuals to feel more comfortable with bringing their authentic selves to work as well as having identifiable bi role models in the workplace.

I was fortunate to be funded by Diversity and Inclusion to attend Stonewall’s Bi Workplace Role Models Programme on the 13th of September.

The Stonewall Bi Workplace Role Models Programme promoted a safe space for individuals, including myself, who identify under the ‘Bi umbrella’. The day was very experiential and provided a lot of time to discuss ideas with others who identified as Bi.

Throughout the day we were encouraged to think about our own role models and what it means to be a role model in the workplace. We completed a range of activities that provided us with the opportunity to consider what we can do within our own organisations as a Bi Role Model. We explored barriers to being a Bi Role Model within an organisation as well as potential solutions to this.

One key learning point for myself was that it is very important to be visible as a Bi Role Model at the University. I have taken steps towards being more visible such as being profiled for the Faces of Reading project. As a bi person who has experienced biphobia outside of work, I hope that my level of understanding may be of benefit to others who have/are experiencing the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are there so few BME staff in leadership positions?

I am used to being a minority in terms of being a female physical scientist. I am less used to being a minority in terms of ethnicity at a Higher Education event. However, last week I attended the BME Leadership in Higher Education Summit run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). Around 200 delegates discussed the possible reasons why there has been relatively little progress in increasing the representation of BME staff at senior levels in HE, and shared possible ways to move forward. There were probably about 25 or so who were part of the WME (White Majority Ethnic) group – point number 1 – if we are going to label groups – we need to label ourselves and by doing so acknowledge our white-ness. There are too many interesting topics that were discussed to present comprehensively in one blog, but here I’d like to share a few questions here.

  • Is University of Reading ready to move forward on race equality? Public sector organisations tend to be at different levels in terms of their readiness and ability to move forward on race equality. Comparing local government and NHS experiences, these can be classified as:
    1. Resisting – no understanding
    2. Intending – say it’s important but don’t understand the depth of action needed
    3. Starting – have a better understanding of local issues in the context of high level statements
    4. Developing – understand the issues and their aims but need to prioritise
    5. Achieving – clear vision but need to maintain

I would suggest that some of us in the organisation are around the “starting” level, whilst others are closer to “intending”, and some areas may be closer to resisting. In moving forward, there may well be people who have in the past benefited from privilege who find themselves no longer in that position. How do we respond to those people’s whilst sticking to our commitment to equality? Are we ready to have the difficult conversations needed?

  • Are we doing the most effective  “diversity training”? There was much discussion of “diversity training” with the general view being that unconscious bias training can be useful for starting conversations, but more useful in terms of changing culture is bystander training – giving people the confidence to challenge behaviors, and cultural competence (also referred to as intercultural skills).
  • What is the role of the white majority ethnic (WME) group? Here at Reading we have had a strong growth in our LGBT+ Ally network. Is it appropriate to do something similar here – or perhaps better a way of publically acknowledging membership of the Cultural Diversity Group (which is open to anyone who has an interest in race and ethnicity and how these influence staff and students at Reading).
  • What is the role of a “race champion”? Here we were introduced to a 3 stage framework: Stand up (engage), stand together (self-organised groups), stand aside (let the emergent leadership drive the agenda)

But perhaps the question that summed up the day was in fact:

“Why do people who look differently have to perform differently to achieve the same?”

 

‘Using your Voice to Make a Difference’: Jess Phillips MP at the University of Reading on June 1st

Guest post by Madeleine Davies (English Literature): update 20th April 2017, due to the 8th June General Election this talk will be postponed until some time in October to be confirmed.

In Jess Phillips’ recently published book, Everywoman (Hutchinson, 2017), the Labour MP discusses the ways in which female voices are silenced. She declares that this problem has deep historical roots as she observes the male and female gargoyles decorating the central lobby and the committee rooms in the House of Commons: Phillips notes that the men are depicted open mouthed in speech while the women are gagged, their mouths literally covered with stone muzzles (p.56).

The silencing of women’s voices is by no means a recent phenomenon but it has assumed a disturbing new manifestation in the digital age. In a particularly compelling section of her book, Phillips discusses online trolling and abuse and she explains ‘dog-piling’ which is a technique used by online trolls to shut down someone (often a woman) who speaks out. ‘Dog-piling’ involves hundreds or even thousands of people bombarding a Twitter account with messages over a short space of time. It is designed to drown out other voices, to intimidate the tweeter, and to effectively ‘block’ the voice.

Phillips recalls a horrifying example of this being used against her when a men’s rights activist made a comment about how ‘he wouldn’t even rape me’. As a statement, this is shocking enough, but what followed is even worse. As soon as the initial comment had been made, Phillips recalls the ‘dog-piling’ attack it initiated:

‘A glance at my twitter feed that day was a bit like reading a sinister Dr Seuss:

I will not rape her on a plane

I will not rape her on a train

I will not rape her in the car

I will not rape her on a star

I will not rape her HERE or THERE

I will not rape her anywhere

I will not rape her on a tram

I will not rape her, MAN-I-AM (pp.215-6)

That sufficient numbers of people required for a ‘dog-pile’ can find this abuse either funny or acceptable in the C21st staggered me. I am not a regular user of Twitter or Facebook, and reading Phillips’ book seemed to confirm my instinct that it might be a good idea to retain this policy.

But as Phillips notes, ‘dog-piling’ and other tactics (including ‘isolating’) are designed to coerce women into silence and she forges a connection between witch-hunts and the contemporary digital world when she notes that the feeling of being the victim of dog-piling is ‘akin to being stood in front of an enormous angry mob waving burning torches and pitchforks’ (p.215).

When women give in to the bullying and absent themselves from social media, the bullies win, so Phillips is firm in her argument that such tactics must not deter women from asserting their voices online, painful though the consequences can be. For this reason, Phillips was involved in the launch of Recl@im, an Internet campaign looking at laws and regulations that could be better used to stop abuse.  She is also involved in #NotTheCost, a campaign led by Madeleine Albright to combat the violence inflicted against politically active women around the world. Phillips’ engagement with this issue is clear – Jo Cox was one of her closest friends.

Phillips does not whine – she takes action and she asks all of us to do the same. She is, I think, an inspiring woman and it does not matter whether you agree with her politics or not. That she is willing to become the voice for all people who have no access to platforms from which to speak, positions her as a woman to be admired.

Jess Phillips is giving a talk at the University of Reading on June 1st. The Vice-Chancellor will introduce her at 6pm, and there will be a Q & A session and a book signing (for Everywoman) following the session. The talk takes place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and the book signing will be in the First Floor Foyer (both are in the Edith Morley Building, entrance 1a).

I have invited Jess to the University because I believe that she has a voice that needs to be heard by us all. Our students need fearless role models like her (though Phillips says she feels anything but ‘fearless’).  I hope that colleagues and students from across the University will come and hear Jess and contribute to the debate afterwards. After all, as she states:

‘By demanding to be heard, by dealing with our

imposter syndrome, by being cheerleaders,

doers not sayers, creating our own networks

and by daring to believe that we can make a

difference, we can.’

Engaging UofR students in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies, Department of English Literature (SLL)

At an International Women’s Day event I organised this week, colleagues and students listened, learned and debated as our inspiring colleagues delivered talks on a range of topics. Our large room was filled almost to capacity and there was laughter, solidarity and reflection as Professor Clare Furneaux, Dr Brian Feltham, Dr Orla Kennedy, Professor Rachel McCrindle and Dr Mary Morrissey delivered passionate, research based speeches on topics including Women in Engineering, gendered relationships with language, women and weight, the meanings embedded in Hillary Clinton’s ‘likability’ issues, and the relevance of Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon in relation to discriminatory mechanisms.

This is an annual event and every year I am staggered and impressed by our students’ level of engagement with issues of equality. Since the Noughties, there has been a persistent narrative around the political apathy of the younger generations; journalists have mourned the gap between politically engaged parents and their politically disengaged offspring. The problem with this position is that it too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: because we expect apathy, we cease to try to engage, and we then create the very ‘apathy’ of which we complain. The consequences of this were seen in the Brexit referendum and are felt also in a too easy acceptance of unequal pay, unequal status within the workplace, and unequal parliamentary representation (we should not be distracted by the fact of a female PM when 455 male MPs significantly outnumber 195 female MPs).

The student-facing UofR International Women’s Day event challenges this narrative of assumed apathy and political disengagement. It reveals that we only need to use our creativity to tap into our students’ deeply-felt commitment to issues of justice and fairness. This generation of students is more nuanced, less thoughtlessly discriminatory, and more reflective than we probably were ourselves at their age. In ‘Writing, Gender and Identity’ seminars, for example, my Part 2 students interrogate binary positions with skill and sensitivity, and in their activities in equality, diversity and inclusion campaigns, they take direct action. Some of our students in English Literature have gone on to manage new education networks in developing areas of Africa; they have worked for penal reform organisations; they have become the leader of the Women’s Equality Party (Sophie Walker is a graduate of French and English); they have held banners at Women’s Marches bearing the legend, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel – not a template!’. I am proud to say that our graduates practice what we preach: we must make sure that we do the same.

At a fascinating CQSD training event yesterday, there was much discussion about how we could develop our students’ capacity for critical thinking. As I listened to our students debating at the IWD event, I understood that they have the ability and the desire to think critically, particularly about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. It is up to us to connect with them in workshops, lectures, student forums, and extra-curricular events as we work to develop the next generation of citizens and professionals who may finally be able to produce that most elusive goal, a more equal world.

 

International Women’s Day Talk and Debate on Equality

Guest post by Madeline Davies

Human rights matter to everyone and the principle of equal rights is key to its definition. International Women’s Day is an annual opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women across the world, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the inequalities that stubbornly persist.

With the election of Donald Trump, International Women’s Day has particular resonance this year. On Wednesday 8th March, senior academics from across the University will be giving talks in Palmer 102 on a range of issues connected with equality. Dr Madeleine Davies is hosting the evening, and she will be introducing Professor Clare Furneaux who will be discussing women and language, Dr Orla Kennedy who will be talking about women and weight, Dr Brian Feltham, discussing the internalisation of harassment and discrimination, Professor Rachel McCrindle, discussing women in male dominated industries such as Engineering, and Dr Mary Morrissey who will analyse the construction of Hillary Clinton in the recent US election campaign.

Following the talks there will be a debate led by members of the audience. This has been lively and fascinating in previous years and staff members have enjoyed talking through the issues with our students.

You don’t need to be female or to identify as a feminist to enjoy this event; as we’ve seen on the women’s marches across the US and the UK following President Trump’s inauguration, equal rights is a deeply-felt and fundamental principle held by men and women of all races and faiths. Come and debate the issues with us and celebrate how far women have come and discuss how far we still have to go.

The debate will be held on Wednesday 8th March 2017, Palmer 102, 6-8pm

For further information please contact Dr Madeleine Davies, Department of English Literature, m.k.davies@reading.ac.uk, tel ext 7001.