Dr Madeleine Davies writes:
As you might be aware from previous blog posts, to celebrate International Women’s Day this year, Dr Madeleine Davies, Professor Grace Ioppolo, and Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (all Department of English staff members) were invited to speak at an event organised by the University of Reading Student’s Union Women’s Campaign Group.
This event generated a huge amount of interest and we were so pleased by the number of people attending which far exceeded all estimates. Not only this, the three talks produced question-and-answer sessions of extraordinary depth, and the academic members of staff realised that issues of women’s rights were more hotly-debated now than at any time in recent years.
In the discussion periods, we noticed the level of serious anxiety that was being expressed concerning ‘Lad culture’, the threat of sexual violence and verbal abuse against women, and concerns about the way in which the female body was being used within the socio-culture as a stick with which to beat women. As a result of these conversations, we will be taking part in further events of the kind organised in March, again organised by the Student’s Union Women’s Campaign, and again involving Madeleine, Grace and Karin as speakers. Issues including ‘laddism’, sexual violence, and body issues will be the topics of debate. We would be delighted to see anyone who is interested in these areas of debate at the next forum which will be held in June (date to follow).
Grace and Karin join me in expressing our sincere thanks to the Women’s Campaign for their enthusiasm and for their organisational work. We no longer feel like voices in the wilderness, but participants in a far wider and increasingly urgent debate concerning women’s rights.
Dr Madeleine Davies’s talk for International Women’s Day
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf dramatised the exclusion of women from education and all forms of public life in shattering terms: the woman is barred from entering a university library and is then forced to roam around the public spaces of fictional Oxbridge, excluded and homeless. The illogical and humiliating barring of women from culture and power shocks the reader out of complacency and into action.
Over the subsequent 100 years, women have indeed ‘acted’ and have focused exclusively on breaking down the ‘library door’. However, in my talk I suggested that women may have overlooked Woolf’s addendum to the humiliating moment. When her calm returns, Woolf’s narrator notes that, though it is grim to be locked out of the system, it is worse, perhaps, to be locked IN. Her roam around the fictional spaces of Oxbridge begins to look less like a forced exclusion than a statement of freedom.
In my talk I asked whether it may be time to focus less on issues of exclusion and gendered/cultural injustice (and there are certainly plenty to choose from, domestically and internationally), than on an interrogation of these institutions and systems themselves. Women succeeded in breaking down the library door, but few would argue that a seat at the ‘top table’ (in a mixture of metaphors) is freed for them. It is pointless to rehearse the statistics, though they make the point.
At a moment when the world economy is stranded in a state of crisis, women find themselves more threatened and excluded than ever. Economic relationships have changed: demands on women have changed. But these changes have, paradoxically, rendered women even more powerless and impoverished than ever.
In my talk, I asked whether women had been sold a ‘dud’ by patriarchal culture. By the 1970s, it looked as though women had been admitted to the professional and economic playground, and women were persuaded that herein lay ‘freedom’. But as the new century progresses, this looks increasingly spurious. Women with children work two careers (one unpaid in the home, one underpaid in the workplace), and live with a permanent sense of guilt and exhaustion: little wonder that prescriptions for anti-depressants are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, childcare costs cripple and the economy has adapted itself to the two-wage household income to insist upon it as a necessity of economic survival. Meanwhile, the top jobs, the promotions, and professional, legislative and cultural authority remain as firmly in male hands as they ever did.
I wonder, then, whether we need to reassess what lies behind the ‘library door’, asking not why we are so grudgingly admitted, but whether its environment and practices render admittance undesirable. Few men prosper behind the library doors either, and they may also feel it may be time to question whether it represents a system in which one would NOT want to be ‘locked’.
My talk therefore asked whether the grounds of the entire debate about women’s role within the socio-culture need to be reassessed. On International Women’s Day we should quite rightly celebrate the many stunning achievements of women over the past centuries of feminist activity. But our successes have been hard-won and systems have only partially and grudgingly allowed us ‘in’ because it suited the culture’s purpose to utilise a huge, cheap work-force. Can we then begin to debate not how to ‘get in’ but how to get OUT; begin to formulate new working models suited more to women’s priorities and strengths; begin to interrogate the bases of social, political and cultural organisation; begin to include men in these renegotiations. Herein may lie the true nature of women’s ‘liberation’ – freedom from male-defined definitions of ‘achievement’ or ‘success’. These definitions have brought the world to the edge of economic collapse, and have generated a society functioning through routine injustice. The male model has failed, and has been seen to fail. An alternative female model, one that includes men as much as the outdated male model excluded women, may offer the way forward for us all.