International Women’s Day Event (9th March, 2015)


Members of the English Department led an evening of talks and debate to celebrate International Women’s Day. More than 100 staff and students attended and a lively debate produced an excellent conversation. Dr Madeleine Davies organized the event and began the talks by asking whether the vote has become an empty symbol in a political system that continues to marginalize women: connecting with Virginia Woolf’s description of women as a ‘society of outsiders’ (via Russell Brand and Eleanor Roosevelt!), Madeleine argued that if women vote simply to register their right to do so rather than in an active exercise of positive choice, they risk endorsing a staging of democracy designed to exclude them. Emphasis throughout the talk was placed on the fraud of ‘equality’ in the Western context, and the idea that women across the world have made huge progress in this area was questioned.

Professor Grace Ioppolo spoke next and drew distinctions between the US and the UK contexts of feminist activity and protest. Emphasis was placed on the role of the social media in agitating for social change. In a particularly entertaining clip, a female Lebanese news anchor angrily put a British-based Islamist scholar, furious to be interrupted mid-flow by a mere woman, firmly in his place:

Other topics included:

Whether women really are trolled more on Twitter than men:

And why scholars are frightened by the treatment of rape perpetrators in film as ‘victims’, possibly proceeding from the trope of  ‘fridging women’:

Professor Ioppolo took on the controversy about the recent showing of the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ (now banned from, which explores the issue of rape in India via the appalling story of the murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. The quotes drawn from the convicted rapists, and from the rapists’ defence lawyers, proved chilling:

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein connected with neuro-science and suggested that recent scientific debate has halted progress in terms of considerations of sex, gender, and sexuality. Karin demonstrated how supposedly ‘neutral’ scientific research had been used to confirm gendered stereotypes when the data had been composed from highly limited samples and based on spurious science. Karin emphasized the risks involved here, particularly since Government units and educational advisory boards (not to mention the media) are basing policy on ‘scientific’ material infected with highly degoratory assumptions and judgments regarding in particular women’s roles and transgender identities. Here are links to the two articles Karin referenced in her talk: (Guardian article on male and female brains ‘wired differently’) (New Scientist 2012 study of ‘capturing transsexual brain on scans’)

The debate section of the evening was extremely lively with contributions interrogating and extending all the positions raised in the talks. What is the way forward if active protest is configured in terms of opting out? Do white feminists speak over black feminists when they present their stories (as potentially in the case of ‘India’s Daughter’)? Should we fear being labeled as ‘bad feminists’? How can we tackle low-level sexism which denies its existence but which is keenly-felt regardless? What role does religion play in female oppression? Contributions also indicated that focused movements can achieve huge progress, as for example the movement in Eire campaigning for women’s right to abortion.

The evening was fascinating and also hugely encouraging: the level of engagement was exceptional and the range of topics addressed suggests that our students are thinking and are concerned and are capable of action in the years to come. Reflecting on the evening, it seems to us that the future is in very strong hands. Many thanks to everyone for coming along and for making yourselves heard.

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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