Feminist Activism; Feminist Academia – Praxis in Motion?

Written by Finn Mackay

At the FWSA conference on ‘Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity? Current Issues and Future Challenges’ held on the 28th September 2012 at the University of Nottingham, an activist roundtable formed one of the workshop sessions. This panel included speakers from local and national women’s organisations: the Nottingham Women’s Centre, the Worker’s Educational Association and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

This is the final post in this series and here Carol Taylor, Director of the NIACE shares with us two of her recent articles to give us an insight into the significance of adult education and its role in empowering and politicising women and men. 


Carol Taylor from NIACE shares with us two articles she has written recently. She also had some thoughts on the interface between academia and the women’s sector. Listening to ‘Woman’s Hour’ before emailing us her articles, she heard a male MP arguing about female offenders and why they should receive any kind of preferential treatment; this was in response to a woman arguing that female offenders are disproportionately affected by abusive relationships and past abuse experiences. Carol thought this was a good example of where feminist academics could have an input, by actually translating statistics for a non-statistical audience, she pointed out that although around 72% of the female prison population may be serving sentences for what is called ‘serious crime’, most of those statistics represent women serving sentences of less than six months. Carol felt that untangling such statistics and presenting them from a variety of angles, could help those working in the women’s sector to make their own arguments in defence of marginalised women.

Carol also pointed out that in adult learning, women make up the bulk of the teaching workforce, but not in the leadership or management. Women make up a high proportion of those in informal learning, apprenticeships are still very gendered and changes in HE will impact on women’s access further. Overall, cuts impact on women’s learning opportunities: transport, childcare, carer support, resources etc. Carol emphasised that more research is needed on this, both quantitative and qualitative. She encourages academics to develop holistic, rather than atomised, perspectives and perspectives that start from the family and community, not just from the individual. NIACE is currently engaged in a national inquiry into family learning, seeing learning as a family being linked to other policy agendas, they hope to make clear that joining up can make a difference to women’s engagement with and progression within learning and education. Below Carol shares with us two articles she has written and which have been published recently:


Getting heated in the library: Assange and adult  learning.

One of the major impacts of becoming an adult learner, particularly adults accessing learning opportunities for the first time since school, maybe in their community, is the sudden opening up of their minds. Adults often say ‘I hadn’t thought about that before’ or ‘I never realised it was so complicated’. We are all – teachers, learners, consumers – becoming more aware of the complexities of how we benefit from learning, especially with the access to knowledge that most of us have, often, now, at the touch of a button. The Wider Benefits of Learning Centre, at the Institute of Education, has produced a stream of evidence, much of it based on longitudinal research, which shows the impact that learning can have on tolerance and curiosity – the wider social benefits of learning as an adult, particular in a group, are beyond dispute.

As Raymond Williams pointed out, in adult learning groups, people cultivate critical skills by interacting with others whom they might not normally encounter, and thus develop a more honed and acute sense of questioning and critical analysis. As he said, our need for learning increases at times of greatest change so that we can make sense of that change.

I sat with an adult group in my local library the other night, and listened to them painfully developing their thoughts around the Julian Assange case, introduced by the tutor in a discussion about the Internet and the opportunities and threats it posed. Some of the group were ‘children of the Internet’, and use it as easily and simply as the older people who talked about ‘going to the Council’ to get information. Some older learners struggled with the idea of what Wikileaks was actually about. But all of them, mainly the wives and children from ex mining communities, thought the idea of exposing what the USA was trying to hide, had to be a good thing. After all, ‘America prides itself on being a democracy’ said one. The continuing conversation, while practising their speaking and listening skills of course, as well as logic, discursive thinking, new vocabulary and much more, continued for several minutes as the group explored what having access to all knowledge might mean.

What happened next was interesting….one of the women mentioned the allegations of assault, and that this wasn’t just about Wikileaks. This inevitably lead  to personal experiences, both illuminating and painful…not one woman present had escaped some form of unwanted sexual harassment. The discussion that followed, lead with great skill by the tutor, there to teach them literacy, was an example of what happens in an adult education class  – personal stories, learning how to marshall an argument and the social skills, and confidence, needed to hold a discussion, trying out new concepts (‘freedom for who though?’ as one learner said); and coming, as a group, to the difficult conclusion that a person could be both admired (for exposing truths) and very wrong (for not facing trial for sexual assault and rape).

Many of these women stood alongside their husbands and fathers during the miners’ strike; many of them brought in the only money their families relied on; many of them were, and remain, politicised, by the events of those years; and many of them are still heavily involved in the regeneration of their communities. Many of them met and worked alongside women from many different backgrounds, particularly as part of the women against pit closures movement, and had to accommodate feminism as part of their developing political awareness.

Why am I telling this story in an FE newspaper? Because it reveals very starkly what adult learning is about – enabling and supporting adults to be able to take part in democratic processes, read and critically assess news and opinion, work out what they think about things. As one person once said to us, “if you don’t take the opportunity to at least give it a go you will never know what you’re missing and that first step to learn to read and write is the most painful thing you will ever do. If you don’t do it then you will never, ever know the gain. But the gain is worth everything…everything. Once you can, you can read those stupid articles people write you’ll be valid in saying ‘that’s a load of bollocks’.”

The group went home at the end of the class both stimulated and angry, fired up to ‘get on the Internet and look at the story’. The group seem to have come to a conclusion over the two hours  – s one woman said as she left the room, ‘just because he has done a good thing, it doesn’t mean he can’t also have done a bad thing’.


Today is the centenary of International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate all those women who fought, and those who died, in the cause of women’s equality.

Much of that fight was for equal access to education, and the positive impact they knew this would have on their lives and those of their families. We have seen women gain the vote, the right to go to university, the right not to have to resign from work when married or pregnant.

We have women professors, Prime Ministers and Ministers of State, judges and even, very occasionally, mechanics and plumbers. Universal child benefit has enabled mothers to save for their children’s education – and the chance to go to University has opened up the world for many women.

You only have to look at the excellent Message for UN Women gallery – http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/gallery/2011/mar/02/women#/?picture=372170719&index=0 – to see how many women believe that education – and literacy in particular – is vital for gender equality.

Yesterday NIACE held an event to start the process of drawing up a manifesto to ensure every woman has the right to learn, no matter what their life-circumstances are. Despite the major advances made over the past century there is still a long way to go.

For instance 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, women are, on average, still paid significantly less than men.

83 years ago women were given the same voting rights as men, however following the 2010 General Election only one in five MPs are women and they are vastly outnumbered in the Cabinet.

And as for the ‘glass ceiling’ very few women make it on to the boards of the top firms.

Spearheading the birth of this manifesto is Dame Gail Rebuck CEO of Random House Group, one of the largest publishers in the UK. She is one of the exceptions. The granddaughter of an illiterate Hungarian refugee, she started her own business 10 years after graduating, using money from remortgaging her flat.

Three years later she merged her company, Century, with Hutchinson, which then merged with Random House. In so many ways Dame Gail Rebuck remains an inspiration to women as someone who has brought up children and who has made it her business to mentor other women. One of her most remarkable achievements is the Quick Reads initiative. Short books written by famous authors and well-known people, reaching reluctant readers in a way that no other initiative of this kind ever has. Last Thursday another ten of these books, which have transformed adult literacy classes over the past six years, were published. Classes which are dominated by women, by women who suddenly become empowered.

But there are encouraging developments. Only last week Lord Davies of Abersoch, said, when launching his independent review into Women on Boards, that UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 should be aiming for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015. This has received backing from the Government.

However our concern is with every woman’s right to learn. There are large numbers of successful women in all corners of the world in public and community life and business.  The knowledge, skills and confidence they have gained through education has opened the doors to their success, enabling women to break through social, economic and political barriers to gain equality.

Adult learning supports women to realise their talents and ambitions. The challenge is to understand what works and what is needed to bring about equality for women and their lives in the 21st Century.

We need to ensure that rights extend to women returning to work or learning after childbirth. To help more women excel in non-traditional industries. To address the cultural and societal expectations, which for some are beginning to shift but many barriers still remain for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. And to ensure we are prepared for the implications of our ageing society, the raising of the pension age and the fact that women will continue to live longer and hopefully have more active lives.

This is what women need, this is what women want. No one put this better than Juliet in London on this paper’s Messages for UN gallery. Her image states – Let me spell it out: Literacy is the Key to Gender Equality. Or Erin in Scotland – Education in the ultimate lesson.


For more detail of the manifesto – http://www.niace.org.uk/womenlearning