FWSA (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) Biennial Conference, Nottingham 21-23 June 2013
by Emily F. Henderson
There is perhaps some irony in holding an academic conference about protest and activism, but, as we discovered, there is potential for this irony to become a productive source of discussion and debate. The biennial FWSA (Feminist and Women’s Studies (UK and Ireland)) Conference, held at the University of Nottingham, 21-23 June 2013, took as its title “The Lady Doth Protest: Mapping Feminist Movements, Moments and Mobilisations”; over 150 participants convened to discuss these themes in what could truly be called an international conference. Protest was simply – and importantly – taken to be the subject of many of the papers, but I also began to notice that the conference itself was being used as a site of feminist protest.
The conference organisers set out the goal of the confernce as “seek[ing] to reflect on the nature and impact of protest (in its broadest sense) across feminist histories, cultures and communities”. As such, alongside the more traditional academic papers format, there was a roundtable discussion with representatives from the Feminist Library (UK), Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance. For many feminist academics, managing the dual feminist identity of activist and academic is a constant source of self-interrogation, and so their reflections on protest and feminism inevitably became personal expressions of this dual identity. The duality was presented at times as a divide, a see-saw, a tug-of-war, or as a happy co-habitation, and the effect of this web of identifications was to render the conference itself a site in which these personal and political struggles could play out.
These struggles took the form of exhortations to re-engage, proud and triumphant narratives of activist work, questions about the need for activism within academia, of discussions about the impossibility of making enough time for activism in a work-life imbalance that is worsening with the increasing pressure of performativity cultures within universities. These conversations, which Rosalind Gill (2010) has identified as reserved for the corridors of the neoliberal university, were now being played out in plenaries and panels, and even formed the ‘content’ of some of the papers, such as the presentation about the “(Im)possibilities” of combining activism and academia by Maria do Mar Pereira (University of Leeds, UK) in which she argued that the recent shifts in university priorities towards impacting on and engaging with society may paradoxically lead to a positive response to feminist activism, where once it was cast as a “pollutant” to the “hygienic production of knowledge”. I heard participants discussing the ‘feel’ of the conference, taking the view that it was an in-between space that was both exhilarating in the potential it offered and awkward in the lived experience. Did it count as academic? But surely it wasn’t activism either?
Conference activism: Shaping the feminist agenda
Several presenters, including keynote Diane Elson (University of Essex, UK), used the conference space to present on their activist concerns. Diane Elson chose to speak on her work with the Women’s Budget Group, which focuses on the effects of austerity measures upon women and men. Referencing Friday’s keynote by Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, UK) on feminists’ invasions of space and sound, Diane Elson reported on feminist economists’ efforts to be “space invaders” in the economic policy sphere. These invasions include legal challenges to gender-blind budgeting, as well as attempts to get the media interested in the effects of austerity measures on women. Mainstream economics cannot provide the analysis that is needed to combat the neutral – and neutralising – language of the budget. We need a gender lens to work out how to get at the effects of austerity measures. In the case of economics, this lens encourages creative thinking outside of traditional analyses. Whilst many analyses of inequalities in austerity tend to calculate how much a household will lose in money income, Diane Elson and colleagues have stepped outside of these monetised calculations to consider losses of “income in kind”. Women are more likely to use certain public services than men, and where these free services are withdrawn, this is a loss of income in kind. This approach highlights the invisible losses that women face with cuts to public services, with lone parents and single women pensioners losing most.
Intersectionality is a major current theme of British feminism, in particular the intersections of race, class and gender. Schisms within feminist movements that date back to the major critique of second wave feminism by women of colour are still playing out, and feminist conferences are a major venue for the evolution of the terms of debate. The effect of this critique has not been altogether successful in opening up the dominant international academic feminist discourse to an intersectional gender lens. Gwyneth Lonergan (University of Manchester, UK) indicated that there is a tendency in British feminism to find our “heroes” among American “women of colour” such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks or Angela Davis. The effect of doing so, Gwyneth argued, is to distance ourselves from getting our hands dirty with Black British feminism: feminists are appropriating the names of feminists from elsewhere, from another era, to signpost an intersectionality that avoids dealing with the here and now of British feminism today. The consequence of this stance: a continued denial of racism in Britain’s academies. Gwyneth drew on Sara Ahmed’s (2012) work on institutional diversity to theorise the tick-box culture of intersectionality. Referencing a woman of colour in order to have addressed intersectionality, and then moving on to the next point only serves to perpetuate the ongoing denial of the white-western dominance of global discourses of feminism(s).
Re-thinking everyday experiences
A second form of conference activism was enacted by the presenters who addressed issues of representation in the media and in everyday life. As one of the conference attendees pointed out to me, we are all very good at setting out our feminist terms and agendas, but when it comes to our daily lives we continue to participate in reifying the terms that our work seeks to complicate. What do we pass by in the street, or say to our friends, or navigate alongside on our computer screens, or do in our families, what is so natural and normal that we do not think to bring it under a feminist lens?
Karen Boyle began her presentation on poster campaigns challenging human trafficking with a justification of her “media scholar” activism. She argued that raising awareness of the representations of trafficking is important in carving out “intelligible” spaces for women with “more complex stories”. The media tend to focus on simplified, dramatic portrayals of sexual victimhood, which, Karen argued, limits the potential for different situations in human trafficking to be both recognised and addressed. Building on existing work on anti-trafficking campaigns, Karen has identified the ways in which well-meaning posters reinforce these simplified roles, with the women in the posters presented as empty or plastic bodies, as prostitutes and “fallen women”. The predominance of sexualised images in connection with trafficking leads to an understanding of the trafficked subject as female and sexual, which restricts the posters’ viewers’ notion of what they are looking for, and how they might need to act, and this is true across a range of campaigns produces by different kinds of agencies. Karen noted that very few posters have depicted men as either victims of trafficking or as perpetrators, and, where men are depicted, they may be shown without faces or from behind. The female sexualised victim tends to have a face, to be the one we are supposed to be looking for to stop trafficking crime, but the (male) perpetrator is rarely presented as a target for public crime-spotters, thus shrouding the source of trafficking in underground mystery.
Medical textbooks, whilst taking a neutral tone of scientific informativity, are in fact riddled with gendered assumptions, Emilie Auton (University of New South Wales, Australia) argued. Especially when it comes to representations of genitalia and instructions for medical students to learn how to conduct intimate examination. In a survey of textbooks published in the 21st Century, Emilie found that, in contrast to male anatomy, female genitals were rarely shown in photographic format, but rather in a diagrammatical form that standardised and normalised a particularly regular shape for female anatomy. Any photos of women tended to depict diseased genitalia, rather than portraying healthy female genitalia as existing in a number of forms. Instructions for conducting female intimate examinations were laden with complex codes of modesty and morality: the nurse should “prepare the patient”, “women doctors” should be on hand to “chaperone” the patient, gloves should be worn to reinforce the “strict clinical nature of the exam”. These instructions, Emilie argued, cast the female patient as the victim and the male doctor as the predator. In the case of male examinations, instructions were casual, even humorous, and lacking in detail about both method and emotion. Emilie’s study is now taking her into medical training contexts to examine how these textbook instructions play out in practice examinations.
The feminist activism at the FWSA conference brought out examples of the subtler ways in which global feminist debates are shaped, both by challenging over-simplifications of people and place, and by extending the reach of the feminist lens into the everyday practices that are sometimes too close to see.
This conference was attended as part of an ESRC-funded PhD research project in gender and higher education. Thanks to the FWSA conference organisers and executive committee for their cooperation, and to the presenters mentioned in this article.
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gill, R. (2010). ‘Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of the neoliberal university’. In R. Ryan-Flood and R. Gill (Eds), Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process : Feminist Reflections (pp. xxi, 311 p.). London: Routledge.
Emily F. Henderson is currently a PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London, on a studentship funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). She is researching international understandings of gender in Higher Education, with a specific focus on conferences and dissemination events. Her other research interests include poststructuralism, feminist pedagogy, postcolonialism, sexuality and Queer Studies, and gender in conjunction with international volunteering and cross-cultural interaction.