Intersectionality, Privilege and Women in Academia

by

Caroline Magennis

There has been rather a lot of debate recently on Twitter and elsewhere about ‘intersectionality’ and contemporary feminism. Whether the Caitlin Moran/Lena Dunham debacle, or the Moore/Burchill episode, it is very clear that for feminism to remain relevant and important we all have to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

Now, it might be because I am a child of Post-structuralism and Queer Theory (though, as the saying goes, I’ll be post-feminist in a post-patriarchy) but, for me, intersectionality isn’t an optional add on. It’s about being a human being and not imposing one narrative on all women. In some ways, that is as constraining and limiting as the insidious patriarchal forces we are fighting against. These forces can hurt men as well as women, for as we know from theory, masculinity is temporal and contingent. Men should be allies. Women of all classes, creeds and ethnicities should be allies. People on every part of the Trans scale should be allies. Asexual people should be allies. We are fighting for fairness, for decency, to be judged on other qualities than what arrangement of genitals we have.

To that, I come to the difficult question of being a woman in academia. This post has been spurred on by the often horrendous abuse the magnificent historian Mary Beard has received on Twitter. Sometimes she RTs it, and I genuinely wonder at the motivation of people who decide that commenting on another person’s appearance is a worthwhile use of the short time we have on this earth. To have your own privilege so deeply ingrained that you think people just need to hear your options on how they look, as if you were simultaneously Gok Wan and Mother Teresa. Just here to help, love.

Mary-Beard-pic

It is depressing to think that some people still think that the best way to belittle a woman of energy, charisma and learning is to criticise her appearance. But to quote Destiny’s Child: ‘I’m not going to diss you on the internet, ’cause my Mama taught me better than that’.

So, in a commitment to all things intersectional, I am first going to check my privilege. I am a white, CIS-gendered, heterosexual, woman with no disabilities and a lot of education. I was lucky enough to start my education during the first flush of New Labour, when there was money about for such things. So far, so privileged. But, as we have seen from the magnificent Prof. Beard, education does not make you immune from what the (admittedly problematic) Caitlin Moran calls patriarchal bullsh*t.

Exhibit A: http://mansplained.tumblr.com/

This tumblr, ‘Academic Men Explain Things to Me’, was shared widely through my Facebook and Twitter friends as some of us had quite the shudder of recognition. Now, I can’t speak to what it is like to be from another background in academia, but the stories of my female friends made me laugh, cry and fume. A male student asked if a friend, with a prestigious PhD and a publication list to-die-for, if she was ‘sure’ she was qualified to teach him. A leading scholar in my area explained my invited lecture back to me, slowly, calling me ‘darling’. The stories of harassment, of belittling comments, poured out, as they often do over a cheeky glass of wine.

I believe we are fighting the good fight, and I have been exceptionally lucky to have worked with men during my career who have been remarkably supportive and woman-positive. Men I would consider friends, allies and co-conspirators. But when a woman of stature, grace and intelligence is harried on Twitter, it demeans us all and the everyday struggles women in academia go through. When trans people are defamed with hate-speech by Burchill, we stand up for them. We stand united, for ideas and for curiosity, against bullies.

This was originally posted on  19th January 2013 on Caroline’s website here. ‘This was written before the online harassment of Caroline Criado-Perez, for a post on this see  here.

A petition to add a report abuse button to Twitter is available here

Further reading:

http://www.sexcritical.co.uk/2013/01/19/some-thoughts-on-words-and-power-prompted-by-recent-debates-in-print-and-social-media/

http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-01-18/guy-talk-why-a-straight-man-like-me-cares-about-transgender-rights/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/19/feminism-trans-women-female-enough

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Caroline Magennis is a lecturer and literary critic, originally from Northern Ireland, now living in England. Full details of her writing can be found athttp://harlaxton.academia.edu/CarolineMagennis