Emily F. Henderson

Institute of Education, University of London


Miriam E. David. Feminism, Gender and Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies Ashgate (2014)

If you take a look at the photograph on the front cover of Feminism, Gender and Universities, you will see a roomful of people at an event, all looking towards two people in the corner, who appear to be leading a discussion. The event was a symposium at the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (CHEER) at the University of Sussex[i], which aimed to provide feminist reflections on the expansion of higher education in the 50th anniversary year of the Robbins Report[ii]. The two people in the far corner, Valerie Hey and Louise Morley, are leading a plenary discussion that followed on from a break-out session where we had tried to talk across generational differences about feminism and gender in our own higher education experiences. In the photograph, you can see the back of my head in the bottom right-hand corner, the foreground of the photograph, with an asymmetrical haircut and my arms folded.

I say this because my position on the front cover of the book, as the person just in front of the reader in the book’s audience, is as one who is an observer to the book. I am an observer not just as a reviewer, but as a member of the fourth cohort, ie the cohort of participants who were not born between 1935 and 1980 but who are just now emerging as a new set of voices in academic feminism. Miriam David’s book encompasses an impressive range of feminist academics, with lived changes in both feminism and academia charted in detail by her participants. As someone who is in the last stages of her PhD, who is developing a voice as a feminist academic, but who missed out on cohort 3 by five years, I am looking in on the accounts. Although the fourth cohort is not explicitly addressed in Feminism, Gender and Universities, there is perhaps an implicit invitation to find the roots or origins of our own feminist university experiences in these accounts. It is from this point of view that I read and reviewed the book, sitting back with my arms folded, looking for ways that it would speak to not just those who were there, but also the large number of FWSA members who were born after 1980. What would this cohort have insisted on if they had been included? How can we pick up and continue the vital work that participants in this study have carried out to get feminism into universities?

This is in some ways a ‘feminist’ review, in that I am deliberately writing it as a colleague of Miriam’s, but I do not consider that this fact contaminates or brings ‘bias’ to my review – my relationship with Miriam is one of allies in higher education studies who recognise and care about each other but who find ourselves talking to each other over a gulf of time and experience. Miriam herself positions the book as deliberately ‘partial’ in its celebration of the achievements of feminism within the university (p. 14), and she draws on her extensive networks of feminist connections to recruit a huge number of voices and experiences for an in-depth, qualitative study. The book does credit to Miriam’s ongoing generosity and passion for feminism as an archive of personal connections, gathered over the years and maintained. Miriam’s own voice conveys something of the tone of public intellectual, where she cherry-picks from current affairs to reinforce her reading of the zeitgeist, finding the relevance to higher education in the trial of Oscar Pistorius and Fifty Shades of Grey, among others – one gets the sense, as I do every time I see Miriam, that she sees and knows so much. There is a range of styles in this book, from this overarching tone to the policy and statistical analysis in Chapter 2, to the collage work in the later chapters that brings together the participants’ accounts of higher education and feminism.

The research study that underpins Feminism, Gender and Universities is set up as a ‘life history and collective biography of academic feminism’ (p. ix), which follows in the footsteps of Olive Banks’ collective biography of first-wave feminism.[iii] The participants are divided into three cohorts by year of birth, and we are privy to the reflections of academic feminists within these cohorts about how they came to feminism, their higher education experiences, and the role of feminism in their careers. The book deliberately undermines the use of the ‘wave’ analogy to categorise feminisms by showing the nuances within what would be chronologically classed as second-wave feminism, as well as the overlaps between all three cohorts.

Some broad narratives do emerge from each cohort, which are perhaps in part guided by the questions that Miriam posed to each cohort. From cohort 1 (born 1935-1950), we can see how much the status of the PhD as a qualification to gain an academic job has changed, in that many cohort 1 participants either gained a PhD by publication or much later in their careers, or not at all. Many of the women in this cohort also did not become feminists at or through their undergraduate experience, but rather accessed feminism through the Women’s Liberation Movement and brought it to the university. The role of Oxbridge and LSE was also apparent from this cohort, whilst later cohorts were characterised by a wider range of institutions. The second cohort (born 1950-1965) was marked by accounts of the roles of supervisors and access to academic feminism, and the fact of becoming a feminist at university. This cohort therefore can be more straightforwardly termed ‘academic feminists’ (p. 123). The third cohort (born 1965-1980) showed the effects of the expansion of higher education, in that more of the members of this cohort came from a working class background. This cohort also referred to feminist knowledge as necessarily interdisciplinary and intersectional.

There are some tensions in presenting the cohorts in this way, by year of birth. This presentation serves to counter the wave analogy, but at the same time the resulting categorisation feels at times as if it were swimming against the broader project of the book. This is in part reflected in the cohort overlap, particularly between the first two cohorts, where many participants in cohort 1 by birth, were in fact aligned with cohort 2 by higher education experience, in that they had attended university as mature students at the same time as many of cohort 2. Categorising participants by, for example, entry to higher education, would have been another option, except that the mature students of cohort 1 were also generationally aligned with their fellow cohort 1 members in their early life experiences. The participants in the study, then, are difficult to categorise. This inherent resistance to classification is representative of the challenges that feminists, have posed to the smooth sequential narrative of a university education that passes from school into university without hitch, ending at the age of 21 with the start of a career or continued studies. Miriam’s participants pose a further challenge in their organisation, in that they are unevenly distributed across the cohorts, with 66 in cohort 1, 32 in cohort 2, and 12 in cohort 3. Instead of seeking to objectively represent academic feminists through the ages, the cohorts instead form the textual version of Miriam’s own feminist networks, which are the sum of her years of research, teaching and activism.

The later chapters of the book, those which are dedicated to the collective biography proper, mainly consist of excerpts from interviews and written correspondence with participants, which have been arranged and introduced by Miriam into various themes and core ideas. These personal accounts of family background, political struggle, travel, marriage and divorce, relationships, parenthood, friendship and conflict, are fascinating to read and provide an enriching view of the details which are often marginalised in accounts of academic feminism. In her review of Feminism, Gender and Universities for the Times Higher Education, Ruth Woodfield wondered if readers would find this presentation style ‘disorienting’[iv]. I would tend to agree with this description, but I think that being disoriented can be a productive reading experience, one which disrupts normalised knowledge production. The collective biography style forces the reader to work out how to read the contributions, much as a graphic novel or a scrapbook require different reading strategies. By using this approach, Miriam is grappling with the age-old feminist problem of authorial authority. She prioritises the voices of her participants, refusing to paraphrase them for us or to tell us what we should see in them before we have read them ourselves. The reader is unmoored from the safety of the directive authorial commentary, and instead is asked to make their own way through, with some light-touch guidance from Miriam. The conundrum of this approach is of course that, even without very obvious shepherding, the author-cum-editor is nonetheless scaffolding our reading by ordering the excerpts, inserting light-touch comments and italicised words or phrases, and showing where she has omitted parts of excerpts with ellipses. This produces a strange feeling of self-negated authorship – disorientating indeed, but I would argue productively so.

To return to my position in the corner of the room, on the front row of that liminal generation of feminists who are in the university now but not captured by the study, this book certainly provides food for thought. There is widespread disgust in participants’ accounts from all cohorts about the effects of neoliberalism on higher education, and the need to take up and promulgate these discourses in order to ensure the survival of feminism in academia. These questions are at the forefront of feminist discussions;[v] how will future generations of feminists take up these questions, having been absent by virtue of age from the earlier manifestations of academic feminism? What if the fourth cohort is too steeped in neoliberal systems of higher education management to notice its effects? The book makes important points about the feminisation discourse that is sullying both the progress made towards gender parity in education systems in the UK and the inequalities yet to overcome. As Miriam shows us in chapter 2, policy accounts of ‘too many women’ students are able to exist alongside accounts of ‘not enough women’ professors and managers without problematisation of this apparent disconnect, clearly a shifted glass ceiling, which it is arguably the fourth cohort’s future role to push at, and keep pushing. Feminism, Gender and Universities does engage with intersectionality, certainly with class, at times race, religion, and sexuality. However, and I say this in the wake of the third cohort, who in the study clamoured for intersectional analysis, I felt that this aspect could have been stronger. The questions posed to the participants, if I had designed them from my fourth cohort perspective, would have insisted, perhaps anachronistically, on an intersectional analysis of academic feminism.

As a final point, whilst Olive Banks included some men in her collective biography, there are no accounts from (self-identified) men in this book. Miriam sets this up as a potentially controversial decision, and it is one that I cannot dispute, but that I must mention. The book was based on Miriam’s networks, and as such makes no claim to represent feminism at large. A large number of the participants come from an Education Studies background, and I am not disputing that disciplinary imbalance, so why should I dispute the choice of women-only participants? I am even cringing at saying this, as it is one of the most common questions posed to me about my area of research by people who are hostile to gender and feminist research: ‘Where are the men?’ However, and again this is perhaps a facet of my ‘cohort 4’ perspective, I do not think that all of the participants fit the dual woman-feminist category in a way that can easily be bracketed off. Some seem to have been included in the study on the basis that they are women, and perhaps have worked on gender, but have an ambivalent relationship with feminism. Does a non-feminist woman have more right to contribute to the collective biography than a feminist man? And, to bring up another one of those questions, what about trans* and genderqueer feminists? But perhaps these are fourth cohort concerns that will arise in the next volume…

It remains for me to say that what Miriam has crafted in her project is a resource that will no doubt be used and perused for years to come. She has succeeded in producing a book that straddles the tensions of feminist epistemological and methodological concerns that continue to preoccupy feminist researchers. Feminism, Gender and Universities documents the personal and the intimate as well as the social and institutional events and processes that have led to the position that feminist knowledge holds in the academy today. In that way it is the celebration of academic feminism that Miriam set out to produce; on the other hand it is a valuable source of reflection for newer feminists, within and without the university, to trace allegiances, take up positions in a genealogy, but also to carve out the questions of the moment.

Photo on 2013-06-07 at 11.56

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.


[i] The CHEER event was entitled ‘Robbins Report 50 Years On: Feminist Responses’ and the presentations are available to watch here:

[ii] The Robbins report came out in 1963; it supported the idea of expanding the UK higher education system to enable wider access to university education. The full report is available here:

An extended article in Times Higher Education looks at the Robbins report 50 years on:

[iii] Banks, O. (1985). The Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists. Volume One: 1800-1930. New York: New York University Press.

[iv] See Ruth Woodfield, ‘Tales of the trailblazers’, Times Higher Education, 7th August 2014, p. 48.

[v] See the special issue of the Journal of Gender Studies (2014, 23:3), ‘Feminism, Academia, Austerity’, edited by Helen Davies and Claire O’Callaghan, which emerged from the interim FWSA event on this issue.