During periods of rapid social change we are presented with opportunities to alter the status quo: to move towards a more equal society, to address the oppressive conditions experienced by those lacking economic, social, political, and cultural power and to engender social renewal (that is, to encourage individuals and communities to thrive). However, times of change also generate new contexts for the power structures of the past to be perpetuated and further entrenched, creating more – not less – oppression. This we can see when we consider the position of women in the UK, in 2013.
Think about the economic crisis. In June 2013, a report entitled The Impact of Austerity Measures on Women: A Case Study of the North East was published by the Women’s Resource Centre and the NE Women’s Network. The report, which was presented later in the summer to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), found that women are disproportionately affected by unemployment (especially in the North East), by welfare cuts, and by the closure or reduction of services that help prevent or respond to the problems (including sexual and domestic violence) that women experience.
And what about developments in technology? The internet has changed our lives in unimaginable ways, one of which is to increase the range of voices heard in public debates; reinvigorating – in different, new ways – civic engagement. It has also opened up new relationships to us all; to make connections with people we would never have otherwise met. But at the same time, the internet has become another location for the sexual objectification and exploitation of girls and women and for the (attempted) silencing of women’s voices (as we see in the well-reported rape and other violent threats made against women on social media).
But whilst the oppression of women continues within and because of economic and technological developments, in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of organised feminist activism; or, more accurately, we have seen more visibility being afforded to such feminist activity. Women have never stopped helping other women – in Rape Crisis centres, in refuges, and in providing care – and feminists have never stopped responding to the social injustices that women face. However, recent campaigns such as End Online Misogyny, No More Page Three, Let Toys be Toys, Get Women on Banknotes, Counting Dead Women, Everyday Sexism, and the creation of The Women’s Room have used social and traditional media to highlight, and to respond to, the oppressive conditions which shape female lives in the UK: the online abuse; the invisibility of women in the media and the public sphere; sexual objectification; and gender stereotyping. These campaigns have had not only raised awareness but resulted in positive outcomes too, including changing the decision-making of influential organisations such as the Bank of England and retailers such as Boots.
Crucially, especially when we think in terms of social renewal, the increasing visibility of feminist activity isn’t just taking place in the virtual world; it is happening in the ‘real world’ too. This weekend (October 12-13th October) saw the second North East Feminist Gathering (NEFG13) take place at the West End Women and Girls Centre in Elswick, Newcastle. The NEFG13 brought together 150 feminists; most of whom work and live in the North East, but some of whom had travelled from Scotland, Sheffield, Nottingham and London to attend one of the most vibrant and active feminist movements in the UK. All women were welcome: black women and non-black women; heterosexual, lesbian, bi, and transgendered women; disabled and non-disabled women; women of all ages (the experiences of older women were particularly inspirational to the younger feminists there); and women of all political backgrounds and parties. Activists, students, practitioners, musicians, artists, politicians, and academics came together to attend plenaries and workshops – some skills-based (such as public speaking), others issue-based (including women in political parties; sexually exploited girls and women; and what is feminism) – and to discuss further activism.
The NEFG provided a feminist woman-only space and, although not an uncontroversial stance amongst feminists, it was a crucial component of the Gathering. Following last year’s successful (first) NEFG, Dr Elizabeth Sharp of Texas Tech University (currently an honorary fellow at Durham University) and Dr Ruth Lewis of Northumbria University carried out a research project with a third of the women who attended NEFG12 to explore the experiences of being in a feminist women-only space, collecting data through focus groups (group interviews). They found that the NEFG space offered paradoxical conditions of feeling settled (relaxed) and unsettled (challenged) simultaneously. Feminist practices (e.g., reciprocity, respectfulness, reflexivity) and focusing on feminism at the NEFG created conditions whereby participants had in-depth intellectual and personal exchanges, experienced a high-energizing atmosphere (‘euphoric joy’) and resulted in a host of powerful outcomes, including feeling ‘cleverer’, happier, more confident, and more connected. The NEFG space allowed women to be safe from sexist comments, hostility towards feminism, and physical harm, which, in turn, allowed women to be safe to speak, to discover themselves, confront stereotypes of other feminists, ask difficult questions, and to think.
The NEFG thus provides a fabulous example of social renewal; both within the space (a safe place for women to act as full, relational, civic beings) and outside of it (in the connections made and the further activism that it inspired).
Feminist activism is a bottom up, grass-roots movement but large civic institutions, including Universities, have a role to play too. Central to this is the content of the curriculum and the focus of research. But so too is the physical visibility of women across many Universities. Women are largely invisible in civic spaces – in portraits, in statutes, in street names; we are writing women out of history and we are failing to provide examples to girls and young women to show them who they can be. For this reason, the current exhibition in the Hatton Gallery, Inspirational Women of the North East, is a real cause for celebration, and Newcastle University and the Newcastle Institute of Social Renewal are to be congratulated for supporting Professor Helen Berry’s project. However, the exhibition is only a first step. It should be followed by further initiatives: like many other Universities, throughout Newcastle University’s academic departments and public spaces across the campus photographs and portraits of women need to supplement (or even replace) the many images of men, thus giving female students other women to see, to look up to, and to strive to be like. Newcastle University may not have female chancellors and vice chancellors to display, or as many alumni, or notable (dead) judges (an example from my own School), but this is not an excuse for perpetuating in the present the exclusion and invisibility of women from public life that occurred in the past. Like the Inspirational Women of the North East project, Newcastle University – and other higher education institutions – can display images of women past and present, extraordinary ordinary women from all walks of life.
So, as well as thinking about feminism in the content of our work, feminist academics should think about it in the content of space: let’s use our campus to showcase women and contribute to the vibrant feminist activity taking place in the UK – such as the North East Feminist Gathering in Newcastle – demonstrating that, as institutions, Universities too want to contribute to the social renewal of women’s lives.
This piece is posted on Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal’s website and iis reproduced here with permission and thanks.