Archive for the 'Women Speak Out in Cambridge' Category

Women Speak Out in… Cambridge

October 30 2010, Cafe’ Nerro, Kings Parade

We recently stopped off in Cambridge where we settled down for a chat with Clare, a second-year English student at Cambridge University and member of Cambridge Feminist Society, and Hannah, a feminist blogger and activist from nearby Peterborough.

Feminism appears to be alive and well in Cambridge; in addition to the Feminist Society, there’s also the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign, and both groups were involved in organising the Reclaim the Night marches which have taken place in the city for the past two years.  Clare said feminism “is needed” in Cambridge and as soon as our conversation began with Clare’s thoughts on women in academia, we could see why…

On women in academia

Clare: There are male fellows who won’t supervise female students. They don’t think they should be there. The university doesn’t address the issue because these fellows tend to be older, prestigious academics, and rather than refusing to supervise women out right, they’re just not given women to supervise because it’s known they don’t want to. It’s more of a problem in some colleges than others and the women’s campaign has tried to tackle it, but because it’s the older fellows with the most prestige, it’s difficult to get anything done about it.

I do think that academia is unequal in other ways.  For example, in English, more men than women get Firsts, despite the fact that there are more women than men on the course.

When did you become a feminist?

Clare: I was 18 and it was during an English class. A male teacher was talking about critical perspectives, and asked how many of us called ourselves feminists. No one put their hand up, and he said: “that’s a shame, because I think that any rational person should be a feminist”. And it stuck in my mind. Before that, I was an ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ feminist, but after that I felt I should call myself a feminist.

Hannah: I started identifying as a feminist at university, and seeing all the sexist culture on campus and the attitudes of some male students. Feminism has affected how I think about things and see the world.

Now, as I’ve got older, issues of employment and finance concern me, I also got married and am a Christian, and feminism has affected this too.

Is now a good time to be a woman?

Clare: Yes, I think it is, particularly in the West. But there’s still a central block, where some things aren’t recognised by wider society. Things seemed to stop progressing about 20 years ago; if events had taken a different path then we would be in a better position now. Some things seem to have gone backward, particularly in terms of how women perceive themselves, and what about the sexualisation of young girls?

On gender stereotypes

We talked about how society is still largely segregated in terms of gender and how society’s ideas of ‘what a boy is’ and ‘what a girl is’ seem to have got more pronounced, particularly when it comes to selling and marketing toys and other products to children. 

Hannah: Everything is pink for girls. There’s even a pink “princess bible” story book for girls, with a blue “mighty warriors” book for boys. The tagline for the girl’s book is: “all little girls want to be a princess and give their heart to their hero”. And this carries into adulthood, where phones are divided into normal phones and then there are phones for girls which are pink. I went to get a phone upgrade recently, and I didn’t know what I wanted, so the salesperson in the shop suggested a pink phone. He must have seen my face, because he then said, “or there are other colours”.

On women in literature

Clare: There’s a problem with female characters in literature. Look at Dracula – the female character’s main selling point was that she had the brain of a man. I used to read a lot of Tamora Pierce because she had real female characters in her books.

On the differences between men and women

Clare: Biologically there are differences, but it’s more like a sliding scale than exclusive groups.

Hannah: It starts early on – people go, “oh, he’s a proper little boy” before a child can talk, even before it’s born!

Jessica: Why should male and female brains be different?

On gender roles in the family

Hannah: My husband is really supportive. My parents-in-law have accused me of being selfish about my career in the past, basically because I think my job is as important as my husband’s job. For my mother-in-law, her life is her family and it’s the man’s job to ‘provide’.

Michelle: The same for my mum, which was a spur for my feminism, as I don’t see being a full-time wife and mother as being particularly fulfilling, I want to do more.

Hannah: People talk about who wears the trousers. My husband mentioned to one of his work colleagues that he does housework, and the reaction was, “why do you let her tell you what to do?”

On men and feminism

Clare: More men than women turned up to our first meeting of the Feminist Society. And while that’s good, because I think we need men involved in feminism, it was also difficult, and made us consider how we wanted men involved, because sometimes I thought that they were dominating the conversation. It’s barely perceptible, but because of the way we’re been brought up, men have a slight edge in discussion and women tend to defer to them.

Jessica: Like the edge that being at a public school gives you.  Just by living in a society in which to be male is to fit in with the norm, the average man acquires this slight rise in confidence, this slight edge.

Clare: I think feminism should be a movement led by women, and we should have our own spaces.

On religion and feminism

Hannah: There can definitely be a conflict between religion and feminism and I went through a period of disillusionment with the Church and how it fits women into boxes.  My in-laws believe in male headship – that the man is the head of the household, of relationships and in anything related to the church. My sister-in-law’s wedding vows included vows about recognising that her place was in submission, while her husband’s vows were about loving leadership. Many churches have a problem with the place of women. People do save their first kiss for marriage, but there’s no basis for that in the bible, it’s just been made up as a response to what some Christians see as the problems of contemporary ‘dating’ culture.

However, Hannah has been able to reconcile her Christianity with her feminism.

Hannah: My beliefs were reconciled by finding a supportive church, where women are in leadership positions, and not just running the Sunday school and serving tea and coffee. My church is supportive of women’s choices; for example one woman I know who attends has no interest in getting married or having children and this is accepted. After looking at different interpretations of scripture it also became clear to me that Jesus did not teach inequality and that the church should not place restrictions on what women can do.

On stereotypes of feminism

Clare: At the university Freshers’ Fayre, a lot of people would walk by the Feminist Society stand and giggle. One male student stopped to ask what we did, clearly expecting extreme anti-man behaviour. When I explained, about the Reclaim the Night march we did, and how we want to tackle things such as violence against women and making the streets safer, he replied, “well, that’s just common sense isn’t it?”

Hannah: Women are sold the stereotype of feminism as a bad image. Women are not equal partners. Most of my friends see feminism as a silly thing, something to make fun of, but they agree with the views. So to meet other feminists, I tend to go to a lot of feminist events, as there’s no activist scene in Peterborough.

Hannah: Peterborough is a city with a lot of   social problems, higher levels of poverty than average, frequent news reports of violence against women, and low attainment levels in schools.

Michelle: So isn’t it in places such as Peterborough, where women may feel more isolated, that feminism should have more of a presence, than for example, in Manchester or London? I live in Leicester which sounds similar to Peterborough, and I don’t doubt there is work being done at the community-level, but it’s perhaps not being done in the name of ‘feminism’?

Then just as we were leaving…

… we were joined by another woman, Beth from London, who having overheard our conversation, was keen to know more. Beth is thinking about studying for an MPhil in Gender Studies at Cambridge and currently volunteers for Refuge, the domestic violence charity. The impact of public spending cuts on this service was of particular concern to Beth and she mentioned the importance of “feminisms, not feminism.” After filling her in about Women Speak Out, she declared we had “made her day”!


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We’re planning on publishing a Women Speak Out booklet and hope to include comments and poll results from this blog alongside the quotes from our discussions, so it would be great to get more of your views!