by Rhiannon Easterbrook,
Classics and Ancient History, University of Bristol
(see also http://www.artsandhumanities.org/conferences/classics-and-the-new-faces-of-feminism-sandpit/
It’s a common narrative that feminism is divided, that it’s riddled with infighting and that we’re too busy turning on each other to achieve our goals. This isn’t surprising as it plays into the familiar idea that women can’t really be friends because we’ll always be in competition with each other. It may be that what we want is equality (or gynarchy, according to some people) but our innate moral weakness always sabotages us and we end up getting what we deserve (inequality) instead.
Well, the truth is that at the Classics and the New Faces of Feminism Sandpit, there was disagreement. And why wouldn’t there be? When different generations of scholars from a number of countries, all with their own life experiences and interests come together, it’s bound to happen. However, just because there was disagreement over some issues, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t also a considerable amount of unity.
As a postgraduate researcher, I am relatively inexperienced when it comes to the world of academic conferences but, to me and to others as well, it seemed that this event was extraordinary. From the moment I walked in, the atmosphere was such that I knew it would be a good day.
What struck me most was that all participants went with the sincere intention of both imparting and gaining knowledge. Senior academics brought in insight and experience, not just in the application of feminist theory but in teaching. People at earlier points in their careers came with fresh, new ideas and approaches and were received well.
Some postgrads expressed anxieties about teaching for the first time and were met with support and helpful suggestions that ranged from the need to be straightforward and matter-of-fact about more explicit texts to the importance of self-care. Remembering that we are all human beings who have needs that go beyond access to the right texts and AV equipment is critical for our wellbeing. In a similar vein, discussion about how different institutions make allowances (or don’t) for family commitments was a reminder of how there are still structural barriers against women achieving full equality in academia.
Where contention loomed on the horizon, it was in regards to where feminism is heading. While the first panel, chaired by Vanda Zajko, saw Nancy Rabinowitz, Barbara Gold, and Ika Willis emphasise the value of previous feminist scholarship and second-wave feminists, it also introduced a theme which recurred later in the day: how to be inclusive of different identities. Several participants asserted that “we need to do better on race and class” and that disability is too often ignored. However, others were concerned that a concentration on identity politics might lead to too much focus on the individual. More participants still expressed concerns that a move from women’s studies to gender studies has been sidelining the experience of women and putting more focus on men in yet another discipline.
This fed into a discussion later on in the day about what fourth-wave feminism might be and whether any of us identify with the movement. At this point a generational gap became more apparent. For some younger feminists like me, social media plays a role in the formation of our opinions and the development of our understanding. Access to a wide range of experiences by women from all walks of life has challenged many of our assumptions and attitudes. Yet, as some people pointed out, there is the danger that this approach becomes detached from a theoretical grounding or that virtual interaction displaces more traditional forms of activism.
However, for all of this lively debate it became apparent there was real solidarity. Whether papers were on literature, or pedagogy, or science, there was the sense that, in coming together, we could create a network of mutual support. Admittedly, there was anger too – and rightly so – but I have high hopes that this anger will be channelled productively. Towards the end of the day, there emerged a strong will to capitalise on the successes of the day and work together. It’s not yet clear what exactly will come out of Classics and the New Feminism but be prepared!