On Saturday I attended an inspiring panel discussion at King’s College, Cambridge, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2013.
This post is in two parts. Here, I’ll discuss the presentations of three of the speakers: Laura Bates, of the Everyday Sexism Project; Melisa Trujillo, a doctoral candidate at Cambridge studying young women’s body image; and Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, who discussed feminism and pregnancy. In the second part of my write-up, I’ll cover the fourth speaker, anti-FGM activist Rukayah Sarumi. We may have celebrated a day late, but it was worth the wait. Best Women’s Day ever.
Laura Bates on the Everyday Sexism Project
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the Everyday Sexism Project (at www.everydaysexism.com, or on twitter at @EverydaySexism). It’s a simple but devastating idea: invite women everywhere to share their stories of public harassment, sexual assault and verbal aggression in normal daily life.
Founder Laura Bates says she started the project after she had expressed anger at being harassed, and had been told she was “overreacting,” and that “sexism doesn’t happen anymore.” She decided to canvas other women to find out how widespread the problem might or might not be. To date, over 25 000 women have responded with their personal stories. It seems that sexism still, you know, happens.
It’s distressing to read these stories, but heartening to know we are not alone. Bates says she has started receiving feedback that women have been inspired by the site to resist the casual humiliations that come with being a woman in public space. One woman who was groped by a man through his car window after he stopped and asked her for directions says that the stories she had read on Everyday Sexism came to mind when the assault happened. She felt the usual sense of shame and violation, but anger, too, and decided to do something about it. She had the presence of mind to take down the man’s number plate. He has since been charged with assault.
The Everyday Sexism Project is not just a space for women to share their experiences. If twitter comments on the project are anything to go by, it also seems to have opened a lot of men’s eyes to the scale and severity of this problem. If that were all this project achieved, it would be plenty. But it is also potentially a powerful resource for writers, activists, and anyone seeking qualitative data—and lots of it—on this significant but rarely discussed aspect of women’s experience.
Melisa Trujillo on body image and agency for young British women
Cambridge PhD candidate Melisa Trujillo told the panel about her doctoral research into young British women’s experiences of body image and agency. Though her research is ongoing, early findings suggest that hair removal is in clear first place for young women as the most annoying and expensive, yet the most socially-expected, grooming activity; that most young women have experienced themselves, or have had close friends experience, disordered eating; and that young women resent the double bind they find themselves in, of being labelled “vain” if they spend money and time on their appearance, but facing explicit criticism and discrimination if they do not conform to certain expectations of feminine beauty. To me, the most exciting aspect of Trujillo’s research is the self-awareness with which young women seem to approach the problem of conforming to, or defying, social expectations about feminine appearance. I will be most interested to read the outcomes of her research.
Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre on being feminist and pregnant
Dr Regan-Lefebvre, now of the American University of Paris but formerly of King’s College, Cambridge, spoke about how being pregnant has changed her feminism. She said she has come to realise that she had valorised physical strength and self-control in her vision of competent womanhood – two qualities that she found challenged in herself as her pregnancy progressed. She was frequently tired or faint, and subject to wild emotional changes brought on by pregnancy hormones. Her new feminist vision embraces a wider range of competencies, physical, emotional and mental, in women, rather than requiring that they “prove themselves equal” to men in all circumstances.
Regan-Lefebvre also touched on the difficulty of knowing how to value pregnancy among women’s other capabilities and activities in life. She recalled bristling when a very sympathetic male colleague responded to a question about female academics’ needs in the workplace by arguing for more flexible working hours and better childcare options – becase she felt he was emphasising maternity over women’s other needs (and strengths) in the world of work.
I guess I feel that if workplaces (ALL workplaces – not just universities) routinely offered flexible working hours for parents and affordable childcare, it would have favourable effects for all of us, not just for mothers. It would benefit parents of all genders, because it would allow them to co-operate in parenting and in paid work schedules however suits them best.
And it would also benefit circumstantially or preferentially childless women, because women would not face conscious or unconscious prejudice about “flitting off to have children” or “being less committed to the job” if parenting were truly able to sit side by side with a career in paid work. Such prejudices about women’s “true priorities” harm all of us.
It seems really basic to me, that pregnancy and child-rearing ought to be integrated together in our conception of “work,” such that people can undertake both, if they want to, without unnecessary heartbreak, prejudice, and privation. Personally, I can’t wait to see the back of this hand-wringing about “having it all” – but that’s not going to happen until parenthood and the world of work are truly acknowledged as happening together in a single society, and in a single individual’s life.
Regan-Lefebvre’s presentation did point up, for me, the way we are constantly at risk of being cornered into constructing false hierarchies of feminist “priorities,” in which our corporeality is either emphasised at the expense of all other vectors of experience (and where does that leave, say, trans or intersex self-defining women? And what does that mean for all women who want and need to be more than our bodies?) or de-emphasised to allow us to fit into patriarchal definitions of personhood that don’t allow for the unruly particularities of embodied femaleness. We are and are not our bodies. That obvious but mysterious fact is important for all aspects of human experience, and feminist politics is no exception.
For my write-up of Rukayah Sarumi’s talk on ending FGM in the UK, see my next post.
Thank you to all the panelists for participating, and to the King’s undergraduate and graduate Women’s Officers for organising this event.