Conference Blog: Panel Session VII, Sunday 23 June


Feminist Mobilisations (i): Politics and Tensions

Dr. Sarah Browne (University of Nottingham). “Diluting the Movement? The Women’s Liberation Campaign for Financial and Legal Independence.”

 This is a history paper questioning how feminist protest has been defined and how it evolved from the 1960s to today. Dr. Sarah Browne mentions the campaign for legal and financial independence for women, which embodied the 5th demand of the Women Liberation Movement’s 7 demands. It can be called a turning point in the movement’s history as its focus was firmly on the reasons of women’s oppression as well as eradicating said oppression. The campaign sought to disrupt the concept of the male breadwinner and the female homemaker, yet the 5th demand has not received as much attention as the demands for equal pay or contraception and abortion. The WLM was part of larger movements of the 1960s confronting the contradictions around what being a “good woman” meant. Women’s groups were formed everywhere in Britain, using direct methods of actions such as public demonstrations and challenging gendered ideas of protest. Dr. Sarah Browne explains that the campaign’s aims were to mobilise women all over the country to demand independence. Indeed, in the 1960s women were forced into dependency on (and by) the men in their lives in exchange for financial support. She mentions the example the the benefit system which prohibited women to apply for financial support if they lived with a man as further evidence of the assumption of female dependency. National movements such as the YBA Wife? (Why Be A Wife?) campaign allowed burgeoning women’s groups all over the UK to communicate with each other. This led to certain tensions between the purist members and those who attempted to reach out to more women and create a mass movement. Yet they still provided a welcoming and safe space for women to get involved, as opposed to the sexist and bureaucratic left wing movements of the time. Although the campaigns were criticised by some feminists as revolutionary, the reformist WLM was also controversial, mostly because of its focus on marriage and family, questioning the aspirations of many women. Dr. Sarah Browne concludes that the history of feminist protest is much more diverse that it is given credit for, and that the 5th demand campaign and its attempts to destabilise ideas about female dependency and to challenge set ideas of femininity actually enriched rather than diluted the WLM.

 Sarah Webster (University of Manchester). “Playing Billiards with the Boys: University of Manchester Women’s Activism before Second Wave Feminism.”

 The focus of this talk is women student’s activism between 1945 and 2012 in British universities. Sarah Webster asserts that the WLM emerged out of student movements which provided women with patterns of resistance. Left wing groups were an inspiration for women’s groups but they remained clearly male-dominated, so women started to organise outside of the famous movements of 2nd and 3rd wave feminism. Students in the 1950s were known as the silent generation and high-profile student protests kicked off in 1964 with resistance to sexism on campus, in student unions, and universities in general. Sarah Webster evokes the case of Manchester University, the last British institution to establish a joint union in 1957, which even then remained segregated. Arguments against a joint union included the fear that women would ruin the atmosphere at the bar and that they could not play billiards. The women’s union also called for equal representation when male students wanted to keep the key roles of President and Treasurer for themselves. Although they were forced to relinquish a few rooms to women, men kept the bar and billiards room, but women continued their form of quiet resistance by breaking the rules and constantly challenging the assumptions of male superiority. When the union’s bar was under investigation for licensing infringement, women enlisted as members to keep it open, thus saving the bar from closure. In the early 1960s, halls of residence at Manchester University also treated women student very differently from men, including earlier curfews and the need to justify every movement. In 1965, women fought to establish a nursery for student parents, and upon the university’s refusal on “moral” grounds, they proceeded to establish a student-run unofficial nursery that remained open for 25 years. These challenges to sexism appeared as acts of disobedience and subversion rather than campaigns and visual mobilisation like in the 1970s. Finally, Sarah Webster acknowledges that, if a tradition of student politics was passed down from one generation to the next, this was also true of their lack of intersectionality, that is a lack of concern about race and class as well as gender.

 Tanita Maxwell (University of Aberdeen). “Protest from Within: Femocrats, Funding and Social Change.”

 This paper looks at sites of feminist mobilisation, and particularly the relationship between feminist organisations and femocrats (feminist senior civil servants), and the concept of quiet resistance. Tanita Maxwell mentions the increasing popularity of online and social media for campaigns such as the “No More Page 3” movement. In 1999, the new Scottish Parliament started working alongside women’s organisations to develop a strategy to fight off violence against women. “Unobtrusive mobilisation” is described by Katzenberg as the newest form of feminist politics, brining a new language into the establishment. Tanita Maxwell also raises several issues linked with the fact that feminist organisations which received funding from the government are dependent on political changes and that their agenda may be set by the government instead of grassroots. Here, state funding provisions for feminist organisations could be seen as attempts to curb anti-goverment protests.

 Prof. Kalpana Hirala (University of Kwazulu/Natal, South Africa). “Married to the Freedom Struggle: Wives of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.”

 This talk is part of a wider project on women’s participation in the anti-Apartheid struggles. Prof. Kalpana Hirala looks especially at wives and mothers of activists to attract attention to lesser-known female figures. Her focus is on women of South Asian and Indian descent, not usually seen as political activists but politically involved and facing many challenges due to their husbands’ convictions, including imprisonment, hard labour, house arrest, banning orders, etc. She mentions for example the lives of Marie Naicker and Terese Venkatrathnam, both wives of members of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).

 Writing Protest: Gender, Sexuality, and Embodiment.

Esther Akanya ‘Securitizing a Sanitized Beautiful Soul’

 Akanya began by looking at the overview of language of international security and the way that women are discussed in relation to war and security.  The paper went on to look at the way Elshtain discussed the concept of the just warrior and the beautiful soul, where men are placed in position as protectors of women and children. Akanya critiques Elshtain’s reading of Hegel’s beautiful soul, specifically the way that Antigone is read. Antigone is described by Sophocles as the first beautiful soul who went against the state to ensure that her brother was given a proper burial and therefore stepped out of the domestic sphere and the way that women were encouraged to act.  Akanya suggested that Elshtain’s reading does not show Antigone’s actions as antagonistic and therefore sanitizes them. Furthermore, she suggested that this can be linked to women and peacekeeping, noting that women can and should have agency within peacekeeping. The paper then went on to look at the various feminist readings of Antigone, noting that whilst de Beauvoir saw Antigone as a proto feminist, others have suggested that the story is phallic centric and locked in the public sphere. The paper then went on to look at the way that the UN resolution 1325 on women’s peace and security from 2000 conceptualised women’s role in war and peacekeeping. The resolution aimed to increase participation of women in peace and security, though Akanya noted that women still tend to be stuck at the grassroots level. The paper concluded by suggesting that discourse around women and peacekeeping still emphasizes the idea of the beautiful soul, repeating gender stereotypes and locking women in the private sphere. Furthermore, the paper suggested that the resolution tied women into a role as mother, linking reproductive capacities with peacefulness. Women were also infantilized, viewed as weak and women’s agency (for example as members of police forces) was ignored.

 Johanna Franklin ‘Reframing Resistance: Romantic Thralldom as Affective Social Performance in Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

 Franklin’s paper looked at the main paradox of Rhys’s work, that despite Rhys’s engagement with feminist ideas her work has tended to be viewed as passive rather than subversive.  Franklin suggested that in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, passive and unhappiness can be seen as performative.  Franklin argues that passivity does not necessarily be read as negative or as a patriarchal concept. The novel opens in Paris, with the protagonist cut off from her ex lover’s monet, dealing with heartbreak at the end of the affair. Julia visits London to ask for money and is given money by a man she meets. The novel is described as an anti-bildungsroman. Franklin suggested that Julia’s passivity can be seen as affect and that affect can be described as un signifying, pre subjective and noncognitive. Franklin suggested that Julia uses a performative and affective pose ( in this case looking in a mirror as her lover looks at her) as a way of breaking down the fourth wall, especially as her lover colonises her sight by imagining her looking in the mirror. The paper suggested that Rhys’s protagonist can be seen as a spectacle, and in a Bakhtinian sense embodies the carnivalesque with the recurring motif of the mask and the grotesque. Franklin suggested that Julia’s inability to act appropriately causes those around her to feel resentment and that this provokes an affective response. Franklin also suggested that Rhys ridicules Freud’s idea of passivity whilst the text can be seen as a reminder that the notion of free will is a fantasy constructed by language makers.

 Emma Young ‘Muddying the Water: The Politics of Sex and the Post/Feminist Moment in Michele Robert’s Mud: Stories of Sex and Love

 Young’s paper looked at the relationship between Robert’s short story collection Mud to post-feminism. Using McRobbie’s definition, Young suggested that post-feminism emphasizes the tropes of freedom and choice, as well as a suggestion that feminism is redundant.  She referenced Genz who argued that post- feminism rejects the concept of group oppression so that autonomy and agency are seen as negating the patriarchy.  Young suggested that the lead title of the collection ‘Mud’ can be seen to reflect a strong feminist impetus to rework and reincarnate. The paper also noted the connections between Robert’s work in 2010 and the rise of movements such as Reclaim the Night and Slutwalk, which both emphasized women’s right to body autonomy. Young highlighted how both movements challenge the notion of women “asking for it” and put emphasis back on male behaviour. The paper then looked at two of Robert’s stories ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Easy as ABC’. In ‘Annunciation’ Young suggested that Roberts highlighted that the binary of virgin saint is still prevalent so that the concept of choice is complicated, as it is a choice made within a patriarchal society. Young also highlighted the way that the story shows the way that women internalise sexist experiences (such as sexual harassment).  Finally, Young looked at the way that the silence is used as consent within the story, with the emphasis on the way that the protagonist is blamed for sexual encounters where silence was seen to stand in for consent. The paper then looked at the story ‘Easy as ABC’. In the story the protagonist is sold a new life, but is in fact sold into prostitution. The story uses the doll as a motif, with the protagonist Eva going from playing with dolls to being a doll. Young noted that throughout the story Eva’s name is only used one, suggesting that she is otherwise seen as anonymous. Young liked this to Russian dolls, suggesting that Eva’s sense of self becomes progressively smaller and smaller. Furthermore she compared the idea of Eva as a doll to sex dolls and the commodification of the female body as women’s bodies are objectified. FInally, Young discussed this in relation to Walter’s Living Dolls, suggesting that women’s bodies remain contested sites where male ownership and lack of bodily autonomy is prevalent.

 Prof. Kishori Nayak: ‘“Mapping Feminist Movements and Moments”: The Tradition of Dissent in Modern Indian Women’s Autobiography

 Nayak’s paper discussed the way that Indian autobiographies can be seen as presenting moments within the feminist movement in India and allowing voices to emerge from the margins. Nayak alluded to the tradition of dissent, also pointing to the way that the study of women’s autobiography has increased, and that the way that writing women’s experiences has increased. The paper drew on the work of Tharu and Lalitha in Women Writing in India 600 BC to the Present,  suggesting that in the nineteenth century and up to the present, autobiography has been used as a way to revolt against patriarchal restrictions and encourage strong female agency and selfhood. Furthermore, Nayak noted that contemporary accounts of Indian women’s lives, from Sex Workers to Transgender Women allows for a voice to be given to the voiceless from margins of various kinds. These include texts such as A Life Less Ordinary, The Truth About Me, as well as autobiographies written by nuns unhappy with the patriarchal system in the Roman Catholic Church in India. Nayak suggests that Foucault’s theory of subjugated discourse can be applied to Indian women’s autobiographies. Furthermore, she suggests that autobiography writers see themselves as a voice for their community, whilst also giving confidence to other women.

 Feminism, Kinship, Reproduction

Prof. Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers School of Law, USA), ‘The New Kinship is the Old Kinship’

 This paper looks at the U.S. fertility industry, in particular how arguments to change legislation around anonymity of donors is being challenged, and how this could affect ‘outsider families’ – e.g. marginalised family formations, particularly lesbian and queer families and single mothers. Professor Mutcherson’s research asks questions around what it means to procreate and how this relates to what a family is, exploring the transformative potential of assisted reproduction. The market of sperm is aimed primarily towards women as the buyers of sperm. Currently sperm is sold on an anonymous basis, and arguments for anonymity point to the importance of having a clear legal responsibility of children. Anonymity is also considered important in maintaining a robust market, based on an assumption that fewer men would be willing to donate sperm if they knew that at some point in the future their genetic offspring may attempt to seek them out. Increasingly there have been calls for laws around anonymity to change, and the right of anonymity of sperm donors to be removed. These arguments centre around the fundamental right to know: that children have a right to know their genetic origins, and should not be bound by decisions made by their parents before their conception. It is argued that this is not in the best interests of the child, because it may affect their understanding of who they are, and that secrecy is bad for families. Such arguments also often highlight the right of people to be able to access information related to genetic medical information. Prof. Mutcherson’s approach to the sperm industry centres a reproductive justice lens, a framework initiated by women of colour activists in the US, which advocates the right to have or to not have children and to parenting children in safe environments. The paper highlighted concerns about this renewed focus on kinship structures as bound to blood and genetic ties, at the expense of understandings of kinship as based on affective bonds. There is a clear risk that the revocation of anonymity will have particular costs for ‘outsider families’, undermining their integrity as legitimate family units. It is important to protect the notion of kinship based on affective rather than genetic ties. The paper also raised concerns that this focus on genetic ties affects our the ways in which meaning of identity is constructed, having potentially detrimental effects on the identity-formation processes of children born through assistive reproduction.

 Prof. Tanya Saroj Bakhru (San Jose State University, USA), ‘Movement, Consumption, and Choice in Neoliberal Reproductive Discourses: An Irish Case Study’

 Professor Bakhru’s research focuses on the experiences of refugee and asylum seeking women in relation to reproductive rights in Ireland. Asylum seeking women’s positions in Ireland are severely circumscribed in relation to their ability to exercise their reproductive rights freely. Their marginal status as asylum seekers means they are excluded from social assistance, denied the right to work, and their only means of state support provided through direct provision housing (which requires women to live in cramped accommodation, sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and without any dedicated facilities to support vulnerable women). Their isolation and vulnerability becomes particularly clear when looking at what happens when asylum seeking women are in need of family planning services as a result of a crisis pregnancy. Abortion in Ireland is only legal when there is a substantial risk to the life of a woman – and there is a real vagueness about how this is defined. However, the state can’t stop women from travelling abroad to get an abortion. But for asylum seeking women, a crisis pregnancy comes with very specific issues which family planning agencies are poor equipped to deal with. Particularly, although in some cases asylum seekers may apply for the right to travel abroad, this is a costly and complicated process. As a result, many asylum seeking woman are unable to access abortions, and either are forced to parent against their will or must resort to accessing illegal methods of termination. Prof. Bakhru locates her research within the framework of global capitalism, noting the importance of understanding how this context places access to abortion in Ireland within a market context, where only those who can afford to make choices in relation to their reproductive rights are entitled to do so. This is a great injustice which stands starkly at odds with the argument that sexual and reproductive health rights are basic human rights (as argued by the Irish Family Planning Association). The paper argued for the importance of analysing reproductive health through an intersectional framework, and in particular for the importance of understanding how global capitalism structures women’s ability to exercise their reproductive rights.

 Dr Aristea Fotopoulou (University of Sussex), “Reprotechnologies and feminist mobilisations: Mapping with digital methods”

 Dr Fotopoulou presented findings from her current research mapping actors and feminist mobilisations within online discourses on reproductive technologies. The starting point for the research was the 2011 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) consultation on compensation for egg donors. Egg donation is classed in the same category as all forms of ‘tissue donation’ (including sperm donation), which restricts payments to compensation for the loss of earnings and expenses (this amount was increased to £750 from £250 following the consultation). The impetus for the review was framed around a discourse of scarcity of eggs, with eggs constructed as something that limits women’s fertility treatment in Britain. From a Marxist analysis, this can be understood in terms of the creation of a need, shifting towards the construction of egg donation as part of an industry. Employing a digital sociology approach, ‘scraping’ websites for relevant content, Dr Fotopoulou conducted a media analysis of news stories, feminist blogs and policy websites to explore the ways in which discussions about egg donation were framed in relation to this consultation. She looked at who the main actors in the discussions were, how the issues were represented visually and how the dominant imaginary constructed the egg donor. She was in particular interested in how feminists constructed the issues and their influence on the debate. Her results highlighted how policy documents focused mainly on issues related to travel expenses and overseas travel, while feminist discussions also covered issues more broadly related to the law, women’s health, and politics of reproductive technologies more generally. When scraping for images, the dominant representations of egg donation featuring living ‘things’ (as opposed to those which featured medical images or technology), tended to feature babies and (chicken) eggs (including babies emerging from chicken eggs). When women were pictured, they were mostly posed together with babies and families, rarely on their own. And in terms of the HFEA’s own discourse, Dr Fotopoulou found that it did not make women’s labour visible at all in the process of egg donation, dismissing the invasiveness of sourcing procedures.

 Emilie Auton (University of New South Wales, Australia), ‘Under Examination: Representations of Genitals Examinations in Medical Textbooks’

 Emilie Auton’s paper discussed how medical textbooks, used to teach medical students in Australian universities, represent genital examinations visually, as well as how they instruct medical practitioners to carry out genital examinations. Her research compares and contrasts the imagery and instructions in relation to examinations of female and male genitals. The research found that the texts tended to convey that doctors govern the encounter with patients when genital examinations are carried out. Students are advised that patients will be positioned and undressed for them, and the texts do not acknowledge the importance of patients’ autonomy, nor do they raise the issue of the importance of gaining valid consent from patients if they are to be anesthetised. The discourse instils ideas that doctors must compete with patients over rights to their bodies. The research discovered a scarcity of pictures of healthy female genitalia, which meant that students were not provided with adequate information about variations in appearance. Pictures of women’s vaginas, often drawings rather than photographs, represented idealised and normalised forms. Texts also suggested that when conducting an examination, the doctor should reassure the female patient that it will be painless, dismissing the fact that many women do in fact experience pain. This may limit women’s confidence in indicating to the doctor if she does experience pain or distress. There was also a tendency to construct female bodies as vulnerable and in need of protection (some texts instructing that male clinicians should be chaperoned). In contrast, one text instructs female doctors to have a chaperone nearby when examining male patients. Such framing constructs female doctors as vulnerable and presents all men as potential predators. The differences in instructions for examining male patients were clear. The detail was more limited, and there were no warnings to be careful to avoid upsetting male patients or to reassure them. Auton pointed out the contradiction inherent in this difference: because of the ways in which women’s health is more medicalised, with women instructed to self examine as well as to have regular smear tests, men are likely to be less familiar with such examinations and may therefore require more reassurance. Auton also highlighted the lack of information within the textbooks on issues such as how to treat patients who have experienced sexual abuse or those who have language or cultural barriers. Neither did she find any information about how to sensitively examine intersex, transsexual or disabled patients. To conclude, Auton argued that medical texts define what is considered respectable treatment of the body in clinical contexts. Such assumptions are played out in material ways and therefore could and do have implications for women’s and men’s reproductive health. 


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