Different Pathways into Feminism

Early Feminism

Marta Kowalewska with inputs from Radhika Govinda

How did the women who pioneered women’s, gender and feminist studies at the University of Edinburgh become involved with feminism? In this blog, we reflect on the different locations, perspectives and pathways that led these women academics to becoming feminists in the academy.

Perhaps the imagined common path might be the one of the woman who studies social sciences at University to pursue and share feminist knowledge, and stays in academia to further this goal. Yet this is never simple. All of our interviewees entered higher education for different reasons or purposes, and found their way to feminism and gender issues through different routes – through experiences of being women in the academy as well as women in the world, through noticing and becoming conscious of social issues including those of gender, and through experiences of involvement in various types of social activism.

Our interviewees entered the academic world from different places, angles, and disciplines. Some of them, such as Professors Lynn Jamieson, Mary Buckley, Patricia Jeffery and Liz Bondi, did begin by studying social sciences at University, but not explicitly focusing on gender issues. Gender and feminism entered their work as a result of influences from outside activism – Liz Bondi was active in the women’s movement and became more involved with feminist geography, Lynn was politically active in a number of different, but intertwined, issues, such as the campaign for abortion rights and the Workers’ Educational Association. Their activism influenced their academic work. Patricia Jeffery, after initially going to study medicine but then finding a passion in anthropology, was interested primarily in ethnicity, however through fieldwork became aware and acknowledged that looking at ethnicity also meant looking at gender (and vice versa of course), which led her to begin more explicitly focusing on gender and feminist issues in her work. She was brought to Edinburgh’s sociology department specifically with the task of introducing gender in the curriculum, and in 1979 set up what she believes was the University of Edinburgh’s first mainstream academic gender studies course, “Gender and Society”.

Professor Fran Wasoff started off with an academic career in mathematics, however, through her involvement with women’s movements, her trajectory changed significantly. She became involved with a group that set up the first refuge for women suffering domestic violence in Scotland, and then became coordinator of Scottish Women’s Aid. After that, she returned to academia – not to mathematics, but instead to social policy.

Professors Alice Brown and Mary Buckley, who were responsible for the first “Women in Politics” course at the University of Edinburgh, had very different paths to each other. Mary Buckley forged a career in Soviet and post-Soviet politics – a field in which, especially at the time, there were very few women – and helped set up the “Women in Politics” course upon students’ request. Alice Brown left school with her O-levels to pursue secretarial work but went on to become very active in the Labour Party. She later went back to studying to become a surveyor, however she decided to stay at University and pursue economics and politics. Her life experience as well as her experience in politics and in the academy made her more and more aware of gender inequalities, which she was committed to both teaching and to campaigning against.

As Professor Mary Buckley articulates in her interview, the “feminist” in all of these women is part of a “bigger package”. All of these pioneers of WGFS at Edinburgh brought with them different life experiences, political experiences, and standpoints, and none of them approached gender as being separate from other subjects and categories of analysis. Gender, instead, entered their work as something that, once noticed, could not then be unnoticed.

When listening to these narratives, a few things are striking. First, while each life story might have a few setbacks and challenges, overall, the accounts are overwhelmingly positive. While each of the six interviewees tells a different story, they all generally speak of support from colleagues and students, and of successful ventures and conducive work environments. Of course, it is very much possible that this is how they remember things in hindsight. Also, several aspects of their stories likely got left out of the interviews – there probably were negative experiences that they had but that are simply not accounted for in these exchanges. However, most likely, the reason for these overwhelmingly positive recollections is that these are success stories. These women put in the time and the labour to become feminist academics and to create change in the academy. They were able to get past gatekeepers and grab opportunities. These are the women who survived, and thrived!

But this also begs the question: what about those who didn’t make it? Academia has a huge problem of gatekeeping and exclusion, and the changes that are being made to address this are very slow and incremental, if at all. The women whose pathways into doing feminisms in the academy have been described above were able to get past the gatekeepers against some (but certainly not all) odds. The rules of entry have changed over time: the door to the academy has been opened for the politics of certain women but not all of them. Gatekeeping and policing were and continue to be in place for women of colour, women who do not have the opportunity for university education, working-class women, trans women and disabled women among others.

We are grateful to the academics, featured here, who pioneered WGFS at Edinburgh, for taking the complicated, difficult and long pathways to making the University of Edinburgh a place where women’s and feminist concerns are heeded. But the road ahead remains long and arduous as the inheritors of their legacy must consider and make space for a more diverse set of pathways to the feminist academy – otherwise, can the academy ever really be feminist?

You can access excerpts from the audio-recordings of our interviews with Liz Bondi, Alice Brown, Mary Buckley, Lynn Jamieson, Patricia Jeffery and Fran Wasoff here. If you have memories to share of early women’s, gender and feminist studies teaching and research at University of Edinburgh, please contact GENDER.ED: gender.ed@ed.ac.uk

Author bios

Marta Kowalewska is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Romani women’s activism and feminist politics in Poland. You can find her on Twitter @MartaZofia

Radhika Govinda is Senior Lecturer in Sociology. She is PI of the UGC-UKIERI Project, Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives and Project Lead for GENDER.ED on the Voices from the Early Days oral history project. You can find Radhika on Twitter @GovindaRadhika

Featured image from Creative Commons: “Equal Voice early morning rally” by Grant Neufeld