Feminist Labour in the Academy

IWD 2018

Marta Kowalewska with inputs from Radhika Govinda

This blog post explores the subject of feminist labour and particularly the labour involved in creating a thriving environment for WGFS– especially while working within, against, and around the neoliberal higher education system.

Our interviewees were pioneers of WGFS at the University of Edinburgh. They pushed for the inclusion of gendered analyses across subjects and disciplines, for courses that focused on issues around women and gender, and for WGFS as such to be taken seriously as a legitimate academic concern. They brought their varying life experiences as well as experiences of activism into the academy, and forged new, collective spaces for inquiry and collaboration. Feminist classrooms and feminist pedagogy, as well as an ethics of care, are a large part of doing feminist work in the academy in such a way that creates a caring yet critical environment for students and for ourselves.

Most of our interviewees were involved in creating new courses from scratch. This was difficult, but also creative and rewarding work that allowed them to include and teach the content that they thought was missing or underrepresented in the academy, and equally that they were most passionate about. Often, the courses were collaborative efforts, with feminists coming together to co-construct and co-teach the course offerings. For example, the early Gender and Society course was co-developed and co-taught by Patricia Jeffery and Rosemary Johnson. The Women in Politics course was co-taught always in some combination by Alice Brown, Mary Buckley, and Fiona Mackay, whose varying subjects of expertise made for a more dynamic and varied course. This collaborative aspect of feminist labour not only allowed for a sharing of workloads, but was also a way to break out of some of the more rigid systems that have been in place in the academy.

Alice Brown explains how it was also important to keep the courses relevant, and how she brought her political experience and activism to the Women in Politics course to demonstrate to students how what they were learning was experienced in practice. Alice was very active in the original Women 50:50 Campaign in the Scottish Parliament, and by bringing this experience to the classroom, not only made it more dynamic but also inspired students to take part in the campaign or similar political activism of their own accord. Alice shared that the ability to collaborate, to create dynamic and critical classroom spaces, to share important and transformative knowledge and experience, and to potentially inspire students was a great source of joy to her in her feminist praxis in the academy.

While feminist academics at Edinburgh were able to do this kind of work with minimal opposition and at times even moral support from their male and/or non-feminist colleagues, this did not translate (at least for a good while) into actual material support. The work of ‘introducing gender’ – setting up courses, finding material, teaching, guest lecturing, extra and unpaid administrative work – as such was put squarely on the shoulders of these feminist academics on top of their usual workload. And while no doubt the courses set up and taught by feminist academics were a success, this meant that other colleagues often took for granted that addressing gender would be done by this handful of women, and that they were absolved of any responsibility or necessity to take gender seriously or include it in their own teaching and research. This has changed over time as gender has become more embedded into the curriculum, but WGFS academics had to push for this. To quote Fran Wasoff:

“Okay, so I’m doing a gender course and the unifying theme is gender, and you’re doing a, I don’t know, let’s say health policy [course]. So where are you teaching gender in health policy – do you think you’ve just farmed it out to me and that you don’t have to pay attention to it? […] So gradually, they would bring in a gender dimension – I mean, social policy is essentially a social democratic subject. It is fundamentally about equality and inequality, but the equality and inequality it looks at is, income, outcomes in education, but gender wasn’t one of the dimensions of inequality that had, was originally fundamental to the subject. But it later became much more embedded in the kind of, you know, core subject area, it wasn’t just farmed out as ‘oh she does the gender course’.”

Alternatively, colleagues who recognised that gender is everywhere and that a gender analysis should be present across the board and not just in designated spaces, asked feminist academics to come in for a guest lecture, or to provide material for a tokenistic session on gender. Ironically, this had the effect of putting the labour of teaching gender unevenly onto this handful of women academics. Whether to accept or to decline such requests then proved to be quite a dilemma for these feminist academics. To quote Liz Bondi:

“I didn’t want feminist perspectives to be in a ghetto, but neither did I want us to be kind of tokenistic, and always at risk of being submerged.”

What emerges here is a tiring expectation from feminist academics to always be present, to be ready to be brought in to talk about gender and women’s dimensions at any given moment, and this being presented as institutional change when it was actually the avoidance of any real institutional change.

What is illuminated by the above is that academics involved in WGFS took on in those early days a large amount of teaching work. Sadly, this is in line with a pattern recognised for years across academia (for example, see Bellas 1999) that women in general take up more teaching responsibilities than their male counterparts. This was not necessarily unwelcome – many of our interviewees expressed a deep passion for teaching, and my own experience in the academy has been similar. However, the fact that the strong push towards professionalization in UK academia translated into teaching work not being recognised in the same way as research made it harder for those with a greater teaching focus to progress in their careers (Govinda 2020). This added to the struggle, which all of our interviewees allude to, of trying to get WGFS recognised as a “legitimate” research subject – a struggle which, in an academic world increasingly dictated by the REF, means that swathes of feminist academics’ work, research, and initiatives continue to go unrecognised. The academics we spoke to, however, did progress in their careers despite setbacks. The further they progressed, the more service and managerial work they found themselves having to take on[1]. Our interviewees held high positions within schools, such as head of school – some, like Liz Bondi, held more than one such leadership position in tandem, splitting her time being Head of Geography as well as holding a leadership position in Counselling Studies.

Another key aspect of feminist labour in the academy in those days had to do with providing pastoral care. This work was considered very necessary and helped foster an environment that was more welcoming and safer for students, particularly women students. However, it involved a vast amount of emotional labour and often went unnoticed, not to mention unpaid. In fact, women faculty, especially those who believed in a feminist ethic of care, tended to carry the load of the caring labour of counselling and providing pastoral support to students, especially female students. Even when this role of these feminist academics began to be officially recognised, it failed to be accompanied by appropriate training and compensation. For instance, Alice Brown, who was appointed (on top of her permanent position in the Politics faculty) as “Women’s Advisor”, notes that she received no training and no pay for this role, and while it was rewarding to be able to help support students, especially mature female students, it meant that she took on a fair amount of extra administrative work as well as emotional labour, and was at times put in situations that were out of her depth and emotionally very demanding. Our interviewees also reminded us that these caring roles within the academy were often also paired with caring roles outside of the academy, such as childcare within the home.

The situation in the academy has arguably improved: there are far more feminists, and far greater number of women academics, as such, in the academy. However, some of the issues around uneven distribution of care work remain far from resolved. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on this. The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on the workloads of women, causing women’s research output to fall dramatically  while the output from men increased[2]. It has also created unsustainable workloads for women that might ultimately push some of them out of academia[3]. This is because women have largely and disproportionately undertaken the domestic and care duties necessary in the pandemic, particularly childcare and home schooling (see Crook 2020) as well as the typical domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning that are exacerbated when working from home and therefore continuously being within the domestic space and being expected to fulfil its related duties. This unfolding situation during the ongoing crisis has shown that the labour placed on women in professional, domestic, and care settings continues to be unequal, unsustainable, and often unrecognised, and that this continues to be reflected in women’s experiences in the academy and therefore continues to be something that WGFS academics must fight against.


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 genderED: gender.ed@ed.ac.uk

[1] For a more recent account of the negotiations of being a feminist in managerial and leadership roles within the neoliberal academy, see Mackay (2020). Dilemmas of an Academic Feminist as Manager in the Neoliberal Academy: Negotiating Institutional Authority, Oppositional Knowledge and Change. Political Studies Reviewhttps://doi.org/10.1177/1478929920958306

[2] Fazackerley, A. 12 May 2020. Women’s research plummets during lockdown – but articles from men increase. The Guardian. Accessed 28 Oct 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/12/womens-research-plummets-during-lockdown-but-articles-from-men-increase

[3] Moodley, K. & Gouws, A. 7 August 2020. How women in academia are feeling the brunt of COVID-19. The Conversation. Accessed 28 Oct 2020. https://theconversation.com/how-women-in-academia-are-feeling-the-brunt-of-covid-19-144087

Featured image: ‘Commemoration of International Women’s Day 2018 at United Nations Headquarters’ by UN Women Gallery taken from Creative Commons

Authors’ 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 genderED on the Voices from the Early Days oral history project. Tweet her @GovindaRadhika