This is a transcript of the speech Raquel Rosario Sánchez delivered at the University of Oxford on 25 October 2019 for the ‘A Woman’s Place is at the lectern’ meeting. Raquel is a writer, campaigner and researcher from the Dominican Republic. She specialises in ending male violence against girls and women and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.
Good evening everyone.
Thank you all very much for being here tonight. There is something electrifying about being in a room full of overwhelmingly women eager to engage in the democratic process, openly and without fear, as if this is an intrinsic human right which we hold, because it actually is.
Thank you to the event organisers who have been planning this for quite a long time, to my fellow speakers and to the campus security team for their work in the lead up to this event and tonight.
Particular thanks to the University of Oxford for its commitment to uphold women’s rights to free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, as already enshrined in the Human Rights Act of 1998.
The University of Northumbria paved the way by being the first academic institution to host a Woman’s Place UK meeting in May 2018 and today the University of Oxford joins them in this regard. Academic freedom is not just words on a paper; it is about creating a climate in which academics are free to voice their opinions knowing their institution will, at the very least, strive to protect them from abuse and intimidation which might arise from their engagement in academic and democratic debates.
It is high time that academia stood up to the bullying, harassment and intimidation to which women in particular are subjected to on the issue of sex and gender, in universities across the United Kingdom, and I think the University of Oxford deserves a round of applause for doing just that tonight. Thank you!
My name is Raquel and I am here representing the feminist political campaign Woman’s Place UK. Before we continue, I would like to take a moment to say that I am honoured to be here representing the campaign. I would like to thank Women’s Place UK for giving me such an education in courage, strength and determination.
Very well then, who are we? Who are these women that keep getting into trouble and making such a fuss? What’s all the contention and controversy about?
We are an increasingly large group of people from a range of backgrounds including trade unions, women’s organisations, academia and the NHS. We are united by our belief that women’s hard-won rights must be defended, upheld and extended. This was supposed to be a short, three-month campaign centred around the consultation to a public policy proposal relating to gender, but we soon realised that, unfortunately, the state of women’s rights in the UK still has room for ample improvement. At the beginning of the year, we launched some resolutions which encompass what we stand for and what we aim to achieve, as a political campaign:
- Women have a right to self-organise
Women have a right to self-organisation, to speak and to be heard free from fear of abuse, threat or vilification in public and political discourse and in academia. This should be actively facilitated by those with civic or legal responsibility for promoting equality.
- The law must work for women
The law must be strengthened to ensure that all women who want or need single sex spaces (including toilets, health provision accommodation, prisons, sports, sexual and domestic violence services) are able to access them without resorting to extraordinary measures. Service providers should be supported in offering such services through legal and financial means and clear guidance must be issued on the exercising of such rights.
- An end to violence against women
Government must make the end to male violence against women and girls a priority. Sustainable funding for independent women-led services for women subjected to VAWG must be fully resourced by central government alongside the implementation of statutory relationships and sex education in all schools.
- Nothing about us without us.
All organisations, committees and politicians speaking on issues of material concern to women to demonstrate that they have widely consulted the women they represent and serve and that such consultation informs their action and their policies.
- Sex matters
Rigorous collection and analysis of sex-based data and high-quality research must be central to the development of any services, policies or actions which address women’s needs or which challenge sex discrimination and inequality.
I am here tonight to talk to you, not only as a representative of Woman’s Place UK, but also, a woman, a Dominican woman, who has spent the past ten years of my life inside Women and Gender Studies departments in academia. As an undergraduate, I minored in Women and Gender Studies, my Masters’ Degree is in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and right now I am a member of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at a university which shall not be named. Let’s call it Voldemort University!
And I know the drill… You hear someone is a Gender Studies major and you internally brace yourself for a high degree of nonsense which is about to come your way. I do it to! Truth be told, even though this is very much my academic field and expertise, I have become ashamed of being “a gender scholar” and I apologetically make it clear that my scholarship is centred on violence against women, not theorising about how empowering going to the strip club or having a sugar daddy can be.
You know your scholarly field has gone awry when the first thing people think about is blue hair!
I tell people that I study violence against women and girls. I tell myself that I am not “a gender scholar,” because I have endeavoured to enhance my classroom training with professional opportunities which put women and girls lives front and centre, such as shelter work.
So please feel free to keep the jokes and the puns coming at the expense of my field. I assure you that I take absolutely no offense, and I might even join you in having a laugh at our expense. But there is something deeply sad about the way Women and Gender Studies is regarded today because drawing ‘Gingerbread Person’s on the board, compelling speech at the beginning of each academic year through the enforcement of ‘preferred pronouns’ and convoluted language is not why women set up Women’s Studies, as a scholarly field.
I will argue that it is the devaluation of women’s experiences and knowledge which has led to this point.
In Women’s Studies: The Basics (1999), professor Bonnie Smith, heralded the advent of Women’s Studies as a transformative period within academia:
“Women’s Studies is arguably the most revolutionary new ﬁeld of intellectual inquiry of our current age. In its simplest form, Women’s Studies brings all of women’s experience under the scholarly microscope, subjecting it to the most advanced scientiﬁc methods available in the university. Researchers dig up facts and develop insights about that experience and then teachers and students look at the ﬁndings coming from an array of disciplines, processing and often perfecting them.
Women’s Studies programs include almost every perspective—from the natural sciences to the social sciences, from law to the arts. This breadth makes Women’s Studies the most wide-ranging of academic ﬁelds. Its rich diversity provides the judgments, research, and energy of a broad group of scholars and students to advance the discipline. Women’s Studies is a global undertaking.”
Although some pinpoint it to the 1970’s and the airs of revolution left by the 1960’s in the United States, some scholars might date scholarship which particularly focused on centring women’s experiences and thoughts to the 1920, with individual female professors here and there who set out to do just that… larger institutional framework be damned.
Women’s storytelling and theorising about our lives and experiences, as women, has always existed across cultural differences. In this regard, it is important to clarify that Women’s Studies is not so much a novelty as much of a formality. The difference resides in the fact that prior to the “creation of the field”, the construction of knowledge and theory which had previously been ignored and dismissed had finally managed to infiltrate a formal structure of power (academia).
Nevertheless, even though we had barely set a foot on the door, for a long time Women’s Studies continued to be trivialised and mocked. People, notably fellow scholars, would argue that my academic field was nothing more that “Gynaecological Politics” … which I happen to think it’s a pretty awesome name for a punk rock band!
We had to prove, as a scholarly field, that there was both meaning and transcendence in theorising about the very political, personal experiences women went through, globally. The field was made up of courses about the social sciences, the arts, women in politics, sex roles, among others.
With ample room to trouble this idea, Women’s Studies sought to apply academic rigour to the idea that “that thing that just happened to you, as a woman, was not just an isolated incident”. It was overtly and explicitly collectively-minded and plural. As one South Korean scholar cited by Smith expresses: “Women’s Studies grew out of the recognition of the gross inequities in women’s realities and through an accumulation of academic knowledge from across the disciplines exploring these problems.”
Which is perhaps why the sharp turn towards ideas of choice, individualism and neoliberalism may feel to some, like such a particularly sadistic slap in the face. Imagine Environmental Studies becoming the academic arm of the oil companies…
Women’s Studies was both within and grew alongside the women’s rights movement, and the fruitful interaction between women inside and outside academia: that was, and remains, the social contract of Women’s Studies, my academic field. It was, from its inception, a collective and collaborative global project.
Women’s Studies was never intended to become a top-down, elitist, aristocratic view of society. Its credibility resided not in the fact that we held space within higher education institutions, but that Women’s Studies was a tool to exchange knowledge about women’s lives which would result in transforming both the structure within universities but most importantly, society at large.
Smith makes the case for the alchemic power Women’s Studies had in academia by stating that since its inception:
“Valuing information about women and appreciating the contributions of women in the classroom marked a drastic alteration in intellectual hierarchies. Male and female students alike became able to challenge sexist clichés and they actually did so. They had facts at their fingertips and women in particular gained a newfound confidence. The simple phenomenon of women -whether student or professor- speaking authoritatively on what was a male space marked a dramatic change in the classroom and the university.”
What has happened? I suspect a number of factors might have contributed to the debasement of Women and Gender Studies and one day several books will be written on this topic… probably by me, since I’m obsessed with this problem! Among the factors which may have contributed could be:
- Pressure to not centre women and girls as the raison d’etre of an academic field
- Lack of funding unless the academic programmes and courses centred both sexes
- Female socialisation and the coercive pressure to never put ourselves first
- Comparatively more institutional and administrative support for initiatives which deviated from the intended purpose of Women’s Studies (such as funding for PhD projects in support of the sex trade or Queer Studies courses)
- And probably just the cold hand of a patriarchal, racist and capitalist infiltration of the field!
That infiltration has been led particularly by postmodernism and queer theory, which are fundamentally at odds with the collectivist nature of Women’s Studies. As Karla Mantilla argued in her seminal off our backs essay, Let them eat text: the real politics of postmodernism (1999), the entire postmodernist project in academia is anathema to our field, so why the increase pressure to subsume one into the other? Whereas feminism argues that the personal is political. In postmodernism, the personal is only and exclusively the personal.
The introduction of Women’s Studies into academia as a scholarly field came fresh off the heels of vast social change and upheaval in the Anglo-Saxon countries where it formally started. And just at a time when the ideas and experiences of women and people of colour had begun to create a presence within academic institutions, in comes an effervescently popular set of theories which begins to permeate most social justice fields.
For the optimistics in the room, it might be good to note that, as Mantilla argues, this is not the first time this infiltration has happened:
“Right after the first wave of feminism, in the 1920s, when women had made some advances, had gotten the vote, and began to gain some access to academia, another nihilistic kind of theorizing became the rage in academia–relativism and existentialism. Again, just when women were trying to gain access, and to articulate our points of view, suddenly nothing was meaningful anymore, everything was relative, and meaninglessness was lauded as high theory.
I suggest that postmodernism is nothing more than the new relativism and that relativistic theories emerge as a new line of defence when power structures are becoming threatened. It is a very insidious and crafty defence because it mouths the words of liberation while simultaneously transforming them into meaninglessness.
The real agenda is masked in clever obfuscation – to preserve the status quo by rendering dissent meaningless and ineffective, unable to gather any social or political power. Notwithstanding postmodernism’s purported intention to deconstruct social norms and by so doing, make way for changes, its actual effect is to atomize peoples’ experiences, obliterate the potential for solidarity, silence articulate and forthright speech, and render passionate convictions meaningless.”
Hence why and how we find ourselves, in the year 2019, facing public bodies, politicians and governments around the world pondering “what is a woman?”
Although I agree with Mantilla’s assertion, I see something else and far more sinister in the way postmodernism has emptied out the meaning of my academic field. What happens when you combine: inaccessible language and rituals, the obliteration of collective solidarity and direct access to State power? You get an aristocratic view of social justice: “we create the public policy, we police the language and behaviour of the citizenry through policy capture, we hijack Women and Gender Studies so that we can claim that this all emanated from the women in academia… while being entirely unaccountable.”
These dynamics are not merely antidemocratic, they are imperialist and elitist: the antithesis of the Women’s Studies project.
The marginalisation of a class and sex-based analysis, the centring of symbolic gestures which seek to only benefit the individual at the expense of others, and the blatant theft of radical feminist theories to be diluted for mass consumption is nothing less than an academic coup, and how dare they?
My academic field is not a joke: it is the usurpation and betrayal of our purpose which is to be condemned and derided. Which is why I argue, as a final plea, that it is imperative that among the aims of this renewed vigour and sense of urgency within the women’s rights movement ignited here in the United Kingdom, that among our aims, we remember that Women’s Studies was and is our academic field.
I argue that aside from political campaigns, wonderful meetings and policy changes, we should also strive to rebuild that loop between women on and off academia through Women’s Studies: a loop which focused the collective and the collaborative, which saw women’s experiences as vital instead of as second-class, and which was unapologetic about the importance we placed on our political project.
I argue that it is imperative that we harness the energy, rage, strength and courage of our current moment because the time has come for us to take our academic field back.