This is a transcript of the speech Raquel Rosario Sánchez delivered at the University of Cambridge on 05 December 2019 for the ‘Gender Critical Feminism in Public and Academic Discourse’ 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 so much for being here tonight at ‘Gender Critical Feminism in Public and Academic Discourse’ meeting. This event is hosted by the fantastic Cambridge Radical Feminist Network, who go by the super awesome name Cam Radfems! They are a network of feminist students and Cambridge residents who meet throughout the academic term to discuss feminism from a radical, materialist and gender critical perspective. They hold discussion groups every two weeks, which are open to all women, student or not. The Cambridge Radical Feminist Network believes that open, rational and well-reasoned debate is central to genuine feminist analysis, activism and ultimately liberation (this is why they are ‘radical’) … just kidding! They exist to provide a space on campus where lively discussion can take place.
Thank you to our speakers tonight, to our Security and to the organisers for being so helpful in the planning of this event.
Particular thanks to the University of Cambridge 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. And to women’s rights to female-only spaces as already enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010.
I’m not gonna name any names but recently, we have seen the examples of the University of Edinburgh and the University of Bristol fomenting climates in which, through institutional cowardice, academia becomes not just complicit but an active participant in the abuse of women. This is done through the erosion of academic freedom or the enabling of bullying, harassment and intimidation against female students and staff members who deviate from approved scripts, by participating in perfectly reasonable academic and democratic debates.
I cannot wait until one of these women takes this appalling treatment by institutions with a duty of care to them straight to the High Court.
It is high time that academic institutions grew a backbone and took their duty to society seriously, so let’s hope that by hosting this event the University of Cambridge is demonstrating just that. And even though this is the bare minimum, I think they deserve a big round of applause. Thank you!
Our speakers tonight are:
- Rosa Freedman, Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the University of Reading.
- Sophie Scott, neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow at University College London.
- Alice Sullivan, Professor of Sociology at the University College London’s Institute of Education.
- Emma Hilton, developmental biologist and lecturer at the University of Manchester.
Tonight, they have been invited here to speak about the importance of understanding that #SexMatters for women’s liberation, anti-intellectualism and misogyny in academic debate, the influence of intimidation and the paramount importance of women’s bravery during these difficult times.
Before we hear from our magnificent speakers, I would like to say a few words about feminism in academic and public discourse.
When I was invited to chair this event, my thoughts went a particular woman. Her name is Laura and she is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at a prestigious Californian university. Her PhD programme is Feminist Studies. Nevertheless, Laura was the latest woman going through was all of us on this stage has gone through; the bullying, hounding and the ravenous demands from the thoughtless mob to police a woman’s thoughts, speech and actions.
Her alleged crimes were indeed quite grave: she had a twitter account! Moreover, her twitter handle was “Salty Feminist”! And she is accused of thinking (perhaps even expressing) unconscionable things such as the belief that no transmutative property or transubstantiation law can turn a man into a woman, or vice versa.
Laura was the target of an organised campaign to get her kicked out of the classrooms where she taught and from her academic programme, as well. Open letters were written demanding she recant her heresy and that she be punish for her unladylike thoughts. Student newspapers printed her tweets with a “trigger warning” disclaimer.
The open letter stated:
“To the students who have been harmed by transphobia and anti-sex worker rhetoric in our department, we are so sorry. Material that denies the existence and lived experience of trans people, especially trans women is not only harmful to trans students. These issues are not merely an academic debate, when the academy legitimizes transphobia, it lends credence to an ideological position that systematically disenfranchises and kills trans people.”
Laura was technically a murderer. The Title IX office became involved.
Men (as in men with a penis, a beard and names like ‘Christopher’) emailed the Chair of Laura’s Department, reporting the indecent thoughts of a woman with an opinion. These deeply concerned men got apologetic responses like: “Thank you for reaching out to me. I appreciate you reporting this to me. These posts are distressing and I reassure you I am working very hard on this with others on campus. You and others can report this further to the Ethics Committee.” I wonder how hard this man’s erection got when he received such a pathetically subservient email from the Chair of the Feminist and Women Studies Department?
The attacks came from Laura’s fellow Graduate Students cohort, many of whom signed the open letter calling for her excommunication from public life. I think about her often, not only because I myself used to be a Graduate Student within a feminist department in neighboring Oregon (so I am well aware of the cultural climate she is operating in), but also because I want to know the practical aspects of how she carries on.
What is it like to have GTA meetings with colleagues who call you “scum” and “transphobic trash”? Or to walk around an academic institution where students are publicly encouraged to physically assault you by making the highly intellectual argument: “that dumb bitch needs to die”? What is it like for her to wake up every morning and know that this is all being hosted by the Department for Feminist Studies?
What would you do, if you were her? Would you leave and change universities?
If you quickly realized that this would be kind of pointless given that this coup d’état is happening in all Women, Gender and Feminism Studies Departments worldwide, would you choose to stay and challenge the academic misogyny which has led to this outcome or would you switch to something else entirely like… Zoology?
This side of the Atlantic, things are not much better.
This past October, a couple of months after Laura’s witch hunt, the ‘Feminist Hope, Feminist Dilemmas’ Conference, hosted by the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland was held in London.
The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association of the UK and Ireland describes itself as a network which promotes feminist research and teaching:
“The FWSA is involved in developing policy on issues of central importance to feminist scholars in further and higher education, supporting postgraduate events and enabling feminist research. Committed to raising awareness of women’s studies, feminist research and women-related issues in secondary and tertiary education, the FWSA liaises regularly with other gender-related research and community networks as well as with policy groups.”
The ‘Feminist Dilemmas, Feminist Hope’ conference marked the 30 years of the FWSA, describing itself as a dialogue between women, in and out of academia:
“We want to speak particularly to ideas of making space for feminism in the academy, and the ways in which feminists can mobilise as sources of collectivity and solidarity. We hope the day will develop feminist conversations within and between feminist organisations, individuals and movements, as well as providing its own space for intersectional feminist solidarity at such an important moment for feminist practice.”
It did not particularly live up to the hype when a feminist, and former academic, showed up to the conference and dared to do the unthinkable: she asked a question about the current sex and gender debate.
The woman, named Julia, questioned the supposed transmutable property which causes men to become women and how this might impact women’s rights. It was a politically current and lively question; the type that opens the floor for discussion and invites people to chime in with innovative responses. It was a scientific question, but it also makes us ponder about the policy implications of this phenomenon, and the political climate of the current debate in the UK. Everyone who disagreed with Julia could have easily unpacked her question from multiple angles. That thought process and analysis of conflicting viewpoints is the bedrock of the academic pursuit.
But not to be.
A feminist academic asking a question about ‘what constitutes a woman’ during a Women’s Studies conference caused such a stir that the entire room stood up and left. Not only was this question horrific and unbecoming, it was also “an act of violence” and walking out, as opposed to addressing the question head on, was “an act of solidarity.”
Postmodernism and identity politics have fomented a climate in which the academic rigour of analysing postulations and coming up with clever ways to challenge one another gets circumvented by appeals to tribal purity and the masturbatory politics of self-aggrandising silos.
Walking out of a room over an uncomfortable question, just like holding a sign that reads “This university employs a TERF and a SWERF”, is about as effective at dismantling any system of oppression as me deciding to read the rest of this speech in Spanish. The act of solidarity is with the self; as attendants can reassure themselves that the purity of their souls outweighs their academic responsibility to show the coherence of their arguments. In other words, you can avoid having to both do and show your work.
As they left, each attendee took turns (some of the shouting) to tell Julia all the ways in which she was a hideous bigot condemned to the wrong side of history. Who needs Catholic excommunication when we can have social media purges and the public sentencings of sinful souls?
Even the art of persuasion (which requires thoughtfulness, tact and effort yet oftentimes produces genuine results) has gone out the window! By standing up, en masse, and clearing the entire conference room as a result of one woman who asked an impertinent question, I wonder who persuaded whom? The academics at the Feminist Conference who reaffirmed each other’s credentials as Good, Proper and Pure or the people who witness the situation unfolding online with an ominous sense that there’s something deeply wrong about the way that academic discourse is going?
I wonder about Julia as well. What did it feel like when academic after academic, at a Feminist and Women’s Studies conference, told her how nasty a scum she was? Did she tear up or did she go into some sort of catatonic stupor in which she disconnected from her body and observed the groupthink ritual directed at?
I’ve checked in with both women and they are doing alright… as much as one can be under the circumstances: “be alright” and push through. But there are Lauras and Julias in every Women Studies, Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Intersectional Identitarian Studies and Foucault-Butler Told Me So Studies department in academia. The strength and determination with which those Lauras and Julias carry the burden of actually advancing women’s rights (not theoretically, but in the praxis), does not negate the ways in which we could all do our bit to lessen that burden.
The Social Justice Inquisition has yet to realise that by bullying, harassing and abusing women, you do not magically self-identify into being courageous, talented, resourceful or intellectually gifted. On the contrary, you publicly broadcast a profound dearth of all of the above.
It will take a critical mass of brave women in academia to push through and overcome the gaslighting and doublespeak facing feminists in universities worldwide. The rebranding of abuse as “acts of solidarity”, the distorting of Women and Gender Studies into the academic arm of a misogynist, top-down political movement and the staggering weakness of institutions who should know better is enough to make most people quit and run for the hills.
But then again, feminists have never been known for backing down from a fight.