Thursday, June 15, 2006

"Despite the good work undertaken by our universities, there is still much to be done before we can claim full equality of the sexes. We still need colleges dedicated to the active promotion of women's education, which can prioritise women's requirements, potential and achievement.”
- Catherine Wallace, 2003 Oxford Student Union president

Women’s colleges in the UK are rare, and getting rarer. Just recently St Hilda’s, Oxford’s last single sex college, announced it would be admitting men. This reflects an increasing international trend in turning women’s colleges coed – last autumn marked the first intake of male students at Wells College, USA, to great opposition by the student body – two students went so far as to file a lawsuit in attempt to prevent it. Similarly, there was an outcry from both alumni and current ‘Hildabeests’ as they are colloquially known, when the decision was taken by college governors. This follows a narrowly defeated attempt in 2003 to open the college to mixed applicants. It appears that, with the majority of higher education institutions now admitting both men and women, all-female colleges are no longer financially viable. Coupled with concern over charges of sexism and lack of diversity, do women’s colleges have a role in the 21st century?

Academic Noreen Hertze suggested in a recent Guardian article that “all-girl schools or colleges cannot prepare women for the realities of a world in which men still wield power.” Students at women’s colleges admit they live in a rarefied atmosphere, but argue that this benefits them in Life After Graduation. After all, isn’t most university life just a diversion from the Real Word our parents keep talking about? But does spending three or four years in a world where women dominate simply mean that you are unprepared for a world run by the unfair sex? Paige Kimble, a recent graduate of Smith College in America, begs to differ: “Back out in the 'real world', outside of the Smith bubble, I can say that going to a women's college has definitely upped my confidence levels immensely. Maybe it's just the sense of camaraderie, but there's (generally but not always) far more acceptance of deviation from the norm. Even fairly straight women I know who've taken courses off-campus have commented on how appearance-based other placesare, and how women have seemed afraid to talk--and these are not just at the local state school (UMASS-Amherst), but at high tier private colleges.”

In an article on the subject, Ms Magazine cited studies in which female students were seen to “gain myriad benefits from women’s colleges, from participating more fully in the classroom and leadership to pursuing doctorates in math, science and engineering in disproportionately large numbers. Those students are more likely to graduate and score higher on standardized tests than their peers at coeducational institutions.” A Wells student argued that prior to the admittance of men, her college was “populated by strong women who could be in leadership roles, who could be active members of their communities, who have found their voices. That's become really important to me, and I value and cherish it. And I want to keep it."

I went to a single-sex school, as did my sister – in our area there just weren’t any mixed schools, for religious reasons or otherwise. I think the decline of faith schools is a good thing for various reasons, but I also think it will result in fewer single-sex schools. Put simply, I was happy being in an all-female environment, and I missed it when I went on to university. Most of the pupils were, or at least affected to be, boy crazy, and there were frequent complaints about our single sex status. I think there is an element of truth in the convent girl stereotype – when something is forbidden, it gets a hell of a lot more exciting. At one point, our school was nicknamed ‘The Whore House on the Hill’, but I blame outdated patriarchal attitudes towards sex for that. I never felt starved of male company, although I didn’t exactly seek it out either. Students from the boy’s school that was affiliated with ours tended to congregate in our village during lunch, and half my sixth form dated the rugby team. Interestingly, the most famous alumnus of the boy’s school is Paul O’Grady, who is better known as the drag queen Lily Savage…

When I applied to Oxford, it didn’t occur to me to apply to St Hilda’s. I’d spent nearly seven years surrounded by girls – why would I want spend another four years surrounded by women? Looking back, I wonder if my disastrous interview experience would have been any different. I was the only girl and the only state school pupil applying for my particular course and I felt a great pressure to fit in. My accent isn’t exactly Home Counties, but you can’t tell I grew up a stone’s throw away from Liverpool, either. I avoided the girls and hung around with the boys, using our shared gender preference as common ground. I hated it there. I felt incredibly intimidated by the whole experience, and part of my unease stemmed from the fact that I didn’t meet one female lecturer. There was a sense of competition rather than community, and I could never escape from the fact that I stood out largely because of my gender. I didn’t get in, and I was pretty relieved.

Clearly, this isn’t only a gender issue – it’s a class issue as well. Both Oxford and all-women’s private colleges in America are pricey, and have historically taken students from specific socio-economic backgrounds, and all-girls schools in the UK tend to be private, grammar schools or, like mine, faith-based. Can there really be diversity in all-women’s colleges if sections of the population simply cannot afford to send their daughters there?

And what of trans students in single-sex environments? At the moment, many women’s colleges have a policy on only admitting women born in a female body – or, rather, they have no policy at all, denying the existence of male-to-female transsexuals. However, female-to-male trans students are an increasing presence at women’s colleges – Smith recently took the decision to remove gender-specific language that would exclude the presence of transmen on campus, and several mature students are post-operative transwomen. So is the binary gender system more fluid in supposedly single-sex environments? A former Smith student of my acquaintance transferred to a different university in part because she felt that the physical ideal at Smith tended toward a more butch type of womanhood, and outright rejected more feminine women. No, women and female dominated communities don’t get it right all the time. But it looks as though they’re learning to be inclusive in a way that more coed communities aren’t.

Supporters of the new and ‘improved’ coed St Hilda’s argue that it will now be able to attract better students and better lecturers. In other words, men.

Where The Boys Are.
Former women’s colleges who now accept men (by Admissions, if not the entire student body):

St Mary’s College, Durham, UK
St Hilda’s College, Oxford, UK
Somerville College, Oxford, UK
Lesley College, USA
Immaculata Women’s College, USA
Wells College, USA

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Sussex feministas taking to the streets...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Part of the banner was painted by me. Activist Tip Of The Day: Mix PVA glue with the paint and it won't run if you get rained on.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

"And they royalty rate all the girls like you, and they sell it out to the girls like you, to incorporate little girls." - Hole, 'Awful', Celebrity Skin

Last night, I went on an anti-beauty pageant protest outside the venue that was hosting this year's Miss Brighton. I stood in the baking heat behind a banner that read We are not beautiful, we are not ugly, and we will not be judged, and enjoyed some sisterly solidarity with the fabulous women from Sussex University Women's Group (a big shout-out goes to Sophie who masterminded the whole thing). We chanted, we handed out leaflets to passers-by, we posed for photos, and we debated with the odd sexist asshole who honestly couldn't understand why objectifying women is a bad thing.

I think the most interesting part of the whole evening was the dialogue we had with the contestants themselves. Last year's Miss Brighton actually got involved with beauty pageants when she was writing her dissertation on them from a feminist angle, but the more she explored, the more she found something that she felt empowered her. Another woman, who was standing outside, ushering the wannabe Miss Brightons into the building - and only at a beauty pageant would she have been doing this whilst wearing a stunning blue ballgown - actively engaged in conversation with us, telling us that she supported our stance and not to be put off by our handful of critics. I overheard more than one entrant commenting that it made the whole event a bit more exciting. These women have brains as well as bodies, and I find it so frustrating that they're exerting so much time, energy and money on a contest that doesn't care.

The whole event was a cattle market. It places explicit value on women only for how they look - or how they engineer themselves to look. It was a steady stream of skinny, tanned women in a ballgown and an inch of make-up, hair straightened and any semblance of individuality erased. All the women I saw were white, and all of them conformed to a very exacting standard of beauty that I find so limiting. I didn't recognise myself in any of these women. We were told that they were role models, but none of my role models parade around in bikinis purely for the visual appreciation of others. Except possibly Wonder Women, but she does it while fighting crime, which is slightly more acceptable to my feminist sympathies.

The winner of Miss Brighton will go onto the final round to compete for the title of Miss England, who will then enter the Miss World contest. I don't want my country or my gender to be represented by lipstick and a tiara. If we're having a contest that promotes the image of women, why can't we have one for the best mathmatician between 17 and 24, or the best poet or the most committed charity worker instead? Why do we feel the need to promote competition between women, when all our mainstream media is telling us that we should be rivals anyway?

Beauty isn't about who's thinnest or blondest or bulges out of a bra in the most appealing fashion. I stood outside the Grand Hotel yesterday, red and sweating in the very un-British heat, all unshaven armpits and unwashed hair. I stood and made my voice heard with a group of women who didn't care if they fitted into a strict, patriarchal standard of beauty. And I felt gorgeous.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Rape has something to do with our sex. Rape is something awful that happens to females: it is the dark at the top of the stairs, the undefinable abyss that is just around the corner, and unless we watch our step it might become our destiny." - Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will, Men and Woman and Rape

Hello, and welcome to the first post of Modern Bluestocking. I wanted to start out with something more positive and upbeat, something empowering and certainly not something as potentially triggery as this. I was planning on just making this a filler post, but I caught sight of a Daily Mail headline (oh, the shame) when I was buying fishfingers, so I was inspired to write. Apparently the Sentencing Guidelines Council in the UK have finally cottoned on to the fact that rape can be traumatizing to women, even if they know their attackers. And this was literally headline news. Comparing the Guardian and Mail headlines reveals the usual patriarchal, heterocentric hysteria from the latter - 'Husbands who rape put on par with gang rapists'. I can see the knee-jerk reaction now. 'What do you mean, we need CONSENT? She married me/lives with me/used to smile at me every day in the office! She didn't have to say yes, of course she wanted it'. Given that marital rape was only criminalized 15 years ago, it shouldn't surprise me that it's taken his long to get a reasonably fair jail sentence, but it does.

In what stretch of the imagination have these men (and statistically it is men) committed a lesser crime than ones who assault and rape women they've never met? I made the mistake of reading the Daily Mail's reader comments on the website - this one, among others, made my blood boil: "And men, who may be acting out of character as a result of stress or excessive drink, will be criminalised and bracketed along with the sort of pond life that carry out real rapes. " I doubt many rapists imagine rape to be a part of their characters. I doubt many rapists, especially when the attack takes place in the context of a relationship, consider it rape.

Newsflash: sex is a complicated thing. Negotiating desire can be difficult, and I'm sure that sometimes pressure for sex is unintentional. But forcing someone into an act they refuse or are reluctant to perform, no matter what the status of your relationship with them, is about your power over them and not your desire for them. It's about valuing your own pleasure above the comfort and safety of your partner. If you respect them, take their 'No', in whatever manner it is phrased, for 'No'.

I’m glad that this is finally being given the attention it deserves, the latest in a series of women-friendly movements by the British legal system – the divorce settlements controversy will be the subject of a later post, possibly this weekend – but one thing that frustrates me is that more lenient sentences are proposed if it can be proved that the woman had already engaged in some form of sexual activity before ‘changing her mind’. Let’s take a remedial course in getting jiggy with it, shall we? Heavy petting does not always lead to sex. Neither does oral sex automatically mean that intercourse will follow. I’m concerned that this will lead to fewer convictions (because that’s all we need, making rape harder to prosecute). I’m glad that sexual assault towards partners is being given harsher sentences as well – although I’m fuzzy on the distinction between ‘sexual assault short of rape’ and ‘sexual touching of victim by offender’, and I bet the judges are as well. I’m pleased about the decision – I’m not sure when it’s going to be put into practice or if it will necessarily be in it’s current form, but I’ll keep you posted and if there’s anything we can do to convince the Powers That Be that consent to one form of sexual activity doesn’t equal consent to another, I shall marshal the troops.

I have a sister post to this about, quote unquote, 'date rape' and drugged/drunk consent (or lack thereof), but that's going to have to wait till another time.

Next up (probably) : St Hilda's College, Oxford, becomes one of an increasing number of all-women's colleges to go co-ed. Up for discussion are safe spaces, adademic sexism, gender segregation and sisterhood.

Peace out,

Kaite xx

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