Girton College of Cambridge University, March 1957: England's first residential college for women (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Women Talk Back! judgement is a victory for inclusion

Female students deserve their own spaces

Once upon a time, women — or the class of people formerly known as women — could not attend university. Academia was considered the province of men, with women kept out.

Later, the rules were loosened. Women could study, only with fewer resources. They could take the exams, but not be awarded full degrees. They could sit with the men, but not be treated as equals. All of this happened in the relatively recent past.

Magdalene College, Cambridge, first admitted female students in 1988. According to The Tab, “the Magdalene flag was flown at half mast as women entered the college, with some students also choosing to don black armbands. Students also allegedly marched around the streets of Cambridge carrying a coffin to mourn the ‘death’ of the college”. This was not the 1800s; it was thirty-five years ago. 

Progress and backlash do not alternate, but co-exist

The belief that public spaces and institutions belong to male people has not died out. Even though women can enter spheres which once excluded them, they can still be made to feel unwelcome. As Rachel Hewitt explores in her forthcoming book In Her Nature, women have repeatedly been made to feel like imposters in supposedly male preserves — sports, academia, politics — through the devaluation of their achievements, the threat of physical and sexual violence, and the absence of practical resources such as toilets. Hewitt notes that this can continue happening even whilst women are advancing in these areas; progress and backlash do not alternate, but co-exist, the latter feeding off the former.

One present-day example of this might be the treatment of university feminist societies. It might seem cause for celebration that these societies have flourished in the 21st century, yet until this month, Bristol University Student Union was seeking to discipline one such society and its founding president. Why? Raquel Rosario Sanchez and Women Talk Back! dared to organise in neither the presence nor for the benefit of males. 

Given academia’s long history of excluding anyone female, not to mention the sex-based inequalities that persist in higher education — for instance, 80 per cent of university vice-chancellors are men, UK universities have a higher gender pay gap than the national average, and the sexual harassment of female students is rife across institutions — you’d think a bit of female-centrism was the bare minimum when it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion. Alas, apparently not. In a particularly grotesque twist, those seeking to quash Women Talk Back! had the nerve to claim that they were the ones being excluded. 

It’s a bizarre framing. Then again, universities have never been especially good at coming to terms with their history of female exclusion. I started my studies in 1993, at an Oxford college that first accepted women in 1979. I don’t ever recall the institution, or indeed the university as a whole, seeming particularly ashamed of its past. Whenever the topic arose, the focus was on celebrating the women who’d blazed a trail, as though whatever they’d had to overcome — tradition, habit, lack of self-belief — hadn’t had anything to do with the university itself. It was as though female students were meant to feel, not resentful that other women had been denied opportunities, or suspicious of just how “included” we really were, but grateful to be there at all.

Bristol University has opted for a typical blend of denial and self-congratulation. My favourite part of their online “history of gender equality” is the reluctance to mention that women could not take medical examinations until 1906 (the first woman to start studying medicine at Bristol was Elizabeth Casson, in 1913 — the same year students carried out “an assault on the suffragette shop on Park Street”). Women couldn’t vote — or, until then, study medicine — because of their biological sex, not gender identity. That ought to give the university some pause when it comes to throwing students to the wolves for believing in the political salience of biological sex. Nonetheless, when Rosario Sanchez faced bullying and harassment for her feminist beliefs, Bristol University failed to support her, leading her to launch a separate legal case (she lost, but the university were forced to admit that she had been the victim of “unacceptable behaviour”). 

Such statements exist to remind female students that public space is male, all of it

I am personally familiar with Rosario Sanchez and Women Talk Back! In 2019 I spoke at one of their events, on the topic of feminism and writing. Outside there were protestors, most of them male, nursing the same bitterness certain men have always felt at the thought that women are doing something that does not centre them. To these men, “exclusion” is women gathering in a room for two hours to speak about their lives and needs. It is not centuries of being told these rooms are not for you and that you have no place in them. It is not centuries of legal, scientific, philosophical and political thought in which women barely merit a mention. It’s women having anything at all. 

Shortly before the 2019 event, having run the gauntlet of those shouting outside, I went to the women’s toilets. There, I saw graffiti on the tiles: a Mars (male) symbol plus the caption “we’re already here”. The intention was obvious — to make women aware of the potential presence of males in an enclosed space whilst they are in a state of undress. Such statements masquerade as celebrating inclusion, but they function as the exact opposite. They exist to remind female students that public space is male, all of it, and that if we want any degree of privacy, we should stay at home, with the kids and the kitchen sink.

This is why the recent decision of Bristol Students’ Union to allow the existence of a female-only feminist society — following legal action by four members of Women Talk Back! — matters so much. It has been framed as feminists being granted the right to “exclude trans women”, but this is an entirely skewed way of seeing it. It needs to be understood in the context of female people’s historical and ongoing marginalisation in the public sphere. 

When feminists are accused of “excluding”, what we are really witnessing is a repackaging of the men’s rights activist claim that if women wish to participate in public life, they mustn’t expect any “special treatment” (by which is meant, there should be no recognition of female biology or female vulnerabilities to male sexual violence). If women want to go to university, they shouldn’t expect any spaces, clubs or meetings that do not welcome male people. This ignores the fact that female access to public life is contingent on women having the necessary spaces and resources to deal with the reality of male dominance.

In the end, “we’re already here” on a toilet wall isn’t saying much. Male people, whatever you call yourselves, you’ve always “already” been here. You’ve always believed you have a right to define all spaces as belonging to you. Your toilet wall scribbles are the 21st century equivalent of the black armbands worn by the Magdalene students. What you’re doing is nothing new. Yet again, you’re trying to tell us that despite our nominal inclusion, nothing has changed. 

What feminist students — brave women such as Rosario Sanchez — are doing is nothing new, either. They will keep doing it. You might not like it but we, too, are already here, and each victory makes it a little easier for us to stay. 

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