When Feminism Becomes Exclusivism?

FAITH BARKER explains why she feels uncomfortable with some of the attitudes expressed within the CUSU Women’s Campaign.

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When I arrived at Cambridge, I was dumbfounded by the casual sexism. I’d come from an all-girl, highly academic school where we’d been told we could do anything (admittedly, this focused more on being bankers than being activists, but there was a strong emphasis on equal intellectual capability with boys).

On arrival in Cambridge, however, I was quickly introduced to such concepts as ‘Good Pants Bad Pants’, the Cambridge scale, and the creeping feeling that some of my male peers genuinely didn’t believe that women could be as smart as them.

Fully outraged, I resolved to go to a meeting of different feminist organisations in Cambridge, looking not so much for a plan of action as for someone to help me understand what the hell was going on and whether I was actually living inside the pages of Nuts magazine. The meeting, though, was a disappointment – I was embarrassed by the activism jargon, unfamiliar to me, and frustrated by the circularity of the arguments. I didn’t go back, and perhaps that was my mistake.

Maybe what I wanted was not an organisation for equality, but a group of like-minded friends with whom I could cackle about the raised eyebrows of one rugby-playing friend when I mentioned the word ‘pubes’ in relation to my own body. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place.

But I don’t think it’s just my fault. I don’t disagree with what the Women’s Campaign is trying to do – I want women to have a greater voice in Cambridge, and I don’t want people to be able to fling Julie Burchill-esque accusations that the privilege that comes from being at an elite university means you can’t suffer from the constraints of patriarchy – but sometimes the Campaign makes me feel about as alienated as seeing the Facebook page of my college’s male drinking society.

Recent debates with regards to men wanting to contribute to feminist discussion made me particularly uncomfortable. Okay, so some of them were a bit frustrating, but it escalated to comments which screamed ‘DON’T REPLY. IT MAKES US ANGRY. YOU ARE NOT OUR INTELLECTUAL OR EXPERIENTIAL EQUALS ON THIS SUBJECT’. Shit, I thought, I may have a uterus, but I know I’m definitely not one of their intellectual equals on this subject either. I spend more time fretting about my degree than I do reading bell hooks – does that mean I can’t be part of the discussion?

Support for similar ideas abounded on the Women’s Campaign Facebook page. I felt uneasy that an organisation supposedly representing all self-defining women in Cambridge was speaking out in a way that I found offensive and elitist. It wasn’t just refusing to engage with its detractors, but it was alienating those who should be able to feel part of the Women’s Campaign. Surely a Women’s Campaign in the environment of a university, where many people may not have been exposed to feminist theory before, should be about inclusion and education rather than dismissal of those who ask questions or have doubts – especially if the questioners are other women?

Last term, a fresher asked a boy in my year if I was nice – his response was ‘Mmm. She’s a bit feminist’. I want to love the Women’s Campaign, and I want to feel like I can be a part of it (I welcome any and all criticism of what is essentially a paradoxical article!). I think of myself as more than ‘a bit feminist’: is there such a thing as degrees of feminism? Perhaps there is for the Women’s Campaign.