What inspires people to do research on gender? What books and articles have been most inspirational to us? Here are some features contributed by members of our Centre. Remember that all kinds of books and articles have inspired careers and research trajectories!
Ann Oakley, Housewife (Penguin Books, 1974) & Becoming a Mother (Schocken Books, 1979)
It was Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch that made me realise that I was a feminist: a word that described my sense of injustice about (one aspect) of the organisation of society. But my choice of book is one that inspired my academic interest in looking at what goes on within the household and inside families. Ann Oakley’s books written between 1974 and 1984 looked in detail at the experiences of women who were housewives and mothers. She documented negative aspects - monotony, loneliness and hard work - and questioned the view ‘that all women need to be mothers, that all mothers need their children and that all children need their mothers’ (1974: 186). She took seriously the ‘domestic sphere’ and attempted to understand the gendered nature of the private as well as the public realm. She also has a clear view of what the project of sociology should be which refers to a kind of impact that makes sense to me; ‘the point is not to theorize in an armchair kind of way, it’s about having some kind of practical impact, and sometimes you have that by opening a debate, by making people argue, and by highlighting an issue … that was not regarded as an issue before’.
Feminist inspirations in the classroom: Keith Krause and Elisabeth Prügl, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva)
In 2008-2010, I completed a Master’s degree in Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva’s thriving activist and intellectual landscape, feminist inspirations came in many forms. Most crucially, I was inspired by two Graduate Institute scholars, Professor Keith Krause and Professor Lisa Prügl. They convinced me that, if I wanted to make sense of international peace and conflict, researching gender was not only legitimate but also necessary.
I started my Masters driven by a gender-blind interest in armed conflict. Like too many students, I managed to complete a B.Sc. in political science without engaging with gender theory. This changed in Keith’s seminar on conflict and security. I vividly remember reading Lene Hansen’s critique of the Copenhagen School’s concept of securitisation in the context of this seminar. Securitisation theory anchors international security in ‘speech acts’; what counts as security is determined discursively. Hansen brought attention to how gender mediates individuals’ ability to perform speech acts. Like the Little Mermaid who loses her voice and dies in the classic tale, women often cannot report crimes committed against them as women without encountering further violence. For instance, women often refrain from reporting rape in contexts where being identified as a rape victim may subject them to further violence, such as honour killings. This made me realise that in order to understand political violence, I could not ignore gender. Thinking of violence as gendered did not only make sense ethically but also epistemologically. Gender-blind analyses of violence often carry a masculinised bias and ignore violence against women, which is unfair to at least half of humanity. Moreover, seeing world politics through gender theory allowed me, as a gendered being, to relate to it in a more personal and meaningful way.
On these grounds I asked Keith if he would supervise my Master’s dissertation on gender and post-conflict peace-building. I was not entirely sure on doing the project. My partner – a gifted graduate student and my closest intellectual influence at the time – warned that researching gender would ‘put me in a corner’: I would be marginalised for the rest of my career. Keith responded that gender is not a corner: it is at least half the world. He added that Lisa Prügl, who specialised in gender and international politics, would make an ideal co-supervisor, and it would be good for me to get enrolled on her seminars.
I first found Lisa’s seminars deeply unsettling. As we moved through the canons of feminist social thought, everything I thought I knew about love, sexuality, relationships, and my own body became entangled in conflicting ways that I could no longer make sense of. My internal upheaval was augmented by heated discussions with my partner who compellingly argued that specialising in gender would distract me from fighting possibly more damaging forms of inequality – such as class. At the time he prevailed in most of our arguments and I could only hold on to the gut feeling that there was another side to the story that I was not yet able to articulate. Thankfully, Lisa’s manner combined implacable intellectual rigor with a reassuring ethics of care, which was key to my feminist awakening. She provided essential guidance in the year-long process that led to the completion of my masters’ thesis, the publication of an article in a feminist academic journal, and generally my development as an intellectual. So did my partner, though much more vigorously and combatively. His critical impulse remains ingrained within me, ready to question every canon, including the feminist one. When my article came out, it alarmed my father who thought that publicly identifying with ‘radical’ publications might harm my career. His comment did not bother me. By that point I rested on the quiet confidence that no matter my career aspirations, they would thrive on feminist curiosity, and I had the resources to face any critique that might come my way.
Jeff Hearn and Wendy Parkin, 'Sex' at 'Work': Power and Paradox of Organization Sexuality (Wheatsheaf, 1987)
Back in those days feminism for me – in academic terms – was just that, a fresh and somewhat exotic voyage into unknown intellectual territory. The relationship between the studies of women’s oppression and my everyday life was – as with the case of the American civil rights movement of two decades before – a political possibility more than an obvious practice. The position of well-meaning, even angry white people in that movement was somewhat analogous, so it seemed, to the possible ‘pro’-positioning of men in relation to feminism, the movement for the liberation of women. Certainly the ‘anti’-positioning of some whites and (all?) men in both cases was clear enough. For me this book was a breakthrough because it dealt directly with my workaday life which was of course … the office! The book didn’t link theory to practice; it linked practice to consciousness – mine.
The paradox of the subtitle was quite simple and utterly novel: people don’t just ‘have sex’ (or try to) at the office where obviously they’re supposed to be ‘at work’ instead (doing it well or badly). Hearn and Parkin – who were sociologists – put it round the other way. Work was invented so that people could have more sex! Hence the scare-quotes round the supposedly familiar terms ‘sex’ and ‘work’, which got redefined in a radical way. It’s now quite easy to see the Foucauldian story behind this, but thankfully the book was not an exposition of heavyweight theory and critical engagement. It was rather more simply framed – again in simplified Foucauldian terms – as a study of everyday power, in this case of men over women. Doubtless innumerable women had noticed this, and may have taken it up with feminist groups, but making a ‘serious’ empirical study of supposedly mundane and taken-for-granted organizational matters from this perspective was new.
For me the book was fresh because it was experiential, and it was that because it was empirical. It got down to micro-observations of commonplace presumptions and patterns of behaviour that struck home. After reading it nothing looked the same at work, not because of the rather clever paradox-of-reversal – which neatly framed gender as the way that heterosexuality operates – but because of the way that spatial geographies became hierarchies of power. Anyone could tell you that secretaries and lower-rank ‘admin’ were far more female than male, and that academics from lower to higher ranks – and of course the really ‘high-ups’ it ‘goes without saying’ – showed the reverse proportionality. But this book told me that female spaces and surfaces – specifically secretaries’ desk-drawers, not to mention desktops and shelf-spaces – were treated as common stores of anything needed by the (almost wholly) male higher-ranks. Had I really put those ‘borrowed’ scissors back? Did I need to replace the biros and sello-tape dispensers? Obviously not!
I didn’t bother feeling guilty; I just stopped. Or rather I asked politely first, and if it was after hours or the desk was unoccupied, I just didn’t do it and made do elsewhere. It was a whole new idea. While this hardly upends the distribution of ‘opposite’ genders at opposite ends of the power-stakes, it provides a useful point of experiential and transferrable reflection. Hearn’s Gender of Oppression: Men, Masculinity and the Critique of Marxism appeared the same year. But the jointly-authored and gender-powered empirical study of ‘organization sexuality’ was the one that inspired me more.
Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (Women's Press, 1982)
To my mind feminism has always been a radical call to arms: the need to collectively and individually resist political, cultural and economic forms of violence against women. To that end, most of the feminist books that inspired (and continue to inspire) me are those driven by a politics of resistance. Sometimes these books can be uncomfortable to read, not least when you are confronted by your own relative ‘privilege’, to use today’s parlance. Angela Davis’ book is such a book. When I read her book as an undergraduate it immediately had an impact. I knew this for two reasons. First, I read the book the entire way through, not just the chapters that had been set as assigned reading. And second, it made me angry.
Women Race and Class is a damning indictment of the pervasive racism inherent in the early US women’s suffrage campaign but also in the subsequent women’s liberation movement. This, she argues, is not just a product of structural and cultural forms of racism but is also inextricably linked to economic disparity and class inequality. Davis sets about illustrating the various and significant ways in which women of color and working-class women contributed to social justice campaigns and the extent to which their voices were marginalised by white middle-class women. In her analysis of the suffrage campaign, she notes that there was ‘not a single Black woman in attendance’ at the 1848 Seneca Falls conference, the first women’s rights conference to be organised in the US (p. 57); despite the fact that prominent campaigners for women’s suffrage were also involved in the abolitionist movement. In other words, white women were unable to make the connection between their freedom to vote and black women’s freedom from slavery. Fast forward to over a century later, Davis observes the ‘lily-white complexion’ of the abortion rights campaign (p. 203), something reflected in the white dominance of the women’s liberation movement. Yet again black women’s concerns were marginalised.
Davis critiques the ways in which assumptions are made about a unifying category of woman; assumption that do not account for the fact that ‘Black women enjoyed few of the dubious benefits of the ideology of womanhood’ (p. 5). We talk a lot about ‘intersectionality’ in contemporary feminism; the need to account for the complex and interconnected ways in which multiple layers of oppression can impact upon an individual’s life. Some, who were politically active in what we might loosely call second wave feminism, have criticised the idea that this is somehow a new idea. Indeed, one only needs to read Angela Davis to know that there were feminists joining the dots during the second wave. The distinction between Davis’ argument and today’s feminism, is that (some) white, middle-class women now acknowledge the problems of hierarchy and have decided to frame their feminism through an understanding of the intersecting points of oppression. Undoubtedly there are some for whom issues of race and class remain tangential concerns; reading Women, Race and Class would soon rectify that.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
Why this book over all the others? Vicky Randall's Women and Politics, the first ever gender and politics book I read in 1988; Naomi Wolf's (1990) The Beauty Myth, which spoke to the younger me in a way that felt contemporary; Anne Phillips's (1991) Engendering Democracy, which inspired my PhD, and her (1995) Politics of Presence, which framed the thesis.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest feminist texts. It speaks of revolutionary ideas at the time of revolution. Mary's was very much a life marked by her sex, and by the gendered society in which she lived. Her mother experienced domestic violence; her own independence rested on teaching and writing for money - the few professions open to women. She was someone who fell in love with men who failed her – for one she rowed across the North Sea in search of his money. Later, and happy with William Godwin, she had a daughter, the author Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft died a 'woman's death' aged 38 of puerperal fever.
Decried by Horace Walpole as a 'hyena in petticoats', Wollstonecraft transgressed acceptable notions of womanhood, scandalising society. She was troubling and troubled: she attempted suicide, once by jumping into the River Thames.
As an MA in Women's Studies student at the University of York in 2002 I attended a series of talks on Wollstonecraft’s life and works. These challenged dominant readings of her ideas - for being too constrained by liberalism and not being radical enough in her gendered critique. On reading her work I agreed. But she still has much to say. My overriding memory – the gilded cage:
‘Taught from their infancy, that beauty is women's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its cage'.
And another quote:
'Genteel women are literally, slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection'.
There must be a ‘revolution in female manners’, Wollstonecraft declared. Girls must be educated: 'Let their virtues be the same in kind', she wrote.
Pija Lindenbaum, Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle (R&S Books, 2007)
Feminism is to me an everyday struggle that I have to be consciously engaged in. It is not primarily an academic interest and I can’t point to a book that has particularly shaped my feminism. However, the main site for my feminist struggle is the home and the greatest challenge is how to bring up happy, confident and fair children, well equipped to take on discrimination and prejudice. In other words, what can I do to make sure that being a feminist becomes that bit more natural for my children than it is for me?
Although gender-neutral upbringing sounds great in theory, it would require complete separation from the world around us where gender roles are reinforced in toyshops, TV programs and commercials, nurseries and schools. After six and a half year as a parent I have surrendered to the fact that maybe all I can do is to try to get my children to question sexism and gender roles wherever they pop up.The books by Pija Lindenbaum are a great tool in this quest. Lill-Zlatan (named after the iconic Swedish male footballer), or Mini Mia in the English translation (presumably named after equally iconic American female footballer Mia Hamm), is a girl constantly carrying her football around with her. Her favourite person is her uncle Tommy, but problems arise when Tommy’s new boyfriend appears. Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle is a great book about the jealousy that all children experience and Tommy being gay is not the central topic. Nevertheless, it has provided a great example for the question:
‘Daddy, can boys marry boys and girls marry girls?’
I do however need a good book with transsexual characters for the question that came some months ago:
Son: 'Daddy, is everybody either a boy or a girl?'
Me: 'No, some people are a bit in the middle or a bit of both'.
Another one of my favourites is Kenta och Barbisarna (Kenta and the Barbies) which appears not to be translated to English yet. It’s about a boy who likes Barbie but is struggling to be accepted by the girls at nursery while the boys want him to play rough. In the end Kenta’s negotiating with gender roles ends up with all the kids dancing ballet in dressing-up clothes.
Lindenbaum doesn’t try to show children a gender neutral world without prejudice and discrimination. Instead she depicts a social world that is full of expectations of certain behaviours but where most of us would prefer not to conform to those expectations. Not conforming is depicted as courageous and has happy consequences. What is so great about Lindenbaum’s books is that they are aimed at the age (3-6) when children notice and think about gender roles. Sadly, the fact that these books stand out highlights a situation where the consumerist culture that children are exposed to overall is in many ways even more sexist and heteronormative than the social world that they will come to form part of.