Last week I attended a talk at King’s College London given by Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. It was by turns upsetting and inspiring.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the Everyday Sexism Project is a website which gathers together user-submitted accounts of the microaggressions faced by women (and people who are read as women) in their daily lives. If you don’t face those things, reading the site is an eye-opener – if you do, then it’s a saddening reminder of how the world tries to grind down those who don’t fit into the narrow standards of acceptability for the socially-policed categories of gender. Go forth and read it, but have a video of adorable puppies on stand-by for when you need some light relief.
Part of Bates’ talk dealt with the story of how she founded Everyday Sexism. She described the dawning realisation that the things she put up with day-to-day – the barrage of unsolicited gendered comments on one’s body shape, employability, attractiveness, mental prowess, clothes – weren’t happening to just her. Hearing the stories of other women and realising how deep this went was what inspired the founding of Everyday Sexism. I find this project particularly exciting because it works on the same principle as the early feminist practice of the consciousness-raising group, but uses the technology of today to amplify it almost beyond recognition. The consciousness-raising groups of the 60s and 70s were where many women made their way from thought to action, famously realising that ‘the personal is political’: as with Bates’ own story, hearing first-hand that it’s not just you, that it’s all taking place on a systemic scale. With social media platforms being what they are, now someone doesn’t even need to find a group to attend in person – thousands and thousands of personal accounts of the drip-drip-drip of sexism are just a few clicks away.
The other section of Bates’ talk dealt specifically with sexism and ‘lad culture’ at university – apparently every Fresher’s Week, the site is inundated with accounts of ritualised sexual humiliation and predatory sexual behaviour: sports team initiation rites including stripping and miming fellatio; themed parties which expressly encourage female students to dress in revealing clothing (‘pimps and hoes’, ‘rappers and slappers’, ‘tarts and vicars’, etc); older male students playing games over how many Freshers they can fuck (extra points for virgins or underwear-stealing). All of this was notoriously epitomised in the loathsome website UniLad, though I’ve seen it in union-specific publications too… On a somewhat more positive note, the NUS Women’s Campaign has commissioned researchers from the University of Sussex (two organisations which of course I have a personal connection with) to perform research into lad culture. And Bates herself did end the talk on something of a positive note – in the Q&A session at the end, she talked about some success stories, where women who had been reading the site stood up against street harassers or sexist comments.
I’d also like to take a moment to be incredibly gleeful about KCL’s blossoming feminist community – and indeed, the state of student feminism in London more generally. Things seem to have come on so far in such a short space of time! In my first year at King’s College, I joined the excellent KCL Sexual Politics society, the LGBT Campaign, and the London Student Feminist Network – but in my second year, most of Sexual Politics had graduated, the LSFN seemed to disappear, and so I focused on being the Welfare Officer of the LGBT Campaign. In my third year, thanks to the dedicated work of one of the sabbatical officers, the students’ union finally brought in Liberation Officers – the Women’s Officer, the LGBT Officer, the Ethnic Minorities Officer, and the Disabled Officer. I became the Women’s Officer (and stuck with my Welfare position on the LGBT Committee). I had a budget of £75 for the entire year, very little union-based support (I didn’t even have the authority to book rooms!) and had to build a campaign from scratch (unlike the LGBT Officer, who was able to link in to the existing campaign). The group I led was small but dedicated: my favourite of achievements were a well-attended confidence-building and self-defence session from the London Centre for Personal Safety (who, despite their focus on ‘prevention’ of assault, are not in the least victim-blaming), and an eating disorders awareness campaign that raised £800 for b-eat. Still, it was something of an uphill struggle.
So, to come back to King’s College and see that there’s now a feminist society with three hundred members – KCL FemSoc, headed by one of the amazing students from my old Women’s Group – and that there’s a well-supported Women’s Officer with a seat on Student Council and an actual budget… well, it’s amazing. Despite the upsetting content, I spent the aftermath of the Bates talk – which was given to a packed lecture room – feeling quite elated. I’m also incredibly happy to see that there’s a new London Student Feminist Network, and it’s organising a grassroots conference next weekend! There’s still time to register for it if you’re a student feminist in or around London: I’ll be facilitating one of the workshops there, and it would be great to see this conference packed with activists on its first year. And on a similar note, registration for this year’s NUS Women’s Conference (to be held in York on 5th-6th March) has been extended until February 20th – so if you’re at a union that hasn’t registered a delegation yet, there’s still time!
What began as a reflection has ended as something of an exhortation – just like in my last entry, albeit in a very different sphere… Perhaps that means something about how thinking about one’s history ultimately leads back to this moment right now; or more probably, I just get excited about a lot of things that are happening. 😉 And I am, most definitely, excited: student feminism is alive and well in my old union (and in my more recent union as well, with Sussex FemSoc launching a regular feminist rock night) and I’m glad to still be playing some part in it.