Freshers’ week at Oxford, like any other University, demands the recycling of that same monotony of questions: where are you from? What do you study? Why did you choose Oxford, etcetera? At graduate level, this is much the same: where are you from? Where did you study for your undergraduate degree? What is it, exactly, that you are researching now? And for me, on giving my answer, (“Women’s Studies”, I pipe up, wishing I had been slightly more bold, but, having been greeted with much the same facial expression each time, I am starting to wither): why are you studying women? Or, the question I find much easier to answer: when did you decide you were a feminist?
Whilst I too, admittedly, would make the automatic connection between ‘student of women’s studies’ to ‘vocal feminist’, I also recognize the importance of distinguishing between the two. This is not a course with a political manifesto, but a course of reinstruction; of filling in the gaps in an institutional system that has failed us (yes, us, all of us, and not just the half of the population that it applies to). Thus, the product is feminist – the existence of the course itself – but the teaching is more what I would describe as ‘fair’ (a fine line between this and feminism, one ought to argue, but an existent line nonetheless).
There are two main components, I have discovered, to women’s studies. Firstly, the underpinning theory. The main aim of this component is to provide understanding of feminist theory and open the floor for discussion in an academic environment, in order to dismantle the structures of normalization that are rooted in our history, culture, and most relevantly to this discussion in academia today. The second component is the option modules, which range from applied philosophy through to history, literature or sociology, and hailing from numerous different cultures and time periods. The central tenet: women. Feminist academia is based upon the cruciality of accounting for a plurality of experiences, in response to the positivist foundation of all study, and hence, “knowledge”, today. A degree in women’s studies is interested in welcoming students with a background in any and every field of study in order the aim of mapping out the gaps and realities. As such, the existence of such a course at an institution like that of Oxford is fundamental to the pursuit of women’s studies in its broader context, given the guiding role of this university in academic movements and notions. This is the performance that I have given oh so many times this week, after which many bow out of the discussion nobly. Though others, I have discovered, take it slightly further.
It is true that one might criticise the (apparently, to some!) arbitrary nature of the lineation of ‘women’ for cultural study. Why Women’s Studies and not Gender Studies, others ask? To call my degree Gender Studies would be to undermine, in my view at least, the central tenet of the course. Gender is to imply relationality; ‘women’s studies’ draws direct attention to the prior lack, the gap that is being filled, the product of speech, in the very disciplines that had often previously omitted women entirely: philosophy, history, literature, etcetera. Women’s Studies pulls together those otherwise dispersed amongst men, its very structure reassessing the canonical imperatives that have historically shaped history as his-story.
What has been fantastic to see at Oxford are the projects in place in struggle for better representation and curriculum and university wide. Attracting most attention recently has been the Rhodes Will Fall in Oxford movement, parallel to that of Cape Town University. This campaigns for greater visibility of and sensitivity toward non-white students in Oxford, by targeting the dismissal and erasure of colonialist history and the lack of accurate representation curriculum wide. The campaign was kick-started by protests against the idealization of colonialism through Cecil Rhodes, a statue of whom stands outside Oriel College, its presence remaining a symbol of the neutralisation of aspects of colonial history, unrecognized, in Oxford today. Likewise, I consider the presence of my course this particular University framework not simply an achievement, but a work in progress. To have broken into the ivory tower is quite something; the next step is to make use of it. The fact that I experience odd and confused remarks when discussing my course with somebody who appears not just skeptical but angered (yes, it has certainly happened), I am reminded not only of the very achievement of its existence, but equally of the work that is yet to be done.