Finding a feminist home in Oxford: Four reflections
The following is the first installment of a series of self-reflexive blogs written by the 2017-18 cohort of Women’s Studies MSt students. The series seeks to explore their experiences at the University of Oxford and to give voice to some of their stories about the act of undertaking interdisciplinary feminist scholarship at the institution.
Reflecting on my own feminist views both in and outside class has been one of the most challenging but also rewarding experiences in Oxford. I remember there were moments when I was completely confused about the sole meaning of what it means to be a woman, a question I had never asked myself before and which ultimately challenged my own assumptions. Never before have I discussed feminist ideas and writers as frequently and with so many different people. An important lesson I learned throughout this journey is that my own opinion should be just as valuable as others. This has helped me to keep thinking and question my own ideas instead of just aligning with other people’s views.
One thing I would be interested to hear from other students at Oxford is whether the college has been something like a feminist community to them? In many ways, I believe that at college I have found a common ground to connect with different people over feminism, LGBTQ+ and social justice.
Walking through empty streets at night always gave me a feeling of self-determination and it was an opportunity to think and reflect on the day. After I was in a dangerous situation walking home from a party at night two years ago, my feelings towards walking alone at night have completely changed. At the International Students Welcome Reception, other women raised this issue. I went to a reclaim the night march and it was fun and empowering.
Finding a feminist home in Oxford has often happened by chance. Besides the Women’s Studies cohort who all trend towards feminism, the other feminist spaces I have found through conversation and bridge building, as opposed to actively seeking them out. It just so happened that the girl in front of me in line to be photographed for matriculation was also North American and a die-hard feminist, and our conversation during that event led to a slow but steadily moving project to create a feminist reading group at St Peters, and a strong friendship that was cemented by both playing football for the joint St Hildas St Peters team. Though obviously based around sport and not activism, spending a few hours a week with a group of women striving for a common goal is genuinely inspiring, and one of the highlights of each week.
When meeting up with other course members we often discuss how difficult it can be to get through Oxford, and to continue to confront an institution with a long history of misogyny, racism, and classism that is only slowly beginning to change. Action is often needed, such as protesting, striking, and engaging in difficult conversations with tutors and peers. All of this work is crucial, but can be exhausting. I’ve found that one of the best ways to relax and feel rejuvenated for the week ahead is to head out with a squad of girls, throw ourselves into the game, get muddy get sweaty, get tired, and then have a beer afterwards. It isn’t intellectual and it isn’t radical, but there’s something visceral about a bunch of women working together. There’s something about an entire space where the only men around are supporters or timekeepers, where women are in charge and loud and taking up space that hints at a better feminist future. For a few hours every Sunday that future feels a lot closer.
Oxford is a strange place to find a feminist home. While it is a progressive university and welcomes political views and activism across the political spectrum, it can be difficult to find the right kind of feminist activism for you. Organisations that challenge your viewpoint while simultaneously remaining fun and upbeat are hard to come across. However, I found the Feminist Thinking Seminar Series in Hilary term a great place to start. These are open to any student across the University and are designed to explore the world of feminist theory and more specific research conquests. They are inspiring and motivating, while they also provide a great map to navigate the world of feminism!
Societies are another interesting place to work on your activism. From party political societies to more specific initiatives, there’s a lot to find here across the University. Smaller projects that I have really enjoyed being a part of includes the Oxford Dignity Drive, which works on helping homeless and vulnerable women access sanitary products. As a keen ‘End Tampon Tax’ campaigner this has been really interesting for me and they are always looking for more students to get involved! Importantly, if you don’t find a feminist activist home that’s right for you, there’s always scope to start your own societies, projects and initiatives too. Another student organised a Mooncup event at Mansfield College and a few of us are involved in organising an ‘Illuminate Herstory’ exhibition at St Catherine’s College. This will showcase artworks and poems dedicated to highlighting the often-overlooked history of women in celebration of International Women’s Day 2018. The University offers lots of space for finding, and if not creating, a feminist home tailored to you.
A feminist home in Oxford can come in many shapes and sizes. From the activist scene to joining your college sports team, there is plenty on offer. Yet, it is sometimes difficult to find your niche. At first, the feeling of non-belonging can feel overwhelming. Home denotes ideas of permanence, positionality and affiliation. What is my role? Where do I fit in? When combined with the additional anxiety of moving to a new city to study for a Masters degree, things could have taken a turn for the worse.
However, being in Oxford has taught me that belonging is not about a possessive singularity. Instead, there exists a multiplicity of feminist homes where identity and difference work hand in hand. Once I stopped searching for ‘the one’, I found many homes – some in the unlikeliest of places: college breakfast companions, fellow library bookworms, enthusiastic vegetarian veterans and Sunday night pizza pals. Despite our disparate life experiences, the feminist solidarity amongst the Women’s Studies cohort has offered one of the most supportive spaces. I have succeeded in Oxford because I know that I am encouraged and cared about. Feminism is not simply a concept but a way of articulating this multifarious and diverse community.
Interestingly, my initial feelings of isolation have greatly informed my feminist outlook. As Virginia Woolf famously writes in the Three Guineas: ‘as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country.’ I, too, now understand that starting from a non-appropriative place of difference aids self-reflexivity and encourages us to reconsider the viewpoints that are all too often marginalised.