University Women – Let’s Take Up Space

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

The image features the effigy of a woman cyclist suspended in mid-air, as men carrying banners reading ‘Varsity for Men’ thronged the road beneath, and as, in the Senate House, the university authorities debated admitting women to take the Cambridge degree. You might hope that such images belong only in the sepia-toned past. Over the past week or so, I’ve been tweeting the hashtag , which is the brainchild of a friend of mine who runs the Fifty Percent Project. Here, she sums things up:

“The Fifty Percent Project aims to draw attention to all the ways in which women are denied access to our rightful share of physical, verbal, social, political and cultural space, and to encourage women to start to demand the space to which we are entitled.”

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can look at her selection of facts on women’s under-representation, and you can get involved by sharing stories.

This project is timely for me. As a junior academic in a subject like English Literature, you might think I’d be surrounded by women, that the battle to get women’s voices heard is long over, and that – if anything – I should be worrying about the feminization of education. I’ve heard these arguments before. To listen to some people speculate, you’d imagine university English departments are full of women handing out flyers for the Feminist Burlesque evening*, writing papers about Lady Macbeth’s lesbian subtexts** and campaigning for free mooncups***.

I admit, there is graffiti in the Cambridge English faculty women’s toilet written in support of mooncups. And there’s a lovely radfem argument about shaving your legs scribbled all over the wall in the Lecture Block loo. And I do enjoy that women do their radicalism in this particular space, though it would be lovely if we could do it elsewhere, too. Which brings me back to the point: despite what you might imagine, English Literature at university still struggles to accommodate women.

The Fifty Percent Project site lists amongst their statistics this fact:

“Women make up 45% of academic staff at Higher Education institutions, but comprise 22% of Professors and 33% of other senior academic staff.”

These statistics are disturbing, but they represent a substantial improvement on recent years: the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that in 2003-4 (the academic year I went to university), only 15% of professors were women. That’s an increase of nearly 50%. People very often talk about these numbers as if they must be reflecting a recent phenomenon. Surely, we have so few women in positions of authority just because … well, haven’t women been historically marginalised?

This is demonstrably not the case.

Professor Pat Thane’s work on women students in the past century provides some statistics. In 1900, women made up 16% of the UK student body. By 1930, it was 27%, but this fell to 23% in 1938, and remained steady until the 1970s.

We might take a moment to be slightly shocked by that. Women have been 23% of all students since 1938. No one can claim, then, that the reason there are so few women professors is simply that the number reflects the numbers of women entering HE – we should have had 23% of professorships for the best part of a century. Instead, it’s only in the last few years we’ve even come close to the numbers that should have been the baseline since the 1930s generation of students came of age.

This isn’t just an issue for senior academics, obviously. Women undergraduates still struggle to take up the space they need – physical, verbal, social, political and cultural, as the Project puts it – in order to get what they deserve from three years at university. For male students, the academic role models are right there. In order for women to take up our proper space, we need the same sense that we belong, that we deserve to be here, that we’re good enough. The Fifty Percent Project is designed to bring women together, to celebrate women’s achievements.

I have had some brilliant female teachers and mentors, I have some amazing, inspiring female colleagues, and I’m constantly awed by the women students whom I’ve been supervising this year. But, I think we don’t often enough hear each other saying, ‘you know what? I’m really good. I deserve to be heard. My ideas are really exciting and I’m going to get them out there. And people are going to listen’.

Women in academia deserve to .


* No, I don’t think there is such a thing as feminist burlesque.
** Yes, this paper would make me cringe.
*** Sounds great.

Pat Thane, ‘The Careers of Female Graduates of Cambridge University, 1920s-1970s’, in Origins of the Modern Career, eds. David Mitch, John Brown and Marco H. D. van Leeuwen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 207-224.

10 thoughts on “University Women – Let’s Take Up Space

  1. I guess we should be grateful that it was only an effigy… A very fine essay that makes me feel hopeful, no small things these days, I fear. Thank you.

    • Yes, I thought that about the effigy. I am more disturbed by that image than I said – it is really unpleasant.

      But yes, let’s be hopeful, and thank you for reminding me to think that way.

      • I want to make clear, my hopefulness was not random. It was the result of reading your clear, eloquent, cogent, and invigorating call to arms. Somebody smart, I don’t recall who, rsponded to hope being the thing with feathers by saying, Yes, that’s why it so easily flies away, leaving us bereft. We live in dark times, and it is no small thing to bring hope to your readers, hope based not on wishing but a realistic plan of action.

  2. That is extremely kind, thank you.

    I feel it’s not just me. Almost every post I write, I’m getting the best from other feminists around me.

    I know the original Dickenson quotation about hope, but not the response you mention. And it is *so* very right!

  3. I read this when you first posted it and didn’t really know what to say or add that would be helpful so just appreciated the information and went about my way. Now I’m finding myself utilizing the information and how important it is you and your friend are bringing awareness to the campaign of taking up more space. Thanks again for your teaching and work. It helps my optimism.

    • Thanks so much for posting this. I am doing the same – I keep going back to what is being said (especially on twitter) about taking up space, and reminding myself to act on it! And I think keeping each other optimistic has to be a huge part of it.

      • You are most definitely a bright spot and inspiration for the action. It gets discouraging. I don’t have twitter but I think it’s a great idea what you’re all doing with this idea. 🙂

  4. An interesting and enlightening post. And appreciate you are taking up this mantle. I often wondered what higher education would be like if it was less male-driven in terms of not just who is teaching but how curriculums are developed and decided.

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