On Saturday 31st January, I spent the day at Senate House in London attending the Classics and the New Faces of Feminism sandpit, organised by my RHUL colleague Efi Spentzou and Genevieve Liveley from Bristol. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been very aware of this because I was livetweeting the event, using the hashtag #classfem – thanks to the marvellous Lucy Jackson, the various livetweeters have been gathered together into this ‘ere Storify, so if you weren’t able to make it, you can catch up on what went on. I was there to chair the panel on Classics, feminism and pedagogy (which given my recent outing with Cloelia felt very appropriate), but there were all sorts of other reasons that this event felt timely – not least, of course, that of entering the third trimester of my first pregnancy, and wondering how that is going to affect my future.
The reason this post has taken this long to appear is because it’s taken me this long to catch up with myself! It was an incredibly stimulating day, and my heartfelt thanks go out to Efi and Genevieve for organising it. The downside, of course, is that I spent most of Sunday half-asleep, and it’s taken until now to get myself on top of ‘normal’ jobs to have five minutes to write about the experience – but again, that’s one of the effects of doing a full-on extra work day in the third trimester, and a price I don’t begrudge in the slightest.
Some observations. First of all, the atmosphere was amazing. I’ve personally experienced the kind of buzz and enthusiasm in the room before – but that was at Feminism and Classics conferences, not on UK soil (although women as classical scholars came close). The fact that such an atmosphere could exist at an academic event seemed to be something of a surprise to some attendees, particularly the very high number of graduate students in attendance. The mood was also largely shaped by a very constructive and nurturing approach. Not that you could get away with saying anything (for instance, there was some lively debate about waves of feminism and which, if any, participants identified with), but the general mood was one of building connections and offering support. For instance, in the sandpit discussion section of the pedagogy panel, some grad students who were facing teaching for the first time next academic year aired their nerves about teaching potentially difficult and sensitive subjects – and had an entire room of more experienced teachers respond with advice, strategies and general cheerleading.
That buzz was partly generated by the international flavour of the day. The last panel on the program was to publicise the Eugesta network, and to encourage participants to engage with its events and submit to its journal. This meant we had representatives in the room from at least the US, France, Italy and Greece. The US contingent was particularly strong, as it included people like Nancy Rabinowitz, Barbara Gold and Judith Hallett, who were all involved in the founding and early years of the WCC and as such have been critical in creating the kind of environment I found in the US as a graduate student (and for which I am eternally grateful). I suppose that this is one of the so-far unsung benefits of globalisation – while there are still local or regional conditions which will only affect academics in a particular geographic area, there are wider issues of feminist practice, research and pedagogy where we can learn from each other’s distinct cultures and build cooperation for the future. The Eugesta network is a fantastic example of this, and I hope that it continues to build connections between academics and institutions.
More than buzz, the day produced a surprising amount of energy. Energy to do things. Given that one concern raised in the early sessions was how there seemed to be a diffusion of activism around the feminist project, particularly if compared to the second wave, the thirst for suggestions of what action we might take was palpable. Suggestions for action came in both little and big forms – deliberately choosing translations by women for classes and hand-outs; seeking to act collaboratively rather than competitively with women colleagues; seeking out international collaboration; using classical material to address contemporary issues like rape culture and as a tool for social justice; seeing ourselves as intersectional and thus tackling the problem that classics still has with supporting non-white students and academics; continuing to engage with feminist theory as it develops; reshaping the reception canon so that women’s writing won’t need to be reclaimed in future; and reconsidering where feminism happens on our course syllabi and in our students’ degree paths. There was something there for people at every career stage, both in terms of practical action in the coming weeks and months, and in aspirational or strategic terms.
One of the massive things for me to come out of the sandpit is the final push to do something that I will either be very proud of or profoundly regret, and quite possibly both. At the last Feminism and Classics conference, I expressed a desire for a body similar to the WCC in the UK. In my head, as I realised on Saturday, I had conceptualised this as something that I would do, as a sole heroic individual (hello, ivory tower model of scholarship), and that it would thus have to wait until I had the stability of a permanent position. At the sandpit, I mentioned this idea again – and was gently shocked by the level of enthusiasm and support for it. So I’m now starting to make some moves towards getting this actually set up and going, which is both terrifying and exciting. On the plus side, I do at least know that I can’t afford to overcommit myself – the impending arrival of a small infant rather precludes that – so while I can do some of the initial work in getting the ball rolling, I have an in-built reminder that I can’t take on too much. This, too, is quite important – there’s such a tendency for labour to land on those in the least stable conditions (PhD students, ECRs on fixed term contracts, independent researchers to name but a few), and I’m very keen to try to structure things so that we don’t end up with one or two of the usual suspects being overburdened.
But this is all in the future. For the time being, I’m delighted to have discovered the amount of enthusiasm and positivity around feminism within UK classics that was on show from all career stages at the sandpit, and I sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of things to come.
12th January: Now crossposted to the Arts and Humanities in Higher Education blog.