I’m writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.
In the last few months, as I’ve sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I’ve come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one’s work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she’d written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.
While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.
Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I’m often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.
But I’ve been inspired by these writer-activists I’m studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.
Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn’t go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.
But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.
I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I’m not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.