Olivia Cooke reviews a panel event on the topic of gender equality that took place in Wills Memorial Building earlier this term.
The Great Hall was emblazoned in the colours of the suffragette movement. Beacons of purple, white, and green light fell onto the floor, bounced off the ceiling arches, and marked the path forward as we made our way into our seats.
“Bristol Uni does Feminism”, my friend jokingly whispered in my ear before the panel discussion began. What with the lighting and the newly commissioned portraits of Bristol’s pioneering alumni of women adorning the walls, I couldn’t help but notice that our institution had made a conscious effort, in marking the centenary since women won the right to vote.
Led by Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, the panel of academics and activists (Professor Judith Squires, Professor Sarah Smith, and Sally Patterson) discussed topics ranging from positive discrimination to breaking down the loaded terms of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, and what it means to embody these signifiers. Chakrabarti opened the discussion by explaining her vision for living in a world where “[W]e don’t even see sex and gender in the same way’. For Chakrabarti, feminism and the fight to achieve parity between the sexes facilitates the means by which ‘human beings are not segregated’. In order to contest this form of gendered -segregation, each panellist was keen to emphasise how it is the responsibility of both women and men to take action in resolving the disparity that patriarchy generates within society.
As Chakrabarti elaborated on unpacking and critically scrutinising gendered-norms (i.e. undermining the notion of “women’s work”) and explored the differences in issues faced by BME and LBTQI+ women, she reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House. In her essay, Lorde implores us to value and appreciate the differences of race, class, sexuality and age which make the feminist movement stronger:
‘Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation — But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.’
Throughout the discussion, questions posed by audience members helped to highlight such differences. We heard of the oftentimes isolating experience of being a BME student in a heavily white university. We also listened to the prejudices faced by Muslim women for wearing the hijab by white feminists, which progressed into an illuminating conversation which explored the enforcement of Western culture and its ideas onto those societies and cultures that it has historically rendered as “other”. In providing an inclusive platform of discussion, the event created a sense of ‘community’ between all those who attended, allowing us to learn from the lived experiences of the women at our university who are all too frequently denied a voice.
The discussion ended by calling for a revision of the entrenched cultural practices which regulate both the bodily and emotional lives of women. Sally Patterson urged us to ‘stand-up for all identities’, with Professor Sarah Smith adding that we need to ‘[W]ork against a consumerist society’, a society ‘which enforces gender stereotypes’. By the end of the event, there was a tangible sense of optimism amongst both panellists and audience members, and although the discussion had drawn to a close, the words spoken, the issues discussed, and the ideas exchanged, will certainly keep the conversation flowing for posterity.
Illustration by Becky Armstrong.