Is there room for any women other than the “exceptional woman”, let alone women with children, in the new hyper-stratified university?

Feminist academic, Angela McRobbie, writes for Open Democracy on what it is like to be a woman in the ‘new’ university. Note how she argues that universities are still often, in practice and ethos, the preserve of the male academic, and how the tools of the academic trade (including self-aggrandisement) are less available to women.

[…] Meanwhile I was also reading, as it happened, the biography of another French academic Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. Derrida died aged 74 in 2004, he was generally hailed as a friend to feminism, but as his biographer described, his wife Marguerite (a psychoanalyst) looked after everything for the duration of their long marriage which included bringing up two sons, indeed Derrida had never once entered his local bank, he did not even know where it was. His wife obviously created a beautiful home which provided hospitality to many visiting scholars from across the world many of whom seemed to stay for weeks at a time. Even when on vacation Derrida expressed the need for time alone to work for several hours each morning followed by swimming and relaxation.

Given that women still bear the brunt of responsibility for running households and organising the school schedules of children and so on, the question I was asking myself was how can women academics ever hope to achieve success in their working lives when this kind of pattern is seen as not just normal but entirely unremarkable, especially in a sector deemed by and large to be well-disposed towards working parents? Deciding not to have children, and having a partner who is also an academic or at least very familiar with these kinds of schedules would seem like the obvious answer.

But to concede to this demand would be to comply with some of the most retrogressive aspects of our sexually divided society. And university faculties need to be able to demonstrate to young people, male and female, that women can be just as inspiring teachers and researchers, and be able to live as enjoyable a domestic life as their male counterparts. If we do not actively endorse this principle then we may as well go back to how it was when I first went to university myself in 1969, with the assumption that the figure of the professor is male. In short female academics ought to be able to demonstrate to enthusiastic young women that it is possible to succeed and to have children. Otherwise feminism has failed.

[…] The self-promotional rhetoric which now wraps its way round academic self-description has also become what Wendy Brown, in her recent book Undoing the Demos describes as a normative aspect of this new political rationality. Indeed it is a mark of self-responsibilisation to assume this boasting kind of stance. It is not just the number of books written but the ranking of the journal or publisher, it is not just the grants awarded but the prestige of the funding body, and so on. There is a requirement to be exceptional, and I would argue that only a truly exceptional young woman, one who was also lucky in her life-planning with a partner could have children and could survive this new style of university governmentality without falling apart.

The point of these various instruments which shape the working environment is to introduce higher levels of competition in the expectation that this triggers economic growth, innovation and a more entrepreneurial outlook. But what they also do is pathologise failure, if one is not excellent then one can only be at best mediocre and at worst bad at ones job. Again for young women these benchmarking strategies are all the more pernicious since they add yet more layers to the already many varieties of self-admonishment which target female insecurities, if only to be able to offer implausible ‘solutions’ available through the consumer culture. Through their teenage years girls are constantly encouraged to be ‘perfect’ and this gives rise to the pernicious culture of self-beratement.

Source: Angela McRobbie, Women’s working lives in the ‘new’ university (opendemocracy)

(Excerpt etc. first posted on feimineach.com. Orig. attribution above.)

Women's working lives in the ‘new’ university