On the 30th January 2019, I presented a talk entitled ‘First Generation feminist? auto-ethnographic reflections on politicisation & finding a home with feminism’ at the Strathclyde University Feminist Research Network Seminar Series. I was delighted to have been asked to give the talk, and for the opportunity to show a different side of my research and myself. I was also lucky to be in conversation with Dr. Rebekah Willson (you can read Rebekah’s response to my talk here). I’m posting this edited/shorter version of the talk here because I want to share the key points of the presentation and to say a little more about how I came to the point of writing this talk. I’m new to auto-ethnography – and to creative non-fiction writing – which are the staple methods of the paper. For a long time, I felt that it was not a ‘legitimate’ thing for me to do. I felt siloed and pigeon-holed into continuing teaching and researching the subject of my doctoral research. While that sounds like the point, I was increasingly frustrated with the narrowness that academia under REF and marketisation produces. For research and teaching to remain fresh and meaningful, we have to engage broadly and deeply. It increasingly made little sense for me to try to exclude myself from the process of research. However, while I was on sick leave during 2018, I began to really understand that my experiences were generating this frustration and anger with our current politics (which the academy is part of). Moreover, these were not only legitimate feelings, but also important in my politics. I could make an intervention; it would not simply be an exercise in ‘navel gazing’ (and wow, am I bored of that hackneyed ‘critique’ of feminist and embodied research). In unmasking my chronic illness, I’ve become much less afraid of disclosure. I am not ashamed of myself, my background, my politics, my leaving academia. My calling out the toxicity. Rather, I am proud. Of myself, my family, my class. However, I am 39. It has taken me half a lifetime to get here. I am also writing this because I am deeply sad. I am not confident another girl like me will have the opportunity of such a journey. As I’ve said before, becoming an academic has been an absolute blast and I won’t ever regret my time here. Higher education is a social good. It is a great pity it is pushing out those of us who understand that the most.
*Audio file of talk to follow*
‘First Generation feminist? auto ethnographic reflections on politicisation & finding a home with feminism’ (edited)
Collaging the self, January 2019.
What’s in a name?
Our professional biographies tell us the highlights of a research career. A sanitised and shiny account of success. I am here because I am successful in some ways. People want to hear what I say. And this is – by far – the paper that I have had the most interest in, over my entire career.
There is of course the chance, I’ve peaked your interest by resigning. And blogging about it. And tweeting that blog.
By walking away from a decade as an academic.
You might wonder – Why would she? How could she? Perhaps, she just can’t cope.
And yet, the paper I am proposing is the unofficial and unsaid biography – a feminist genealogy; an auto-ethnography.
It might reveal why I choose ‘ first generation feminist’ as name of my blog and of this paper. And why it matters for me to tell this story, now.
How did ‘a daft wee lassy’ get to become a feminist academic?
Feminist Genealogies are political intervention, not ‘naval gazing’
Our personal genealogies matter; they are of political importance; silencing ourselves and allowing ourselves to be silenced only depoliticises.
I want to walk you down – part of – my memory lane – to show how I see my journey from first generation student to feminist academic.
I do, of course, frame my discussion with reference to the the wide ranging and long established research on working class women’s trajectories into, and through, academia (e.g. Diane Raey; Bev Skeggs; Valerie Walkerdine; Yvette Taylor; Steph Lawler; The Res-Sisters Collective).
I’m attempting to begin thisautoethnography (drawing on the work by Carolyn Ellis & Caroline Smart) by making use of photographs, pop music reference and stories. I break this talk down into small, fragmented, vignettes over a period of time – 1979 – 2001 and then 2018-present. These fragments are within the genre of creative non-fiction and fictionalised auto-ethnography.
They are a first attempt. They are rough. I am trying to write from my perspective at the time of the pictures included. This requires imagination, gaps. Re-telling and a re-creating. It goes without saying, that memory and recollection are fractured and fuzzy – indeed, in researching myself for this talk, using photo elicitation, I found my own memories challenged, the places different, the things I thought I knew altered.I make a nod to the rich work on memory studies and inherited and imagined memories (e.g. Marianne Hirsch). I’ve written a little on this too (Turbine, 2018). What I want to reiterate here, is that what I tell you is my ‘truth’ retold at this particular time for a particular purpose.
This feels like the best way in which to communicate the process of learning to be a feminist. For me, this was for most of my life instinctive, but unnamed. It was borne from lived experience of insecurity and gendered violence. My mum didn’t go to Greenham Common. I didn’t grow up on picket lines. It shifted later in my life, through gaining access to the intellectual tools and language of feminism via higher education.
I was then able to order, analyse, name and claim my experiences as important and political.
This talk is not nostalgic. The undercurrent is multiple forms of trauma and violences – structural, symbolic, actual gender -based violence.
It goes without saying that this kind of research has particular ethical sensitivities. I am not writing ‘myself’ – this is relational. And yet, because of death, estrangement, age, ‘consent’ in the traditional sense is difficult, and fraught – who is this about?. I have however spoken to the main person featured in my talk – my mum – about this. I try to treat this as about my experience as much as I can.
‘Monday’s child is fair of face’. I am 3 weeks old, so I can’t tell you this. But you will give me books, love, television, pop music, fire in my belly. I will know what wrongs have been done to you. I won’t always want to hear about them. But I will remember them all. They are important. We are important.
‘Stand in the middle, so you don’t spoil the picture’. Smile. Lovely such a wee doll’.
‘Mum, why don’t I have a green shirt, like everyone else? I think that’s supposed to be the uniform. I also need tights. Grey or green ones’.
‘Green is an unlucky colour. That’s why. You suit your uniform. You look lovely’
I know they know things about me. I’ve seen that lady who is my brother’s gran, but she doesn’t speak to me. We don’t speak about her. Although she has given him a bank book. They know things about me that I don’t know myself. What have I done that is so bad?
‘Vikki has a tendency to daydream’
I’m not daydreaming, I’m thinking. I’m wondering if everything will be ok today, tonight. If there will be arguments, crying. The neighbours shouting at us to keep the noise down. Whether I’ll go to the shops, whether I’ll have my play piece.
Or, maybe I am daydreaming. I am five. Read my stories and you will see those are works of fiction. You don’t like when I write what we’ve really been up to. I need to ‘be more imaginative’. ‘Neater’. ‘More careful’.
We’re going to the shows tonight. And then there is the youth club disco on Friday. I’m going to wear these baggy jeans and borrow a top. We are trying to look like Betty Boo. We spent the day playing in the graveyard. Then we played ‘kiss chase’, which I hate. I don’t want to be out there. I don’t like that bunch. They call us ‘frigid’.
‘You’re not borrowing that. You look like a wee slapper.’
“but everyone says I always wear the same things to the disco. I want to wear something else’.
“Do you like the music?’
‘Yes’, she replied as she bit into a sweet from her 20p mix. The Family Circle paper bag crinkled and damp in her hand. His friends were all around her.
“Yeah, she’ll be a wee ride when she’s older”.
She doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know what to be.
“You know, Vikki, you have a real talent and creative flair. You are very gifted’.
‘You have the best figure in the year. Right curves, but slim enough. Not too skinny. You don’t want to put on any weight’.
‘You are acting like a right wee slapper, you know that. If you don’t knuckle down, you’ll be out. My house, my rules. You are still a child. You won’t be staying on at school if you don’t prove that you should’.
‘Why are the 2 of you sitting about, watching ‘Backside’ on a day like this. Pair of you, look at you, all peely wally, with that witches hair. Get out and get some life about you’.
‘You should leave school. There are lots of opportunities for girls like you’.
I have no one to talk to.
I drink. A lot of cider. The vodka. I kiss boys. I purge.
Yes. It seems I did. But I still need a job. Does this mean something different?
‘Are you going to ram that all into your mouth at once’. The waiter is sneering at her. She feels her dress, her shoes, her bag. Her celebration is all wrong. She doesn’t belong her; a west end restaurant. Everyone celebrating their graduation with their families. She love’s hers. She can’t wait to get out of here.
I stop at 2001 – partly because I had then left university with a first class degree that would enable me access to a funded PhD and then the academy – but also because I have a dearth of material culture from the intervening period between then and now. Families breakdown and fracture. The fabric – emotional and physical – disappears. Memory and recollection become hazy. And yet, at no point, more urgent. I have never felt the need to revisit this journey in order to demonstrate what knowing feminism can do more so. Personally, and politically, it feels eerily pertinent.
Yet, in all the stories I told, there was no mention of a ‘feminist’ awakening. No engagement with it formally, in education or at home.
I had no name for the anger I felt. I pushed it down, I changed myself, I morphed into more and less.
Over the course of my PhD and later in teaching, I came to find an ambiguous home with feminism – I found the methodologies, epistemologies, politics – transformative. So much so, that I began to teach ‘Feminist Politics’ and then transform that teaching into sites of DIY co-production (blog coming later).
I began to understand that I’d only ever been told I was not; and that even as an established academic, this is what neoliberal academia and the world does, especially to women. Especially to working class women. We are always doubly deficit. Dubious. To be tested.
Feminism became the home that I did not have, but it is not always a secure one. I am continually listening and learning as a feminist. I would ask everyone who calls themselves a feminist to ensure you are too. There is not a right way to learn how to be a feminist – to have the knowledge of feminist theory and methods is a privilege – and this is all too often inaccessible to many.
There are also other ways to know feminism. Music, gossip, anger, exclusion. These can make or destroy us. I’m so very pleased to live in a time where young women – and women of my generation – the post-feminist, Thatchers children and Blair’s teens – can come together online. On social media for example…
I spent a lot of time, money, tears, trying to fit in; to live a lifestyle, to be a certain way – ‘an academic’ is to be middle class, with the tastes and reference points that go with it. Although materially, I live a comfortable life, I will never have those reference points, or tastes. And, I’m not sure I want all of them.
For me – as my ‘grand e-bay cull of 2018’ symbolised – shedding the costume of professional woman, seemed the only way to survive.
I will always be a working class academic. I have a different life experience, set of knowledges and perspectives that are valuable and valued.
Perhaps I was never meant to be in and of the academy.
But, I’m so very glad I had the chance to try to work that out for myself.