In 1989, for the first time, without feeling ashamed or embarrassed, I was able to talk about having never read a broadsheet newspaper or a literary novel. Aged 27, I’d been persuaded by some friends to do an Access Course. I didn’t have a single qualification to my name — I left my sink school at 15 — but these gateways to university were a great way to prepare people like me for a degree course. I loved it.
For my first English literature class, I read Things Fall Apart cover to cover in one evening. I felt liberated: I’d actually enjoyed reading something I’d imagined was outside my comfort zone. With the other students on the Access Course, all of whom had also been to terrible schools and faced massive barriers to learning, I was able to laugh at my lack of general knowledge and poor historical and geographical facts, rather than attempting to cover them up.
Students from the course were guaranteed a place at the Polytechnic of North London (PNL) if we passed. I did, and when I started my degree in Film Studies and Discourse, I was in my element: I had a decade of feminist activism under my belt and there is nothing that cannot be studied through the lens of patriarchy. I was used to watching a film I had seen BF (Before Feminism) and howling at the misogyny in it, which I had once simply accepted and absorbed. My final thesis focused on men in gangs and, within that, the prevalence of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls. It was based on Grease.
The discourse part was less fun. Full of Derrida and Foucault and other incomprehensible philosophers and queer theorists, it flew in the face of my grassroots feminism. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity had just been published, and I recall being told by one of the lecturers that patriarchy was “performance”. I informed him that rape, domestic violence and other forms of male violence are rooted in the material reality of women’s oppression in relation to men. He responded by saying that perhaps “old-school feminism” needed a revamp.
A seasoned activist, I was used to defending my corner. But it felt like some of the lecturers found it threatening or uncomfortable to teach anyone who was used to engaging with ideas, theories and critical analysis. The staff at PNL were great when it came to class, but not so great at being corrected about feminism. The most amusing example happened during a class taught by the brilliant feminist sociologist Professor Sue Lees, who I believed had misrepresented a feminist law reform campaign I had co-founded the previous year. When I raised my hand to challenge her, explaining who I was, Sue shouted: “No, you are not!” We later became friends and would laugh about it.
One of the male lecturers was a bit trickier. When I quoted Andrea Dworkin in an essay critiquing the male libertarian view of pornography, he was almost frothing at the mouth. He said Dworkin was “monstrous” and, in front of the entire class, accused me of taking a “moralist, anti-sex” approach. I asked if he thought it was a healthy sexual response to masturbate to women being gagged and raped. He declined to answer.
And I remember very clearly, in a class on the so-called feminist sex wars, a debate about sexuality and sexual practice that took in pornography, sadomasochism, and commercial sexual exploitation. On the one hand, there with libertarian “feminists” arguing that all sex is good sex; on the other, anti-male-violence feminist such as myself that ascribed significant meaning to the eroticisation of female subordination, and campaigned to end the sex trade.
“Here we have tension between the pro-sex feminists and the anti-sex neo-feminists,” proclaimed the male lecturer. Glancing down at the suggested reading for the module I saw not one actual feminist text but a load of stuff in praise of pornography.
“It is not ‘anti-sex’ to critique the sex trade,” I told the lecturer. “Making money from women’s pain and humiliation is surely open to criticism?”
At that point, the lecturer began to quote Foucault in French. Today’s universities preach an updated version of this anti-feminism, for example by promoting the view that prostitution is a fine way to earn money, and that speaking out against extreme transgender ideology and commercial sexual exploitation is “White Feminism”.
Meanwhile, in my film studies class, I would often seethe with resentment at being told that depictions of horrific violence against women in Alfred Hitchcock films were merely “symbolic” of men’s fear of female sexuality and that feminists often “missed the point” about “meaning”. Silly girls!
These lecturers probably preferred to work with a clean slate than a person who could express opinions as opposed to simply form them from scratch.
And there were lots of people at PNL who just didn’t care that much. A number of posh kids swanked around, pleased with themselves for rebelling against their parents by not going to Oxbridge. Most of these entitled, arrogant teenagers had flounced around the global south on a gap year before embarking on three years at university. How disappointed their families must have been that they ended up in some grotty polytechnic rather than a redbrick. How proud mine were that I was doing something no one else in the family had been able to.
Still, I would fanaticise about being at a redbrick, channelling Julie Walters in Educating Rita. I wanted to sit in a ramshackle room full of bookshelves and whiskey decanters, with a don wearing a tweed jacket who gave me loads of attention and took my ideas seriously. What I got was a monthly seminar with 19 other students in a room with the paint peeling off the walls. I had always imagined university to be so much more glamourous.
I was at university to get a degree, nothing more, because I thought it might give me more options in the job market. I wasn’t engaged in any social events or clubs because I already had my own tribe, although I once went to the student bar with a friend who promised it would be “a right laugh”. A couple of members of the Socialist Workers Party tried to recruit me, telling me that feminism was a “bourgeois movement” and that if, capitalism was destroyed, women would be liberated.
In 1993, I got what I had come for: a degree. But my battle with those who took exception to my prior knowledge was not over. Two of my final-year essays — a feminist critique of heterosexuality and an analysis of misogyny in the movies — were marked very low. They’d been so heavily edited with red pen that they looked as though a vein had been opened over the pages. I knew they deserved better. My work was externally reviewed and the marks shot up for both pieces. The reviewer commented that the tutors appeared to have marked me down because they disagreed with rather than because I failed to substantiate my arguments.
When I look back on the good things about my three years at university, I think about the working-class single mothers who somehow managed to fit a degree into their hellishly busy and stressful lives. I recall the way in which these women spoke about wanting to feel more confident in the world and get some qualifications that would give them options in the workplace. Like me, they considered education to be a privilege as well as a right.
Polytechnics catered to their communities, offering vocational qualifications, but, during the time I was there, changes to the labour market meant academic qualifications were seen as the best route to a good job, and the government began to turn polytechnics into “new universities”.
And as the number of universities has increased, the focus has shifted even more towards the postmodern horror story known as “discourse”, where the abstract “floating signifiers” are given precedence over scholarship that can be used to make a material difference to the lives of oppressed people. Universities should take a lesson from the now defunct polytechnics, and focus on making higher education accessible to those oppressed people, not just a privileged few.
The rampant elitism endemic within today’s universities has led to “feminist” societies being taken over by dudes sporting man-buns who dictate what feminism actually is to young women. It is no wonder that working-class single mothers in universities have become almost extinct as dinosaurs. Universities need to get back to reality. And it would help if feminism, in its true form, was put back on the curriculum.