Inspired by IASH’s ‘Dangerous Women’ project
I am privileged to know many ‘dangerous women’. There’s my mother, for a start. Don’t mess with someone who lives in a women-only community on the most northerly island of the UK. There are my sisters, who campaign, and write, and sing, and teach, and organize, against multiple injustices, local and global. There are my long-time mentors, both giants in their academic fields, who have challenged patriarchy throughout their careers. There is my daughter’s god-mother, well-respected scholar of Older Scots, whose coruscating observations cut through any amount of HE management-speak. I could go on.
But this blog is not about those ‘obviously’ dangerous women. Instead, I want to tell you about someone I have worked with, and got to know, more recently. A young woman who doesn’t appear to be dangerous at all.
She’s an undergraduate student at Sheffield University. She went to a Roman Catholic high school. She didn’t leave her home town to pursue her degree. I checked, and she doesn’t mind you knowing that she recently got engaged to her long-term boyfriend. Laura looks to all intents and purposes like any of the many undergraduate women I see all the time.
There are many things that worry and sadden me about those young women undergraduates. They seem to have bought into the notion that they have to be clever, talented, hard-working, and beautiful. They seem to understand that the ‘rules’ require that they do not show the boys up too much. They are diffident in offering their opinions and even when they do so, it is without confidence. They underplay their achievements, even when these demonstrably outstrip those of the boys.
They dress with care, in feminine ways. They are toned, coiffed and groomed. They never appear in class without makeup. Their bodies almost don’t seem their own. They are definitely not feminists: they do not see the point. In my darker moments, these young women do not seem to present a danger to anyone but themselves. They seem so insubstantial, so brittle.
I confess to a sense of disappointment in these young women. I suppose I hoped for more from this generation. In the 1980s, we built on the gifts from 1970s feminism, which in turn had built on the feminisms which had come before. We eschewed marriage – why would you have your body wrapped up in a white presentation gown, and given by one man to another?
Our bodies were not clothes horses, or jewellery stands, or billboards for products that the powerful advertising sector was constantly trying to convince us that we needed to consume. We were clever, talented and hard working, but we didn’t need to look any more groomed than the boys. We were going to smash the glass ceiling; bring about equal pay; reclaim the streets; organise for peace and justice – it was all there, only a matter of time. Somehow, things seem to have taken a wrong turn, and what was built before seems to have been forgotten.
But Laura – who looks just like all these brittle young women about whom I make these assumptions – has taught me that appearances can be deceptive. Here’s the story.
I recruited Laura to work as a summer intern, on a project that sits within a larger research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the Principal Investigator is Sally Sheldon of the University of Kent, working with Dr Rebecca Gomperts, of Women on Web). Laura was committed to that larger project, from the very beginning, not just viewing it as her personal summer internship experience. From her initial application, through to her project outputs and beyond, and her work on dissemination and practical impact, Laura showed determination that her research should contribute to empowering young, often poor, under-educated, women.
Sally Sheldon was so impressed that she invited Laura to join Lawyers for Choice, as the only undergraduate student on the steering group. Sally also found more funding and employed Laura to work on the project during the academic year 2015/6. Since Laura completed, and more importantly disseminated, the project, Rebecca Gomperts has redesigned Women on Web’s litigation strategy directly on the basis of the advice that we were able to give her about the legal position of her work with young women on the island of Ireland.
We are currently trying to find a lawyer willing to take on the continuation of this work pro bono. Of course, the work is all the more pressing because of the prosecution, in January 2016, of a young woman in Northern Ireland, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861.
Laura demonstrated extraordinary resilience. During project team meetings, she would not take a ‘dead end’ as the answer, but repeatedly suggested new possible lines of enquiry. In the end, her work did not come up with any reliable legal argument to assist those young women in Ireland who cannot afford to travel to England for abortions. Laura was able to express that sense of ‘rollercoaster’ of hope and disappointment of the research journey in her main project output, this YouTube film. But after Laura had made the film, we learned that the analysis has opened up new avenues for Women on Web’s campaigning work. The impact of the project is set to endure.
At its heart, the project is about women’s rights over their bodies, in transnational markets for medical abortions. It is about the ways in which states and others try to control women’s bodies. This is highly contentious, morally divisive, difficult territory. Laura’s take on the subject is simple: ‘these young women should have choice’.
Dangerous? Anyone who thinks women should not have that choice over their bodies would think so. And Laura herself – doubly dangerous, for not appearing dangerous at all. Perhaps there are more dangerous women around me than I assume.