First education in Feminism

This is a story from my undergraduate days in one of Australia’s *sandstone universities.

In the philosophy department there had been a split between the ‘old fashioned’ philosophers (called “Trad & Mod Philosophy”, i.e. the logicians), and the ‘modern’ philosophers (called “General Philosophy”, i.e. the feminists, Marxists, etc.) I chose courses in the General Philosophy department, mainly because there were no exams in General Philsophy, all assessment was by way of essays.

One of my foundation moments in the department of General Philosophy was to enter the tutorial room for the first session in the course Feminisim 1A (for those with no previous studies in feminism).

To set the scene it is important to know that I was fresh out of 6 years in an all girls college, had long hair, and was wearing casual jeans and a little makeup. That is, I looked like a fairly normal female freshman student.

Entering the old sandstone part of the university, I climbed to a small oddly shaped room in the one of the corners of the quadrangle building. The room was all dark wood and, incongruously, beanbags. Already ensconced in the beanbags were some older female students, they all had very short hair and were wearing work overalls with singlets underneath. Each was engaged in rolling a cigarette with one hand. They looked at me and immediately became hostile, asking where I was from and what right did I have to be here studying feminism since I obviously shaved my legs and armpits and was wearing makeup. I replied something along the lines that external factors like that did not make you a feminist or not, and sat down in a beanbag to wait for the tutor to arrive. They became even more hostile and stood over me saying that people like me did not count and should not be allowed to take this class. Sadly enough, being much less assertive in those days, I decided that feminism was not the course for me.

Many years later a good friend, a stalwart of the 1960’s and 1970’s feminist movements, gave me the following advice: “Beware of the hoods in the sisterhood”

It is good advice, if only I had known it as an undergraduate. Now I would be glad to have someone bully me like those women in the feminism tutorial room – but bullies like that don’t attack people like me, they attack those unable to defend themselves.

This experience shows that we need to arm our young women against bullies wherever they find them, and also that we need to let them know about the ‘hoods in the sisterhood’.

*Sandstone universities: In Australia there is effectively a 2 tier university system, there are 8 older more established universities that have sandstone buildings and reputations for research (the eight are: The University of Adelaide, The Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, The University of New South Wales, The University of Queensland, The University of Sydney, The University of Western Australia). This is in contrast to the newer universities with no sandstone buildings and lower reputations for research, often these newer universities were upgraded Colleges of Advanced Education in the 1980’s Dawkin’s “reforms”. It must be noted that several of the non-sandstone universities have reputations for excellence in certain areas, however this cannot be held true for all of them.