Feminist Societies – A Rarity in UK Universities?

As the year rolls on, freshers fairs are beginning to be readied in students unions across the country. University is classically seen as a time of heightened passions, of the politicisation of the younger generation and of taking a stand for the first time but – when it comes to feminism, it seems that this is not necessarily the case. We’ve discussed whether feminism exists at university before here at Hot For Writing and – despite recent comments on the growth of student feminism – it transpires that many universities in the UK lack a feminist society among groups and societies on campus.

Feminist ScrabbleI was recently struck by a piece written for The Guardian by Jinan Younis, a 17 year old self-proclaimed feminist. In her article, Younis detailed the abuse she and her peers suffered after attempting to establish a feminist society within their school, writing:

‘What I hadn’t anticipated on setting up the feminist society was a massive backlash from the boys in my wider peer circle. They started a campaign of abuse against me. I was called a ‘feminist bitch’, accused of ‘feeding girls bullshit…’

Younis’s experience, in my mind, actually demonstrates the need for feminist societies in schools and colleges. A society is a way of encouraging beliefs and educating the unaware – and in a society where sexism is apparent daily, this is so important. Younis’s experience is so disappointing, as her feminist society could have educated the unaware and acted as an example.

I have no doubt that there are people within every university that actively identify as feminists, and most likely in every sixth form college too – but there are without doubt a high number of other minds that would otherwise remain closed to the damaging effects of patriarchy had they not encountered other feminists – or indeed societies of feminists – who demonstrate the fact that – contrary to sexist opinion – ‘feminist’ is not a dirty word.

Whilst researching this article I was pleased to discover that the women’s association at my own alma mater – Cardiff University – has adopted the word ‘feminist’ into its description, but this is still some way from an actual feminist society. For one thing, a women’s association doesn’t accept male members – and men can absolutely be feminists.

When I was a student looking for a feminist society to join, I was put off by the women’s association at Cardiff due to it’s reluctance to embrace the term feminism. In looking for something that fitted the bill I was pleased to discover the newly-formed Feisty Feminista  Society, a group which again avoided the actual term but did come closer to explicit feminism. Unfortunately this society came to nothing, though whether this was due to poor organisation or limited interest I could not tell.

The lack of feminist societies – or support for them even in theory – is something that has raised its head elsewhere of late. The University of York’s students union came under fire in May for twice refusing to ratify a feminist society proposed by students on the grounds that a women’s association already covered that need – and this from a university with two student newspapers. The universities of Cardiff and York are both members of the prestigious Russell Group and are top 20 universities in the UK, and yet they fail to provide a true voice of feminism for their students.

The further you dig, the more it becomes apparent that feminist societies are missing from universities across the UK, or at the very least they are difficult to find. Feminism is important and so it should be easy to uncover, standing proud among the political societies of every university, not lurking embarrassed or sidelined in the shadows. Students unions today are home to everything from Harry Potter clubs to custard wrestling societies – surely standing up as a feminist – in a place that encourages learning and personal expression – should be easier than this?

Photograph by Natasha C Dunn.

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