Why My MA In Gender Studies Made Me A Better Feminist

No one wants to keep feminism or theory locked up in an ivory tower - ideas are meant to be shared, disseminated as widely as possible. This stuff is awesome, and it's for everyone.
Publish date:
November 2, 2012
feminism, intersectionality, gender studies, caitlin moran, vagenda

My name’s Kaite, and I’m a recovering academic. I was all set for a PhD and a life of obscure Victorian novelists and queer theory, until I failed to get funding, took a year out and somehow accidentally became a journalist instead.

Now I’m that annoying girl in the pub, analysing Doctor Who from a feminist perspective whilst quoting Judith Butler (although I do sometimes still get paid for doing it).

PhD or not, theory is and will always be integral to my feminism - it gives me words for how I view the world, and as a writer words are how I view the world. But feminism, like theory, is not one size fits all. And that’s OK - you don’t have to be an expert in criticism provided you still think critically.

Last week, the editors of Vagenda defended what they called “populist feminism” in the form of Caitlin Moran, arguing that “issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege often end up fracturing feminist dialogue, most regularly causing disagreements between those armed with an MA in Gender Studies and a large vocabulary to match, and those without.” They quoted the oft-re-tweeted line “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” as an example.

Perhaps if they’d done an MA in Gender Studies they’d have attributed it to Flavia Dzodan, but they didn’t. Then again, knowing that when you’re quoting someone, you need to give their name isn’t academic - like a lot of feminist theory, intersectionality included, it’s just good manners.

Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that the implications about race and class in their article are the real problem - a lot has been written, and writtenwell, laying out just where the problems are. It’s not my intention to detract from those arguments by discussing the problems I have with another one of the points - namely, that by its nature feminist theory is inaccessible and alienating unless you’ve studied it at length, and that if you can’t rattle off a few Irigaray quotes at the drop of a hat, ‘academic feminists’ will see you as somehow less.

After focusing heavily on feminist, queer and gender theory as an undergraduate, I did an MA in Sexual Dissidence & Cultural Change. On abandoning an academic career - and thus dooming myself to a life of silent parental disappointment on behalf of my own personal patriarch - I worried that my MA would only be useful as an ice-breaker in interviews, or as a really good ‘chat-up line - “hey girl, I have an MA in sex!”

Instead, it’s proved surprisingly useful. It’s helped my journalistic career - when I’m hustling for a job writing about heteronormativity or the bollocks that is binary conceptions of gender, it’s nice to have proof of the knowledge I’m trading for money - and it comes in handy when debating with mansplaining sexists, although that’s partly because of the rather heavy frame.

However, it hasn’t made me a better feminist than someone who never went to university. It doesn’t make me a better feminist than Holly and Rhiannon. It just made me a better feminist than I was before.

Part of what made the course so valuable were the critiques we made of it. Whilst revelling in my safe space and being surrounded by other like-minded queer people in the first week, one of my fellow students commented that both the content of the course and Brighton itself - my wonderful liberal Mecca! - were ovewhelmingly white, and that she felt like an outsider.

It was my first encounter with the idea that one kind of privilege - in this case, straight - could be cancelled out by lack of another. And looking back, that embarasses me - it took me until I was 22 to realise that? Really?

Thanks to the discussions of intersectionality in the feminist blogosphere and Twittersphere and whatever-comes-nextsphere, it’s increasingly unlikely that the next generation of feminists will be so advanced in years by the time they come to that conclusion.

It doesn’t matter where you get your knowledge from - and with university fees skyrocketing, fewer and fewer people will get the chance to benefit from the kind of postgraduate education I did - it just matters that you get it from somewhere. That you educate yourself.

And making mistakes is fine, even if it’s publicly trashing the importance of intersectionality in a public forum, provided you learn from it.

I used to revere Germaine Greer. I felt such a sense of relief when, at 18, I read The Whole Woman and realised I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with being told to shave my body hair or that my periods were disgusting. The chapter on trans women made me uncomfortable, but not outraged. Re-reading it earlier this year, before speaking on the body image panel at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival made me cringe.

I’ve learned as much from the writers I’ve rejected as I have the ideas I’ve embraced. I’ve learned that having some seriously valid points about misogyny doesn’t give you a free pass on creating just as limited a definition of what a woman is or should be.

I’ve learned some of that from university, some of it from my own reading, but I’ve benefited from an environment where reading widely and critiquing what you read is encouraged.

What I’ve learned in the years since Richard Attenborough handed me my Masters degree - and I said, in a mild burst of insanity, ‘I really loved you in Jurassic Park!’ - is that we can create that environment wherever we go.

Academic debates are as valuable as arguments in the pub and they can - they should - overlap. Since graduating, I’ve learned as much about feminist/gender/queer theory from Twitter and fan fiction as I did at university. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

No one wants to keep feminism or theory locked up in an ivory tower - ideas are meant to be shared, disseminated as widely as possible. They mutate, some get discarded, new ones get adopted and then get written about by academics rather than the other way around.

This stuff is awesome, and it's for everyone.

And everything we talk about when we’re defending women’s rights? That’s feminist theory. Not having a degree doesn’t make you any less capable of understanding that a feminism that only cares about white, straight, middle-class, cis women is no feminism at all.

Put that way, intersectionality isn’t that complicated. Because you don’t have to quote feminist theory to be a good feminist. You just have to practice it.