Bluestocking Week 2015: History, reflections, and the future

by UQU Women’s Officer, Amy Jelacic

bluestocking – /ˈbluˌstɒk ɪŋ/
noun.
1. a woman having intellectual, literary, and/or academic interests
2. a pejorative term for academically-inclined women
3. a reclaimed term of pride for academically-inclined women

Each year, students and staff at universities around Australia celebrate Bluestocking Week, a time devoted to celebrating women in higher education that takes its name from a historical term for women with an interest in intellectual pursuits. 2015’s celebrations will take place from August 10th to August 14th, with a range of excellent activities happening on campuses across the country thanks to the hard work of both student and staff unions. As women’s officer at the University of Queensland student union, and a bluestocking woman through and through, this is possibly my favourite event in the university calendar for many reasons. The rich history of women’s struggle for equality in intellectual fields is one that is dear to my heart; as much as women’s position in many areas of society has improved throughout the world, problems are still abundant and varied. Bluestocking Week is a time to look back on our history, to take stock of the present and its triumphs and hurdles, and to plan for the future of women in higher education.

History of Bluestocking Women
The Blue Stockings Society was a women’s social and educational movement founded in England in the early 1750s. It functioned as a literary discussion group, emphasising conversation and pursuit of intellectual growth over the less intellectually rigorous activities that women more commonly practiced in that era. These women pursued reading, writing, art, and more, encouraging each other and developing skills that they were not permitted to gain in formal educational institutions. In the words of Blue Stocking Society founder Elizabeth Montagu, writing in 1743, “in a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded”. Thus, she and others sought to create a place in society where women could pursue more than they were culturally expected and encouraged to.

The actual clothing item – the blue stocking itself – was a practical, informal garment that existed in contrast to the fine black stockings worn by those of the upper classes. How it came to be synonymous with “intellectual woman” is a matter of some speculation. Some attribute it to the beginnings of the Blue Stocking Society, when Elizabeth Vesey, co-founder of the movement, invited well-known intellectual Benjamin Stillingfleet to attend a meeting. He was not well-off and so she invited him to attend wearing his “blue stockings” – it didn’t matter than he didn’t have smart black stockings to wear. He became a popular fixture at these gatherings, and the term clearly stuck.

The term “bluestocking” evolved to refer generally to a woman who was interested in intellectual pursuits, who was academically-minded, who eschewed the typical trappings of a woman’s role in Western society during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, the women who were able to partake in bluestocking events were those who were of sufficient social and financial standing to do so without repercussion. Class was a core component of the bluestocking movement: those who began it originally were from the upper echelons of British society, and those women who perpetuated it were predominately cut from similar cloth.

Of course, expectations and norms for women gradually changed throughout the decades. Women were eventually permitted to attend tertiary education institutions. The profound stigma attached to a woman possessing intelligence and bookishness dissipated, slowly but surely. Women began to be taken more seriously as writers, academics, theorists, thinkers. The road to equality was traversed slowly but surely.

Bluestocking Week in Australia
Bluestocking Week was a regular fixture in university calendars from the late 1980s through to the last decade. It was an opportunity to campaign about women’s issues and celebrate women’s involvement in higher education, and was a popular and vibrant celebration that united university students and staff. Sadly, the voluntary student unionism legislation passed last decade was a severe blow to campus life around Australia, and Bluestocking Week was one of the casualties in this loss of culture.

2012 saw a resurgence in student activism and campus culture. Bluestocking Week was reincarnated by student and staff unions, who made in into a modern celebration for the university women of today. Each year since then, universities around the country have held Bluestocking Week celebrations to highlight the gains we’ve made for women in higher education and to draw attention to the pressing issues still facing us.

On being a bluestocking woman
Academically-inclined women of the 21st century are fortunate to be free from much of the extreme societal disapproval experienced by bluestockings throughout history. While it’s still considered pretty uncool to be a nerd, society does generally admire and venerate those who pursue academic excellent, those who show themselves to be accomplished and talented in intellectual pursuits, those who express themselves with eloquence and intelligence. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who encouraged me wholeheartedly to read and write and expand my mind. My family always had a wide range of interesting books around the house, and a trip to the library was never too much trouble. My successes at school were praised (but never to excess!). University was an inevitable dot on the horizon, and I was so very excited to get there.

After changing degrees a few times (yes, I was one of those people), I eventually settled on the field which I think I always secretly knew I’d pursue: political science. The little glimpses of political science that I received in modern history and English classes were tantalising, and I have a vivid memory of being about fourteen years old and telling a stranger that I wanted to be a political scientist when I grew up. While I’m not sure how well I knew what exactly that entailed at that point in life, young Amy certainly showed remarkable prescience. I am now privileged to be studying an honours year in political science at one of the finest institutions in Australia, within a great school, with an excellent supervisor, surrounded by talented peers – men and women in almost equal numbers. Despite this fortunate position, I admit to being plagued by many of the same issues that affected bluestocking women historically (albeit to a much, much less degree!). I wonder if men are intimidated by intelligent and forthright women, and then promptly berate myself for even caring what men might be intimidated by. I worry if I seem too assertive or if I come across as a know-it-all. I worry that no matter how much I apply myself to becoming truly knowledgeable in my field of study, I’ll never be taken seriously as a young woman, or, indeed, as an older woman.

As I consider my future path in academia, I am made nervous by the warnings I get from university staff about life in academia. The universal challenges of an academic career are compounded by the effects of sexism on women, which is made clear by anecdotal and statistical evidence. While my undergrad experience in an arts degree was, in my experience, relatively free from any ill treatment due to my gender, this changes as one ascends in the world of academia, and the high dropout rates of women early career researchers in many fields is testament to this. By many accounts, it is still a very blokey, unforgiving place. Frankly, I relish the challenge of succeeding in an environment that I am not predisposed to thrive in, but my thoughts inevitably turn to those who are at a much greater disadvantage in academia than I am and who face this world with fewer tools at their disposal than I have.

Bluestocking women today
In modern times, women undergraduate university students outnumber men in many areas. Gender disparity in various fields of study reflect the gendered nature of work – nursing, speech pathology, and social sciences have many more women than men, while various engineering disciplines, many science fields, and information technology/software engineering/computer science are dominated by men. Surprisingly, we now see more women than men in undergraduate law, and other historically male-dominated fields are showing similar trends in undergraduate gender divides.

It it important to celebrate the advances we’ve made, and to acknowledge the work we’ve still to do. People face many hurdles in accessing tertiary education in Australia – aspects of Australians’ lives including gender, class, race, and more contribute to various social and economic issues that can stop those who wish to get a tertiary education from attending, and present unique difficulties to those who do make it to uni. The University of Queensland has been like a second home to me for many years, and though I find much to love about my university I am also keenly aware of its shortcomings. Being able to acknowledge them is one thing, but tackling them seems fairly insurmountable.

Women who seek to become well-educated and who strive for academic excellence need to be supported, encouraged, nurtured, and shown that it is very much possible for them to succeed and thrive in university and then wherever their post-uni life takes them. Knowing the history of women’s struggle to assert themselves in academia has inspired me to keep moving towards my goals, to not be ashamed of my passion for learning, to be the one to throw myself at the glass ceiling and do my utmost to widen the cracks made by the women who have gone before me.

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For more information about Bluestocking Week 2015 at the University of Queensland, visit the UQU website and check out the event on Facebook11143416_407331469467970_1894964076139818039_n

UQU Women’s Collective Zine 2015: Issue 2!

front_page-page-001Check out Issue 2 of our zine for 2015 – we have a huge range of articles and artwork produced by a bunch of very talented women. The general focus of this issue is on intersectionality, and the contents covers a range of different areas including culture, race, sexuality, and the need for women’s spaces.

Find the issue at this link (opens a PDF): uquwc_zine_issue_2_2015

Enjoy! & remember, if you’d like to submit something for the next issue, email us at  uqwnews@gmail.com. We’d love to receive articles, essays, artwork, poems, film reviews, book reviews, anything that we can print!

In Defence of Women’s Spaces

Earlier this year, the existence of the Women’s Room at the University of Queensland came under fire. The Women’s Collective wrote this response to the furore. Enjoy.

This piece also appears in the Women’s Issue of Semper Floreat – grab a copy when you’re on campus next! It’s filled with excellent articles all by women.
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In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf makes an impassioned and eloquent case for the need for a woman to have space to herself. This is required, she says, in order that a woman may have a quiet and comfortable place to write, and thus to contribute to the body of literature that has historically been and is still dominated by male voices. Woolf describes the ways in which the history of the subjugation of women has silenced them, has quashed their ability for self-expression, has made them unable to gain fame as authors, and all for the want of a room of one’s own and a small amount of money to live off. Of course, in addition to this is required a family and social structure that allows women to truly be masters of their own destiny, similar opportunities for men and women in education and employment and more, and a society that values the output of women as it does that of men. Writing in 1928, Woolf had a real and vital need to demand both literal and figurative space for women to achieve their full potential in society; reflecting on her work in the present day, we can appreciate the gains that have been made, and those areas in which gender equality remains lacking.

The need for intangible space for women in the world begets the need for physical women’s spaces to be created and maintained. This space may be for creative ends, as Woolf makes the case for; it may be for privacy, or safety, or peace and quiet. It may be for reasons of culturally-informed practices, like the removal of religious head garments. It may be for a breastfeeding mother to have a discreet place to feed a child in a world that simultaneously seeks to normalise breastfeeding but shames women for doing it in public. It may be a place where a transgender person can have a moment of lessened discomfort from being in the public eye. It may be a place for women from demonstrably marginalised groups to meet and and find solidarity. It can be a practical and symbolic space for women to assert their autonomy in a world where sexual assault happens in broad daylight, where people feel comfortable telling rape jokes in a public setting (or at all), where women are repeatedly harassed by men seeking to ask them out or give them unwanted compliments or have their need for attention filled in some other way, where people feel entitled to comment on others’ bodies and clothing and hair and presentation. It’s easy for some of us to brush all this off, to make the decision to give no fucks and just carry on with life. For others, it’s exceedingly difficult.

The UQ Union provides a room for the sole use of cis women and trans, nonbinary, and intersex individuals, and is open to all students and staff who identify as such. It is a small space that contains couches, tables for studying, bookshelves stocked with feminist and general interest books, and two computers. There are no resources or services within this room that aren’t available to all students elsewhere in the University of Queensland.

***

In recent years, women have overtaken men in enrolment rates in some areas of tertiary education (gender divides within specific disciplines tend to adhere quite strongly to traditional gender roles, though). Despite the production of more women university graduates, the fields they enter are still plagued with gender-based issues relating to representation, pay, workplace culture, and more. It is vital to continue working towards the creation of confident young women at university and to equip them with skills and a sense of solidarity with other women, and to take these qualities into the workforce and continue to push for change as the women before them have done. The recent revelations of sexual harassment and assault within the medical profession clearly show how deep-seated sexism pervades tertiary education and training. Universities are prime places to foster strength and friendship among women – the women who will most likely be moving into positions of societal and intellectual influence in their future careers. Resources like those provided by the UQ Union contribute to this in crucial ways.

Perhaps this slightly wordy defence of the Women’s Room hasn’t quite convinced you. Let’s go straight to the source: how do UQ women feel about the Women’s Room?

Firstly, we reject the idea that a room for the use of a particular group of people is an inherently discriminatory thing. In society, women generally don’t enjoy particular benefits, tangible or not, because of the simple fact they are women – whereas men often do. Having a small room designated for use only by certain groups is hardly comparable to the systematic discrimination that women do face. We see the Women’s Room as a place to escape from unwanted cat calls and advances by men – a place to exist in peace and quiet that isn’t a toilet cubicle. It certainly isn’t a “a breeding ground of misandry” or whatever other bizarre misconceptions people might have about it (it might be hard to grasp, but not everything women do is centred on men…). It’s a place to chill when you’d prefer to not worry about a picture of you going up on UQ Stalkerspace. It can be the perfect place to have a break when anxiety is getting out of hand. It’s a place where extroverts can find the friends and energy they need, and introverts can relax quietly.

The Women’s Room is an imperfect response to an imbalanced world; the pragmatic aspects of the room may not align with a utopian conception of equality, but we don’t live in a perfect world and so we have to employ workable solutions.

For the final word, over to Patrician McFadden, African sociologist: “When women occupy public spaces as persons who understand that for millennia they have been denied their inalienable rights as human beings, they begin to demand the restitution of those rights through the creation of structures within which they situate financial, technical and intellectual resources.” Having a small space on campus in which to assert the spirit of this sentiment is vital.

By the University of Queensland Women’s Collective

Bits and pieces from Semester 1…

  • Meeting times for Semester 1 are Mondays at 9am and Tuesdays at 12pm. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday March 30th at 9am, then the next week is mid-semester break. We’ll resume meetings the week after, on Tuesday April 7th at 12pm.
  • Voting is now open for the UQWC 2015 Returning Officer. Vote here!
  • We’re planning a feminist film festival to run in the second half of Semester 1! This will involve some nights just for collective members, and some for the general public to attend as well. Check out the Facebook page – we’ll announce details there!
  • The Women’s Room is set to move at the end of Semester 1. Details are being finalised and will be shared with the Women’s Collective as they become known.
  • March 31st is the fiftieth anniversary of an infamous moment in Queensland feminist history. In 1965, Brisbane women Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the bar at The Regatta hotel to protest the laws at the time which prevented women from drinking in public bars, sending shockwaves through the Brisbane community with their gutsy actions. Keep an eye out for a feature article on this topic by Amy Jelacic, UQU Vice-President!

New zine! Issue 1, 2015

Check out the link below for the first copy of Wom*news for 2015!

Thank you so much to all our contributors – this issue features such a diverse range of articles and artwork and we hope everyone enjoys it.

UQWC Wom*news, Issue 1, 2015 – download the zine in PDF format here: https://womynews.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/uqwc_zine_issue_1_2015.pdf

Remember, if you’d like to contribute to the next issue please email us at uqwnews@gmail.com!

New Year, New Adventures in Feminism and Activism

After a fantastic 2014 filled with events and activities, the UQWC is looking at another big year in 2015. We have lots planned, and are keen to engage even more of the UQ community with feminist ideas and activism!

The UQ Union Vice-President (Gender and Sexuality) – a.k.a Women’s Officer – for 2015 is Amy Jelacic. She’s keen to connect with heaps of women students from all over UQ, to advocate for women’s rights and well-being on campus, and to support the collective in its activities for 2015. You can find more info here. Feel free to shoot her an email at amy.jelacic@uqu.com.au or uqwomens@uqu.com.au with any enquiries, concerns, or ideas!

We’d like to remind the community of all the excellent resources available for students around UQ St Lucia and in the Brisbane community:

UQ Contacts

Mental health

Abortion Information and Services

  • Children by Choice (unplanned pregnancy and abortion counselling) – ph. 3357 5377, org.au
  • Marie Stopes International (sexual health info, abortion counselling, abortion services – no GP referral required) – drmarie.org.au/locations/#QLD
    • Clinics located in Bowen Hills and Wooloongabba – ph. 1300 003 707
  • Option Clinic (abortion services) – ph. 3831 8300, optionsclinic.com.au, located at 383 Wickham Terrace, Spring Hill
  • Greenslopes Day Surgery (abortion services) – ph. 3397 1211, gsds.com.au, located at 687 Logan Road Greenslopes
  • Information about RU486 Pill (medical abortion drug) – org.au

Counselling and Support

  • Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre (BRISSC) – ph. 3391 0004, brissc.org.au, located at 15 Morrisey St, Woolloongabba
  • Zig Zag Young Women’s Resource Centre – ph. 3843 1823, zigzag.org.au/index.html, located at 575 Old Cleveland Rd, Camp Hill
  • Open Doors Youth Service (for LGBTIQA youth) – opendoors.net.au/new
  • Support for Antenatal and Postnatal Depression – beyondblue.org.au
  • Domestic Violence Connect (help for women and men) – dvconnect.org

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Make sure you keep up with the UQ Women’s Collective’s work through our Facebook page, and please join up to our Facebook group if you’re a UQ student or staff member who identifies as a a woman and would like to be involved! We share lots of feminist and women-focused articles, pictures, comics, and other info, and also plan meetings, activities, events, and more.

Looking forward to a fab feminist 2015!

Clementine Ford: Uncompromising

UQ Journalism student Sophie Meixner’s recap of the “Are Women Invisible?” seminar by Clementine Ford and the UQ Women’s Collective.

“Uncompromising.”

It’s the attitude Clementine Ford has always taken in her approach to feminism. But with the recent resurgence of the ‘feminist’ tag in popular culture – from Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N. to the shocked reaction to Germaine Greer’s comments on the Duchess of Cambridge – it was a good time to hear the young writer’s insights firsthand.

On Friday October 3 Ms Ford joined members of the UQ Women’s Collective for an informal but passionate discussion entitled “The Invisibility of Women in the Media.”

Warm, engaging and prone to an off-the-cuff tangent or two, Ford began her speech by quoting the first paragraph of Susan Faludi’s iconic feminist treatise Backlash, which warned in 1991 of a growing feeling of hostility toward the feminist movement.

It was an infuriating reality, Ford noted, that many concerns of the now-23-year-old book (older than some students in the room) still applied so seamlessly to young women today.

Though young women continue to live in a society where powerful male politicians see fit to legislate to curb their reproductive rights, where domestic and sexual violence against women are real and continuing threats, and where not even our own Prime Minister is immune to sexism, Ford argued women are rendered invisible by a pervasive “yay, equality!” mindset in which we’re told “the fight for equality’s been won” and so to “shut up” because “feminism’s over.”

This is a problem for young women today, Ford said, because feminist progress is not seen as an urgent, or even necessary, priority. The complacency may lie in segments of society who believe feminism has gone too far the other way, viewing men as the “abused chattel” pitted against educated, go-getting women who are “not just equal now but superior.”

The outcome is a flurry among young feminists to avoid seeming too hostile to male recruits – a mistake that Ford says British actress Emma Watson succumbed to in her much-praised speech to the U.N. last month, in which she urged feminists to strive for men’s issues as well as women’s.

While Ford commended Watson for her bravery in using such a global platform to speak about gender inequality – and noted there’s certainly no “right” way to “do” feminism – she warned against “bending and scraping” merely to render feminism more “male-accessible.” Men don’t need “hand-engraved invitations to participate” and then a “cookie” when they do: indeed, the least we should expect is for men to be allies to the feminist cause already without expecting something in return.

While it’s true gender equality continues to hit massive milestones, it is a simple fact that feminism is not finished, and the gains the movement achieves should not be used as an excuse to “shut us up.” This is where Ford’s “uncompromising” attitude comes into play.

“Radicalise,” was her advice. “If they think you’re a man-hater because it’s the only way to minimise you, then let them. Women have been invisible for far too long – it’s time to demand our place now. If a man chooses to be an ally, great, but there are so many people who need to be given space in feminism before we need to worry about giving men space.

This is because in Ford’s version of feminism, nobody is be a feminist merely to serve to their own interests. White, educated feminists may have the privilege of fighting for seats on boards and equal pay, but there are still groups of women further marginalised by society.

For instance, just as able-bodied women may be unnecessarily sexualised by the media, Ford observed that some disabled women are fighting for the right to be viewed in a sexual way. The same perspective is needed if we look overseas to the countless atrocities still committed against women, from sex slavery to genital mutilation to the simple denial of an education. “Statistics are your friend,” Ford noted, and with circumstances like these still existing all across the world, any argument that feminism is “over” starts to seem awfully dangerous.

“Women have been invisible for too long,” were her final words for the audience. “It’s time to demand our place now. It’s not up to feminists to make space for men, it’s up to men to use the space they already have in society for feminism.”

Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt dismissed her in 2012 as “just some feminist with bared tattoos” (a moniker she seems a little too happy to adopt). And it’s true that someone like Clementine Ford, who writes so articulately, who holds her opinions so resolutely, can seem like an intimidating figure to some. But the woman we encountered at UQ on Friday was warm, funny, open to ideas, and, above all, relatable.

The UQ Women’s Collective is to be congratulated for bringing Clementine’s insight onto our campus. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a vibrant campus culture in which feminist issues, which affect all of us, are heard, debated, and encouraged.

~ Sophie Meixner