Women's Stories, Women's Lives
(L-R) Dr Abigail Locke, Dr Gráinne McMahon, Dr Sue Peckover, Dr Berenice Golding, Dr Kate Smith PhD, Dr Jo Woodiwiss, Julia Langley, Dr Marilynne N Kirshbaum and Kelly Lockwood.
To commemorate International Women's Day this month, an exciting all-day event was held at Huddersfield University. The "Women's Stories, Women's Lives: Feminist Research Symposium", was a thought-provoking programme of lectures on a number of issues surrounding the stories that women tell.
"The stories that women tell (the way they construct their stories, the language that they use, the ways that they make sense of and discuss their lives and their stories etc.) are fundamental to understanding their lived experiences," Dr McMahon told me, "Further, those stories have, historically, been omitted from, or marginalised in, research (even research about women!) so we all strive to place women's voices at the centre of our work. We felt that we wanted to focus on the women's stories in our research on International Women's Day as a way to celebrate women and their lives, and so that the voices of the women with whom we work can be heard by others.
These are not literary stories, or bed-time stories, but the everyday stories we tell to make sense of our lives. With Mother's Day then just around the corner and Radio 4 having recently suggested that feminism is dead, there was a very real sense both of the everyday and the political implications of feminist ideas. Adele Jones, who introduced the first talk, made the audience laugh by telling us her response to Radio 4's announcement that feminism is dead - "dead my arse!"
The birth of Women's Day
The first "Women's Day", which was national rather than international, took place in 1909 in the United States and was affiliated with the Socialist Party. It slowly metamorphosed over the following decades, from being observed primarily in Europe and Russia and focusing on women's suffrage, into the International Women's Day we know today, which came about in 1977, following a UN declaration.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Jo Woodiwiss, spoke about our culture's insistence on trauma in order to justify struggle. As the author of the book Contesting Stories of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Dr Woodiwiss is interested in the ways in which women are manipulated by self-help texts and the mental health system to look within for the answers to their problems.
We heard from Dr Marilynne N Kirshbaum, who told us about the stories that cancer patients tell as they near death, about their increasing inability to do the things that made them who they were. During her talk Dr Kirchbaum raised the very interesting question, "Is all research conducted by feminists, 'feminist research'?"
Another study was presented by a team, Dr Berenice Golding and Dr Sue Peckover, who spoke about the challenges of providing services for women and children experiencing domestic abuse in this age of austerity. They presented some sobering statistics - such as that 1 in 4 women experience domestic abuse in their lives - and acknowledged that the system had come a long way, "from silence to awareness", but needed to come further. Government cuts, they said, are impacting disproportionately on services for women and children.
PhD student Kate Smith presented her research on female refugees, reminding us all of the Universal Human Rights Declaration statement that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other country's asylum from persecution." Most applicants for asylum are men and therefore male narratives, as in many arenas of life, are dominant. Women applicants are expected to have gone through abuse and trauma in order to be taken seriously - just like the women in Dr Woodiwiss' research. Many reject the refugee label altogether, claiming to be students, in order to sidestep the stigma attached to asylum seekers in society.
Dr Abigail Locke, whose research is in the area of infant feeding, looked at the modern insistence upon being a "good mother" - what Joan Wolf called "total motherhood". It is no longer enough to simply not be a bad mother, women are now expected to excel at mothering, to be a paragon of all that can be good in the role. Dr Locke contrasted this against the reality that only 50% of women breast feed, despite our knowledge that "breast is best". For her, it was crucial to remember that most women who do not breast feed are forced to make that decision by circumstances, illness or pain - formula feeding, she pointed out, is rarely a choice.
Mothers in prison
Kelly Lockwood's PhD research focuses on mothers in prison and the ways they frame their story. While only 5% of the prison population is female, 66% of them are mothers. Ms Lockwood cited the oft said, little examined adage, "it is through stories that we make sense of the world", before describing the three most common forms of narrative women in prison tell about their relationship with their children. Some, she pointed out, tell a story of challenge, of redemption and working hard. Others told stories of repair, of fixing what was already broken in their relationship with their children, of using the prison experience as a catalyst for change. The third category, and the most upsetting, was that of women who told a story of fracture, a tale of shame and brokenness.
The final speaker was another PhD student, Julia Langley, who recently received the Patrick Stewart/Refuge Scholarship for the study of domestic violence. Her research focuses on the experiences of young mothers who have been subject to abusive relationships. Ms Langley's work in this under-researched area is being funded by Refuge, a charity supporting victims of domestic violence. "My interest in this area" she said, "really stems from the fact that the issue is so hidden, yet the consequences so great."
Dr McMahon organised the symposium following the success of a similar one last July, "Opportunities and Challenges in Feminist Narrative Research", and intends to make the International Women's Day date a regular occurrence.