Monday, October 8, 2007

Feminist Futures from deep in the heart of Europe

W.I.S.E.R. . .shouldn’t we be? Women In Education, Science And Research Conference, Maastricht, 4th-5th October. I got an invite to this, on the strength of "Life", my Aqueduct Press novel. I decided to go along, and found a mass gathering of young and old feminists, beside the Maas, for two sunny days in October. Here's my report:

Stand we at last...

I got turned away from the opening foray, on the grounds that I don’t speak Dutch and the Jankerk was stuffed: which was a bust. It was the one with a slide show, academic tradition on females in science held up to sarcasm, and the choir singing Ethel Smith’s March Of The Women, audience participation encouraged. That’s a rave from the grave, thinks I. I went to look around the Basilica of the Redeemer instead (much restored. I liked the Paradise). Got into the next item, which was pretty entertaining. Such a crowd! Several hundreds of academics, all ages, usual sex ratio reversed, a lunch counter with coffee. The Minister (m) made his opening address. In which he derided Larry Summer’s immortal line, “a different availability of aptitude at the high end”, & then went off to have lunch with the celebs, while the rest of us —and a platform of female profs and politicos, including the Spanish ministry delegate, the Norwegian Minister (who lives in a different world), and Miet Smet, Belgian Minister of State & long time women’s rights defender, who knew a lot about how to get things done, & how it’s never easy or simple— debated four propositions, on how best to make Netherlands academia (and/or the world) treat women and men as equals:

Legislation: making obligatory 40% women or men on any decision-making body; 60% maximum, either sex.

Visibility: What we need is a massive media campaign, changing public perceptions, especially children’s and the short-span masses, of women in science, education, and research (especially science).

Psych-it: The numbers speak a clear language (the present sex ratio of top end academic jobs in the NL is very poor indeed) The women are missing. Raise women’s expectations, student expectations, daughters’ expectations. Change from within!

Gender Mainstreaming: Stop trying to fix women so they’ll fit into academia, or whatever other setting.Change the culture of academia, identify and change the gender thinking and discriminatory practices embedded in the organisation. Have an Equal Opportunities police with the right to walk in anywhere, and nail sinners.

Blair’s Babes, I’m thinking. Blair’s Babes (referring to the massive increase in female MPs, in Tony Blair’s 1997 government, achieved by Labour Party initiatives not unlike the proposals above). Did they really love Tony? Nah. They loved being in power though, and Tony soon made it clear that they served the One Man, or they were career-dead. Doesn’t matter what you do. The thing about women is that they really are no different from other human beings, as corruptible and malleable as any brother. . . But I love this sort of thing, and waved my coloured cards (like in Ready Steady Cook, you know) like a good ‘un. At first I went for yellow (Image), but then I wavered, and thought I should go for red (Quotas), but then some bright spark says, I think they’re all essential, and I don’t want to choose, & everyone thought this sounded fine, & practically all of us held up all four colours.

The Minister's Minions (young and female, did you guess?) who’d been left to our mercy were teased, gently, with some radical suggestions from the floor. What would the Minister’s response be? They couldn’t possibly comment.

& then later, I got worried the object of the exercise was supposed to be to identify one of those four propositions to present to the Minister, as is traditional in these affairs. He's already getting a list of 95 essential points. Fourmore ideas is at least three too many. Ah, well.

Miet Smet made a point of saying one other thing: Women should distance themselves from “Diversity”. Don’t get bundled up with Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered etc etc. May seem righteous, but it does not further political equality. Women are not a minority group. Moves addressing women’s needs in academia, in the workplace or in politics are not special measures, special treatment. Discuss.

So then we were asked to leave quietly, and we would get a surprise as we went out the doors. The surprise was that we were issued with orange whistles (with a transfer of a soccer ball on them, one more indication that the frugal organisers had not wasted any funds on decorative trim for this con) by a corps of stewards in labcoats, bootees & hairnets, & armed with klaxons, and we were to march. Shouting a Dutch slogan which I didn’t quite catch, but I gather it said something like More Women On Top Now! People smiled. Especially the young teens, who had been issued with the extra whistles. Everybody gives you a whistle, these days. It’s from all those whacking big clubs, people getting lost, is it the same everywhere, I wonder.

Couldn’t get into the critique on male leadership in academia in the Derlon Theatre, so I milled around a bit on the 1992 Plein, the actual birthplace of the EU in its current form. Not so strangely, there is a lack of municipal sculpture on this momentous site. Nor are there any tourist kiosks selling fridge magnets featuring the Flag of the Union, or anything of that kind. There is only the river Maas, also known as the Meuse, and the Moselle, with the barges gliding along it, beautiful and calm under the brilliant blue sky. The same river that runs through Rimbaud’s home town, and causes the Netherlanders no end of vigilance and expense at the delta.

I went along to Science a la Carte at the Bonnefantenmuseum, and caught Averil MacDonald, Professor of Physics at Reading University UK, giving a presentation called Living The Fairytale. “I celebrated my 40th birthday as plain Mrs MacDonald, soon to be divorced mother of two. I will soon celebrate my fiftieth with a whole new life opening up before me...” An irrisistible success story, with an award to prove it, Woman of Outstanding Achievement In Science. Awards are great, she says, they open doors, they make the Vice Chancellor listen. Any questions? “Did you meet any enemies?” I asked. I am such a clown, so juvenile.

When I’d failed to get into the Leadership epilogue, and was sitting on the Plein 1992 eating my second lunch roll, Averil came and sat down next to me, and sparked up a conversation. . . She says she didn’t recognise enemies, only obstacles, and found a way around them. That’s the spirit.

Good Utopian/Bad Utopian

Finally got into the Derlon Theatre, for the “NL2020” item, another debate, a show organised by the Dutch Network of Female Professors, using the results of a consultation exercise. First, we got two views on the situation in 2020: the reforms have been instituted, what changes do we see? Good Utopian/Bad Utopian.

Good Utopian (Saskia Keuzenkamp: Women’s Emancipation Studies) is having a wonderful time. Her meetings are virtual, her hours are flexible, she gets to nurse her PhD students without leaving her desk, like everyone else on faculty she has her own PA, so she doesn’t spend her whole time on paperwork; she’s just been assessed (transparently) and given a great new job on a global masterclass programme. Oh, and the Dean is always around (this got a laugh), popping in for a chat etc.

Bad Utopian (Jenny Dankelman, Medical Engineering) says, grumpily, well, at least I don’t feel so out of place, and since I’m NOT the only woman, I can get some work done. I’m not continually being dragged off into meetings because they’re obliged to have a token female. . .

We were asked to vote, electronically, on fifteen statements from the consultation exercise, and the Good Utopians got some surprises, among the most notable being:

It’s 2020. The percentage of women in higher positions in universities has grown tremendously. What conclusions can be drawn?

Culture, Statement 2: The academic culture has become nastily competitive.

We were supposed to disagree strongly; we agreed, weakly. Our voting was displayed, and we were quizzed on it. The younger members of the audience said: women can be nasty, as nasty as men. It’s competition that makes people nasty, and the international competition is bad enough now. In 2020, everything will be more globalised, more people chasing fewer posts, more frantic, it doesn’t make you a nice person—

Working Practices, Statement 1: Working part time is the norm for both men and women

We were supposed to feel strongly that this was a positive development. We were quizzed on our rather strong feeling that it was not. ‘This is about child care’ said one respondent, tartly. ‘I don’t see thirteen years making much difference to male attitudes to parenting.’ (And I recalled the Minister, speaking wistfully of his gut feeling that mother ought to be there, when the children come home from school. . .) Other respondents said, yeah, we know that one: part-time pay, full time work. Neither futuristic nor an improvement. And yet others said, you can’t do lab science on 20 hours a week. The people who resist this change will still be doing the great work and getting the good jobs. We want to be driven, we want to forget all else, we are creative scientists.

It’s always about child care. (And it takes two, thinks I. If men won’t change, it’s because their wives and partners have let them know, one way and another, that they don’t have to.)

Second thought: the old guard are out in force, but many of the younger women at this conference are not at all sentimental about Women. They aren’t here to sing Stand We At Last, they’ve been raised in a world where women in science have been colleagues and bosses, not a few historic inspiring heroines. They’re here because their lives, their careers, their dreams, depend on reforms of a mightily unfair system. They don’t expect Utopia. Just a better chance.

And then it was my item, A Writer’s View On Academia, with Joke Hermsen, a PhD in Philosophy who quit her department in some disgust a few years ago, and is now principally a novelist; Gwyneth Jones (University of Life); and moderated by Maaike Meijer, “one of the voices of Dutch feminism in the seventies” (it says here, a modest tag that no doubt covers a wild career). I can’t really tell you what happened as I was not taking notes, but Joke Hermsen, Virginia Woolf scholar among other things, read an essay on Granite and the Rainbow, about biography; and I read a bit of “Life”. Good house, & seemed like a positive response. Anna Senoz’s career, and naïve mistakes, really seem to strike a chord with the young, gifted and female science & research contingent.

Ah, say the delegates, with one voice, when they meet me, all through the con. Science fiction! Woman On The Edge Of Time! Wonderful book, Marge Piercy, have you met her? Ursula LeGuin, have you met her? For some reason, nobody seems to have heard of The Handmaid’s Tale. Couldn’t possibly comment.

Municipal drinks and nibbles in a municipal hall, where an Alderman spoke movingly (in English, of course) about his long ago experiences on a literacy aid programme in Nicaragua. If funds are short, and you want to make a lasting impact, what do you do? You concentrate on the girls, he told us, with the force of long-ago revelation. Educate the girls! You’re educating their children, and their children’s children. Ah, Mr Man, what are you saying? Are you saying that your own people, your own kind, are shiftless selfish layabouts, and spending money on them, in the hope of giving the people a better life, is pouring water into the sand?

Here I met up with Bernie Williams, Liz Faye, Averil again and the rest of the SET UKRC crowd, some of whom I’d met in Hay on Wye last year. We went off and had a meal together in the Holy Virgin Plein, & then, I’m afraid, we persuaded each other it would be a good idea to come back and go to the WISER disco. Ah, well. You’re only young once.

Friday, 5th October

I spent the morning sightseeing, bought some tulip bulbs (orange); paid my respects to the Star of the Sea, along with a constant stream of Maastrichters popping in to light an e.60 candle. The Basilica of the Holy Virgin is tenth century, on the site allegedly of the first Christian church here, founded by Bishop/St Servaas, 384. He killed a dragon, I think. The statue, pliant curve in her red & blue robes, her gilt crown, is sixteenth century, originally. Couldn’t leave her out, could I? Not here, where the blue flag with the gold stars was anointed. I do not worship the Goddess, but I thoroughly respect her ducking and diving skills, her capacity for survival, after all, somebody has to hold up half the sky.

In the afternoon I went to JIVE, the UKRC event, which was mostly Powerpoints about data collection, employment research practice, and the problems faced by returnees. The star of this show was undoubtedly Maggie Aderin, a remarkable young woman. She’s “the UK’s only black, woman rocket scientist, she’s conquered dyslexia, and she has chosen to get into science education.” Could she tick more boxes? Actually, she’s an astronomer not a rocket scientist, that’s just press release talk. What she does is build custom instruments, novel instruments for big, big, telescopes. She showed us a video she’s made for UK Teachers’ TV, in the Cape, where she was visiting SALT (South African Largest Telescope) —an astonishing installation, 10 metre mirror, brand new (2005), standing alone in the empty Karoo. She joined a Scifest over there and talked to ordinary kids. She talks exactly like Patrick Moore, fast, explosive, enthusiasm bursting out of her. Fantastical, dazzling, romantic, end note.

But in JIVE, probably because we were all speaking the same language (second language conversations tend to be effusive, polite and sunny), I heard the hard things said. Small hard thing: returnees feel they’ve not got a leg to stand on when partner is earning more. His career has to come first, it’s a quality of life issue. So, women (back) in science yes. High-flyers, no. Or not until the children are reared. Other hard thing: women are interesting now, because of the ageing/declining population problem (not in England, but in other UK nations, and throughout NW Europe). The loss of female graduates is a drain industry can’t afford. But what about when the economic crash bites? It doesn’t have to be the end of the world, just a normal recession. All women's rights agendas will be dropped, instantly.

And the hardest thing, the one we still hope will just go away. Isn’t it a beautiful day, teeshirt weather in October, where are we right now? Balmy California, I suppose. So, where will we be in 2020? Could be somewhere rather less idyllic. And the 10 metre telescope in the Karoo will still be there, but where will those kids be? Who’ll be living in Sunderland and Grahamstown?

In the Bonnefanten Museum there was a show by Mai Thu Perret, Swiss artist, a multimedia presentation called Land of Crystal. “Mai-Thu Perret has been writing a fictitious story entitled The Crystal Frontier since 1999. Employing part imagined and part annotated diary fragments, letters and texts from handbills, she sketches a kaleidoscopic image of a group of women who have retreated, disillusioned, from the city and from Western, i.e. capitalist, society. They pick up their lives again in the desert of New Mexico but on a different footing with work, nature and themselves.”

Ha! This is where I came in! Girls like a pack of wolves, sorry we disappointed you, nobody gets mothered here, I didn’t linger. I’ve read Les Guérillères: not when it was written but long time ago, in the second wave. So there’s an end to another fly on the wall, or chameleon on the wall, visit to an academic/science/feminism conference. Events like this are really useful to me. Utopians, talking, arguing, trying out ideas, getting things wrong, getting things right, speaking the language a writer of Utopian fiction must know. Oh, you thought I was a fem-sf writer (or ex-fem-sf) You didn’t know I wrote Utopian fiction? Is that a job that only a male writer can do? Hm.

Back home on the Eurostar, massive queues at Brussels Midi, for the Thank God It’s Friday train to Waterloo. I wouldn’t mind, but the placards on the UK passport control raised my hackles a bit. “You’ll find it rather more difficult to get into the UK, from September 2007” As if that was something to be proud of. Not a word of apology.

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