The Vagenda

The Most Disappointing Freshers’ Week Ever (And It’s Not Because I Didn’t Pull)

Over my pre-university summer, I often thought about what going to an age-old Russell group college would hold for me. Visions of sitting up all night, drinking, smoking, listening to one of the great Kates (Nash or Bush) and debating about who we loved more, Simone De Beauvoir or Caitlin Moran, came immediately to mind. Wide-eyed and optimistic, I fully expected to be greeted with such scenes as soon as I toddled off to London with my heretofore unchallenged belief that everybody believed in equality and wanted to talk about it over Class B drugs. Then reality hit me like a smack on the bottom from a middle-aged perv.
Up until this point, I had never had my values questioned except by my brothers, and even then our discussions were fairly civilised. That’s how I thought being a feminist  at university would be: simple, with my views respected and accepted, barely even questioned. So when my personal tutor asked us in turn to tell the group something about ourselves, and I proudly announced, “I’m a feminist” – to which my tutor replied, “Oh wow, that’s brave” – I began to wonder.
Undeterred, I joined my university’s Feminist Soc – still in its raw infancy – slightly baffled as to why it hadn’t been around for more than 2 years when the university had been around for 187. At the first meeting, I was met by a throng of fierce third-years, who were, as you might say, “well into Germaine Greer”. That was not what I wanted. I wanted easy, laid-back feminism; I didn’t want to fight for it; I just wanted to label myself and move on, never getting into pesky arguments, never provoking interrogation. But very quickly my rose-tinted specs had been ripped off and trampled into shards. I realised I was actually going to have to do a lot of arguing to get them back.
Being a first-year, I was of course drunk for the majority of term time, socialising glass-in-hand, still searching for the feminist discussion my academic programme wasn’t allowing me. In the first semester, my social group was mainly composed of guys who I’d become friends with in halls, which suited me fine for about five minutes. By the end of freshers’ week, however, one of these academically gifted young men had already announced that he was ‘going to have a go on that’ (me), before spewing every stereotype of misogyny out in an Estuary pip. One night, after my third or fourth pint, I called out his shitty attitude and we started arguing over his assertions that ‘feminism was futile’, that he didn’t believe in it, and that it was over. 
I am ashamed to say that at this point, I totally lost my shit. My bubble was burst, because quite a few of my so-called friends in the group were on his side. Here I was, at one of the top universities in England, signing £40,000 away, to be told that one of my most precious values was useless – something backed up by the fact that feminism was scarcely mentioned in any of my myriad lectures. 
But university is for learning, and I have tried to do my part in imparting some femi-wisdom unto others, most memorably once thrusting How To Be A Woman into the white hands of a middle-class male med student, who was duly converted. I’ve changed one or two opinions, which makes me happy enough. But there’s no use pretending that it isn’t an uphill struggle.
I used to be irritated by the strain of feminism which seems to see sexism in everything, but that’s because I’d never come up against true sexism before. I called myself a feminist thinking that I didn’t have to do anything about it. 
But now that, amongst other things, I’ve been openly objectified, labelled as a ‘feminazi’, and had my bum pinched in the Soho bar where I worked so many times in a single shift that I genuinely lost count, I’m ready to take on the fight I never thought I had to fight. 
And not for a second, sadly, do I expect a crumb of help from my academic institution along the way.

12 thoughts on “The Most Disappointing Freshers’ Week Ever (And It’s Not Because I Didn’t Pull)

  1. That’s a shame. I toddled off to a Russell Group university without ever had a feminist thought whip through my brain. I went to study a Sports degree and was confronted with lecturers that challenged us at every turn. They made feminism a thing, a serious thing that made sense not just in the context of sport but in the context of society. A deep respect for feminism, and some confidence to call my self a feminist, was the most valuable lesson I learnt at university. There is a hell of a lot still to be fixed, but thought I’d share my experience of some people doing it right. Props to my lecturers.

  2. I am a lecturer in possibly the same institution that you attend. You are completely correct to call out the latent misogyny that saturates academic practice and men and boy’s comportment whilst at those universities. We know that there is a ‘lad culture’ for want of a better term, on university campuses, we know that feminism – even amongst people whom you could argue should know better – is a dirty word in this sphere. We know that universities – certainly the one I work in – have a terrible track record not just on gender issues, but also on matters of classed, raced exploitation amongst their staff. It is for this reason that feminist complaints are so important; forcing supposedly elite people to confront their own prejudices about gender (amongst other) issues is some of the most important work you can do as a feminist. People will be angry, and people will try to silence dissent, especially, I suspect, in situations where they are supposed to be ultra brainy and liberal, because political confrontation is always uncomfortable. But that is why we have to keep railing against gender hate in these arenas. As the post above demonstrates, you can have your mind changed, and your ethics revolutionised at university, and that is what has to be striven for.

  3. Am I the only young feminist that doesn’t think Caitlin Moran is a feminist icon or indeed, that funny? Her disabilist comments in “How to be a woman” (which is stupidly thought as some sort of new feminist bible!) are shocking. You should convert more men with Ariel Levy’s “Female Chauvinist Pigs” or Natasha Walters’ “Living Dolls” or…any other well written book about feminism! Sorry for going off topic…This is a really interesting article! I was lucky enough to go to a University that didn’t see feminism as some “stupid girl thing” and I had great debates (with only a little bit of anger!) with men and women alike! Obviously I always won ;)

  4. I’m with you on that, she even says in HTBAW that the reason women didn’t achieve as much as men in the past was because there just weren’t any bright women. Um no Caitlin…

  5. You are definitely not alone. I am 20, just about to go into my 3rd year of University, and I can’t stand the woman. I find her very harmful to the feminist movement due to her slut shaming, how she ‘couldn’t give a fuck’ about the representation of women of ethnic minorities in her TV show, and her book makes me cringe.

  6. I disagree, Moran is accessible and non threatening. While she may not suit everyone it is a good start point for people who have never given a second thought to feminism (or if they have they dismissed the idea). Many keys, one door.

  7. I found HTBAW to be laugh out loud funny but to read about her horror of ever being over a size ten and then a guest blogger and other readers on her site also talking about it, i thought, “oops, i better become a male chauvinist because I’m a size 16!” is there a BMI of feminism? size 8 is womanist, size 10 is feminist, 12 is just uneducated about feminism, 14 is a tad sexist and 16 outright chauvinist? 18… it could go on and on! So yes. I’m feminist but not when it comes to the fat-shaming.

  8. I’ll be going to uni (as a mature student) in a years time… i’m a little bit scared that notts trent would be like this… but i’ll go in guns blazing =)

  9. (Whoops, initial post deleted because half of the last sentence was missing…)

    “I used to be irritated by the strain of feminism which seems to see sexism in everything, but that’s because I’d never come up against true sexism before. I called myself a feminist thinking that I didn’t have to do anything about it.”

    This. This sums up everything I’ve had to learn since leaving the happy, left-leaning bubble I lived in as an undergrad and coming to live in an environment where feminism is spoken of–when it’s mentioned at all–as some ghastly thing invented by killjoys to ruin the fun of decent blokes, etc., etc.

    The first time I actually had to debate someone (a professor at that) publicly about whether and why sexism in society a) exists and b) is still A Very Big Problem, I was mortified at having made what I felt was a spectacle of myself. Embarrassingly, my intital thought afterwards was that I should somehow have been more demure about it all. (Given that I remained pretty calm throughout the exchange, I don’t know what “more demure” would have looked like–crocheting Mary Wollstonecraft’s face on a pillow and mailing it to him, maybe?) Then I realized that exchanges like that–calling people, politely but insistently, on their sh!t–is least of the sort of action I need to take if I’m actually going to call myself a feminist…anyhow, thanks for the excellent post!