On Wednesday 8 March, postgraduate researchers at the University of Glasgow marked International Women’s Day with a symposium themed ‘Women, Place and Belonging’. Women occupying space, whether physical or virtual, continues to be a central concern in feminist discourses and gender research. Reflecting this theme, the programme brought together two panels of postgraduate researchers, a creative writing showcase and workshop, speakers from Scottish Women’s Aid and Glasgow Women’s Library as well as academic staff from the University of Glasgow.
Glasgow Women’s Library: “a place that is truly diverse and inclusive”
Sue John opened the day with a talk entitled ‘Glasgow Women’s Library: Twenty-five Years of Changing Minds’. The idea of place has been central in the development of Glasgow Women’s Library and “…creating a space and a place that is truly diverse and inclusive” is at the heart of their work. This diversity is reflected in GWL’s permanent collection, curated entirely from donations, which range from Suffragette memorabilia and 1930s dress-making patterns to rare 1970s Scottish Women’s Liberation newsletters. Highlighting the importance of considering digital space, Sue John highlighted social media as an indication of the at times overwhelming negativity women are faced with when speaking out about issues that affect them. GWL’s postcard series aims to counteract this negativity. Whilst recognising the positive role social media can play in GWL’s work, Sue John noted the importance of retaining the physical space provided by a library. In closing, through their work at GWL, Sue John and her colleagues aim to encourage women to occupy both virtual and physical space “loudly and brilliantly.”
Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland
Continuing this theme, the next talk centred on “Speaking Out: Recalling Women’s Aid in Scotland”, a collaborative project between Scottish Women’s Aid, Glasgow Women’s Library, the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History and Women’s History Scotland. In celebration of the organisation’s 40th anniversary, Speaking Out aims to record, commemorate and share the history of Women’s Aid in Scotland. Emma Gascoigne took us through the history of this incredible organisation and the progress that has been made in the 40 years that they have been operating in Scotland, whilst also reflecting on sobering statistics that underline the continued need for refuge and safe housing for women and children experiencing domestic violence. By highlighting the history of the movement, Speaking Out also draws attention to and stimulates discussion on domestic abuse today. The project addresses the issue of women being “written out of history” due to lack of representation in primary sources by adopting oral history as a feminist practice. The interview format has allowed underrepresented groups to tell their own stories on their own terms.
Postgraduate Panels: “Having conversations is activism in itself”
Following on from these two thought provoking opening talks, a panel of PhD researchers from across various departments at the University of Glasgow presented their research, linking this to the central themes of place and belonging. Effie Samara spoke about exilic consciousness and gendered representations in drama. Sophie Sexon, examined the portrayals of the ‘Female Christ’ in theatre, from Julian of Norwich to Lucy McCormick. Finally, Alessia Zinnari shared her research on the Italian author Alda Merini, and her hospitalisation in the Palo Pini, Milan. In the discussion which followed, each speaker related their own experiences of linking their academic work to activism within wider communities. As panellist Sophie Sexon noted, “having conversations is activism in itself”, particularly in less ‘welcoming’ spaces. The afternoon sessions focussed on creative writing, showcasing pieces by a panel of current students, Maria Ioana Marchidanu ‘Borders’, Sarah Thomas ‘The Strangest Silence’, Agata Maslowska ‘Homeland Variations’ and Laura Becherer ‘Why is Sex Not Fun? the examination of an asexual woman’s identity’. In the follow up discussion, panellists shared their experiences of the writing process, which let neatly on to a creative writing workshop led by Colin Herd. Freshly inspired by our panel, attendees were encouraged to participate in a poetry writing exercise and share the results.
Boundary Crossings: Transatlantic Literary Women
The symposium was brought to a close by two keynote speakers Dr Laura Rattray and Prof. Lynn Abrams, both from the University of Glasgow. Dr Rattray reflected on her changing experiences of being a ‘women’s writing specialist’, commenting on her first academic position and the lack of representation of literary women in English literature reading lists and the gradual advances that have been made since. She went on to speak about her current project, the Transatlantic Literary Women series, and particularly her own research on Edith Wharton (1862-1937), who interestingly, as Dr Rattray suggested, would have rejected the very idea of an International Women’s Day and never visibly supported the women’s suffrage movement. Dr Rattray also spoke candidly about her mixed experience of writing funding applications (which provided much needed comfort to those at various stages of their academic careers!).
Gender, History and Place at the University of Glasgow: where do women belong?
Finally, Prof Lynn Abrams discussed Gender, History and Place at the University of Glasgow and, more generally, in higher education. She reflected that, “the history of women at the University of Glasgow is not immediately obvious.” At an initial glance around campus reveals that few buildings have been named after women and representations of women in portraits and art are scarce. Yet, today women make up the majority of students. The 1960s saw a huge expansion, not only within the University of Glasgow but more broadly in academic institutions across many European countries, a rise in numbers, particularly moving towards arts and social sciences. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of female arts students at the University of Glasgow rose by 128%. This change in gender balance prompted fears in some corners around women“swamping” the arts faculty. Prof. Abrams reflected on the life choices available to women as a result of their increased access to higher education. Drawing on her oral history research, she noted that University marked a turning point in their lives and often an opportunity to transform the self, finding a new sense of belonging. In closing, Prof Abrams highlighted the importance of visibility and representation within institutions and a need for role models as even in 2017, “women are still everywhere and nowhere” at the University of Glasgow.
The symposium sparked discussion around women, place and belonging both in terms of current interdisciplinary research, representation in course programmes and reading lists as well as visibility within universities themselves.