Community- and trade-union organising as feminist practice

I began my PhD at the University of Edinburgh many moons ago after several years of working in the private sector. When I began, I was excited to be a part of a community of learners again. I was the keenest of keen beans. I attended every seminar and joined every reading group, eager to luxuriate in the joy of unpacking complicated ideas that expanded, challenged or undermined my assumptions. I was fascinated by my peers’ research projects and loved hearing about their work, but these opportunities were informal and infrequent. Several of us felt we could improve the infrastructure by which research students in our School (the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures) could gather to share ideas, and so we set-up new interdisciplinary seminars, communal writing initiatives, academical socials, and peer-training programmes. These activities were not intended to enable us to become more effective, more productive, PhD students – though some initiatives did – but to foster an environment in which we could honestly and reflexively pursue our research in a mutually supportive way.

I came to understand my involvement in these community activities as an extension of my feminist practice, as being predicated on a feminist ethics of care. Broadly speaking, an ethics of care means doing the work of caring emotionally, socially, as well as physically for others. In the University, as in other settings, caring is a form of work that is often gendered and often invisible in the accounting practices of workload allocation models or REF submissions.[1] Even before I took on representative duties for the English Literature PhD community, the work of caring also entailed the discomfort of presenting challenges to the University when its decisions seemed contrary to the community’s wellbeing, whether that was with regards to study space, tutoring opportunities, or training provision.

The difficulty with being a voice of complaint or critique is, as Sara Ahmed’s work on the ‘feminist killjoy’ tells us, that institutions and organisations can work to conflate the ‘complaint’ and the ‘complainer’. She writes :

being heard as complaining is not being heard. You are heard as expressing yourself; as if you are complaining because that is who you are or what you are like. If you are heard as complaining then what you say is dismissible, as if you are complaining because that is your personal tendency.

The issues you complain about begin to take a backseat to the identity of the complainer. This can serve to distract and derail addressing the problem at hand. Where possible, therefore, it is important to belong to a collective that is willing to speak and act together. I joined my local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) only when I began teaching for my Department, though I now see that much of its remit and activities overlap with the work of care I have so valued. In working to improve staff’s working conditions, we are working to improve students’ learning conditions.


Muireann Crowley is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral thesis examines the representation of authorship and authorial identity in the works of Sydney Owenson. She is a member of UCU Edinburgh and helps organise the monthly coffee meetings for the UCU Postgraduate and Postdoctoral Network.

[1] My colleague Órla Murray draws on Dorothy Smith’s expanded definition of ‘work’ to discuss the vast array of activities required of an academic that fall outside the tasks outlined in the job description. Please see Ó.M. Murray, M. Crowley, L. Wånggren, “Feminist Work in Academia and Beyond” in R. Thwaites & A. Pressland (eds.) Being an Early-Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences, and Challenges, London: Palgrave Macmillan


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