Feminist spaces in unlikely places: on leading a feminist reading group in Oxford

by Joanne Cave

Feminist progress in Oxford is best described as “incremental” – I’m sure my fellow women Rhodes scholars from every generation can relate. We know that Oxford’s gender politics leave something to be desired when events like Hertford College’s display of modern, female portraits in their dining hall (while exciting, of course) are considered newsworthy.

When I arrived in Oxford last fall from a particularly politically conservative hometown, I was hopeful that Oxford would be a more thoughtful and intellectually rigorous environment. I expected the university’s culture to be sensitive to issues of gender, race and class and imbued with an ethic of social justice. My experience – and that of my female peers – has often been the opposite.                                                                 

Seemingly endless examples illustrate an environment of misogyny. One female friend reflected on how her sub-department in physics has only one female faculty member, another commented on how she was the lone Black woman at her college. I’ve heard women report experiences of stalking on Saturday nights post-party, frequent catcalling while cycling and academic syllabi exclusively featuring male authors and academics. My college, St. John’s, is celebrating the matriculation of the 2000th woman (since the college first accepted women in 1979 – only 34 years ago). The recent Oxford Union rape allegations, widely reported by the British media, exposed the university’s challenges with rape culture, victim blaming and poorly funded support services for survivors of sexual assault. The university's culture often fails women in more subtle ways, as another scholar, Kelsey Murrell, recently wrote. 

When I first arrived, I was frustrated that there were few spaces to politicize our everyday experiences of gender in Oxford. I had recently graduated from the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute and missed the culture of engaged feminist activism and cutting-edge critical theory. In response, some female Rhodes scholars and I convened an informal feminist reading group open to undergraduates, postgraduates and members of the Oxford community at large.

There are no prerequisites – no prior knowledge of feminist theory is required and we rotate volunteer facilitators. The reading group isn’t intended to be a gender-specific space – it’s an invitation to the wider Oxford community (of every gender) to engage in meaningful feminist dialogue. We intentionally select both academic and popular readings (many Youtube videos, newspaper articles, blog posts and podcasts make the list) with a focus on contemporary texts and diverse authors that Oxford students likely wouldn’t encounter in their classes – everyone from Angela Davis to Gayatri Spivak and bell hooks. 

We were overwhelmed with the initial enthusiasm about the Oxford Feminist Reading Group. In the past year we have hosted discussions on women, prisons and criminality, feminist political economy, rape culture and men’s rights alliances, love and desire, trans feminism, gender as both ‘experience’ and ‘institution’ and postcolonial feminism and the academy. I’m humbled that the Oxford Feminist Reading Group can create a grassroots, student-led feminist space in one of the most unlikely places – one of the world’s most elite academic institutions.

The act of convening the reading group shouldn’t be a subversive act, but it is. By virtue of its existence, the reading group is an intervention in Oxford’s male-dominated culture that frustrates so many of us. The group makes space for alternative knowledge production and offers a sort of “anti-syllabus” that challenges the dominance of Western male academics in Oxford’s approach to social and political education. As we collate readings to share and discuss, we are slowly cataloguing some of the best emerging texts in transnational feminist theory that better reflect our origins, values and diverse perspectives.

 The Oxford Feminist Reading Group has an important historical legacy, too. Not unlike the consciousness-raising groups that galvanized the North American feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, the reading group offers a kind of contemporary take on the informal “living room discussions” that feminists relied on decades earlier. It helps us push back against everyday experiences of sexism and misogyny in Oxford, use cutting-edge feminist texts to complement our academic pursuits and build a cohesive feminist community to share events, articles and reflections. Oxford is, undoubtedly, a timeless institution – and these issues will continue to persist. However, spaces like the Oxford Feminist Reading Group will offer future generations of women at Oxford a sense of solidarity, resistance and community.