Being asked to write this as a ‘woman of power’ feels rather strange given how powerless I feel in the context of the current crisis in Ukraine and how Ukrainian women are spending IWD. I must accept however, that I am relatively powerful as a white British professor.
My intention here is to illustrate the importance of networks of support for women academics through my own experience – individualism is antithetical to feminism.
I graduated in 1974 and I retired from being a Pro Vice Chancellor nine years ago with a few leadership positions and quite a lot of sociology in between. In recent years I have had more time for sociology and related activities including establishing Discover Society; editing a Gender and Sociology series for BUP (with Stevi Jackson); writing the occasional paper, without the pressure of the REF; becoming editor in chief of a new journal Global Social Challenges, also for BUP. I was also President of the ESA 2017-19 and currently hold visiting professorships at Newcastle and Helsinki. All enjoyable activities, which are more about influence than power, and in which I have only been able to engage as a result of a long career and with a great deal of support from other women and a few good men along the way. I don’t think, for a minute, that I would have been able to achieve what I have without Feminism and the BSA.
While my CV might look quite impressive the path of its production has not been exactly smooth. On the plus side I have my parents to thank for my pretty good self-esteem and for believing in gender equality. My mother taught me the importance of independence and of standing up for myself and told me wonderful stories of the ways she had, as a young nurse, dealt with predatory doctors and other tricky situations. I went to a girl’s grammar school which didn’t suit me a bit – maybe I wasn’t middle class enough, or indeed at all, but I also had a problem with what I thought were silly rules and with being discouraged from asking questions. I was bored, read voraciously but nothing on the syllabus and much preferred dancing to homework! In a different school for ‘A’ levels I was encouraged to get involved in drama and debating and was recognised as ‘having potential’. At 16 I discovered the magazine New Society and through it the discipline of sociology – the rest as they say is history. I don’t think I ‘discovered’ feminism but rather found a name for what I thought made sense. I did a degree in Sociology and by the end of it had a definite desire to do research but didn’t think I could do a higher degree. I took a post as a research officer with The Health Education Council and muddled my way through the process of designing questionnaires and carrying out interviews while increasingly feeling that I really needed more sociological education.
I went on to start a PhD but never finished – no funding, no proper supervision and then another research post which had me doing fieldwork from Aberdeen to Exeter — all of which is part of the explanation but it was also the case that I lacked confidence in my academic abilities and was surrounded by ‘bright young men’ who had mostly come through Oxbridge and talked about theorists I’d never heard of as if they were close friends! In the early 1980s it wasn’t crucial to have a PhD, in the way it is now, but Thatcherism was in full swing and, there were virtually no jobs for sociologists, and, in any case, I didn’t fit the model of a standard academic – male and most likely to be a lone scholar. The upshot was that I worked as a researcher in local government for three years, followed by another two as a researcher at Cambridge and a further six as a temporary lecturer at Manchester – 17 years of fixed-term contracts altogether. This meant a lot of moves, changes of research direction and teaching everything from statistics to the sociology of religion.
Through all the ups and downs my involvement in the BSA was a constant. I had been a student member and joined again after graduating. I went to my first conference in 1978 and have attended all of them, bar two, since then. A significant moment, also in 1978, was attending a BSA Postgraduate Summer School on ‘Feminist Theory’ where feminist politics, and academic sociology came together for me in the company of a group of splendid women, some of whom are still part of my network. I got involved in the BSA Women’s Caucus soon after and joined my first committee in 1979. I was then was elected to the Executive in 1980 for the first of three terms over the following 35 years, during which time I chaired the Equality of the Sexes and Publications Committees and was responsible for External Affairs. I was also involved in the organisation of the 1991 and 1999 BSA conferences and several post graduate summer schools.
The BSA enabled me to develop a network of women friends and colleagues, across the UK, so that moving from job to job was not so destabilizing and which gave me a wider perspective and a great deal of support for being a feminist sociologist — such as when a senior colleague told me, in 1982, that my very popular lectures on sexuality were ‘just pop sociology’. This support was especially important when I was working in local government and feeling that I would never get an academic post. In addition, my organisational experience within the BSA gave me the skills and confidence to take on strategic and leadership roles in my ‘day jobs’. I became a Head of Department and, later a Dean before being a PVC and felt strongly that both feminism and sociology had a great deal to contribute to the organisation and management of universities. I always tried to draw on both in my own practice – how successful I was is for others to judge.
The current situation in UK Universities is challenging for women and I am conscious that I am a privileged ‘Baby Boomer’ with a pre-‘decimation’ pension, who is now on the edge of institutional life and so can speak freely but with little authority. However, it seems worth stressing, in these times of dispute, that we, as women and feminists, should focus on what unites rather than divides us — politically, academically, and institutionally. It is important to try to resist the over individualised, overly competitive, climate of our universities, but to do so by developing alternative ways of working and by building networks and bridges – including with women in senior positions. We also need to remind everyone – including the Vice Chancellor – that if a university is a good place for women to work — all women not just academics — it will be a good place for everyone, and International Women’s Day is a very good time to do that.
- This piece is part of a series of posts marking International Women’s Day. The contributors offer very personal reflections from a variety of positions, exploring themes of connection, power, marginality, solidarity and struggle. Read all the reflections on IWD:
Professor Sue Scott is a Visiting Professor at the University of Newcastle and an Honorary Professor at the University of Helsinki.