Review: Oxford Feminist Thinking Conference

On 19 May 2018, the MSt Women's Studies Cohort present their dissertation research at the annual Oxford Feminist Thinking Conference. Augusta Ivory-Peters reviews the day.

Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the course, speakers presented on a diverse range of topics pertaining to feminist thought. Many of the students highlighted original, intersectional and gender-informed work currently underdiscussed in scholarship.


Focusing on six central themes, the conference presented the opportunity to reflect on:


  1. International Relations and Gender Politics
  2. Gender and Education
  3. Building the Body - Deconstructing Gender
  4. Representations of Women in Visual Medias
  5. Invisible Gender Lines - Law, Business and Finance
  6. The Importance of Women’s Writing


Several speakers highlighted the need to engage in a dialogue that brings gender inequalities to the forefront of discussion. This included Alifya Loharchalwala’s reexamination of the impact of educational NGOs on young women’s empowerment in India and Joana Perrone’s presentation that uncovered a historical narrative of gendered based violence in Brazil. 


We were delighted to be joined by our keynote speaker Dr Laura Schwartz from the University of Warwick. Her paper entitled ‘Historical Reflections on Gender & Higher Education’ examined the paradox of early feminism at the University of Oxford. In particular, she chronicled the erasure of working-class women in the suffrage movement at St Hugh’s College. Founded in 1886, St Hugh’s enjoys a reputation as one of the first women-only colleges. Drawn from the middle-classes, for the first time, female students could move away from their domestic role and enjoy educational empowerment. Yet, as Dr Schwartz highlighted, for these women to lay claim to a masculine model of agency, they relied on servants to complete domestic tasks. In this context, the early feminist movement in Oxford rests on a class division of labour that underpins a capitalist society. Whilst not belittling the achievements of middle-class female suffrage, a progressive trajectory of women’s emancipation is problematised. In line with the ethos of the Women’s Studies MSt, conference participants were encouraged to challenge common misconceptions and rethink normative ideas. 


A number of students explored the meanings assigned to the category ‘woman’ in philosophical, literary, socio-cultural and historical thought. Sydney Heifler examined the hierarchical constructions of gender roles in post-war UK comic books. Finia Kuhlmann’s Butlerian analysis of women’s start-up capital, moreover, proposed gender performance as a strategy to circumvent prescriptive ideas of femininity.


Further representing the diversity of approach within the MSt, papers by Rachel Attenborough and Santina Sorrenti called for an increased engagement with queer studies within the ivory towers of academia. Rachel’s research explored the construction of trans female identity in the recent works of Julie Anne Peter and Meredith Russo. Conversely, Santina, founder of G(end)er Swap, a clothes outreach initiative that supports transgender and non-binary individuals, spoke about the subversive potential of gender non-conforming fashion activism on Instagram.


The answers that came out of the discussions were unequivocal: that the Women’s Studies MSt promotes a plural feminism without borders – one that reaches beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries.


The MSt cohort would like to thank the convenors of the Oxford Feminist Thinking Conference: Dr Sarah Crook, Dr Pelagia Goulimari and Dr Cláudia Pazos Alonso. 


You can find out more about the Women’s Studies MSt here.

The Women’s Studies MSt is organised with the support of the faculties of Classics, English, History, Modern Languages and Philosophyat the University of Oxford.