by Elna Schmidt
I am resisting the urge to begin with a quote by Virginia Woolf. It seems too cliché to start writing an article in a university magazine concerned with gender equality, feminism and diversity in this way. And yet, I could not help but think of “A Room of One’s Own” when entering Theaterzaal C of the Elinor Ostrom building at Radboud University, one of the only buildings on our huge campus named after a woman. The sight of a room full of women taking up space always is a sight for sore eyes to me, a room of our own, if one so will.
I arrived with my friend Nanette, editor in chief of Raffia Magazine. My car brought us here; regional transport workers are on strike again because their employers still treat them like they are disposable. Therefore, no buses are running. Biking or walking is not an option for everyone, but who thinks of that anyway. Nanette has a chronic pain disorder called fibromyalgia, making it very difficult and often impossible for her to walk (longer) distances, among other things many consider a given. Luckily, inclusivity can be interpreted conveniently and exercised blindly, as we will soon see.
Signing up for this event almost felt comical, like a gender affirming practice: “yes, I am a woman.” It is my first International Women’s Day in which I actively participate. Strangely, I have always liked the idea of the day but never felt keen to take part. Looking back, I think perhaps I had this feeling that it was not for me, and I had no right to be included: I am an outspoken feminist, but not much of an engaged activist. I have never painted a poster to take to a march for my rights, or even donated to a women’s rights organization.
Fitting enough, the event starts with a video of a recital of “Ain’t I A Woman” by Sojourner Truth. This speech is quite literally for the history books, and a Black woman’s claiming of and inclusion in the identity “woman” within the context of the racist US patriarchy of 1851. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”. Inclusion is emphasized in these few words. Clearly, identity is not just what we ascribe to ourselves, but also what others are willing to let us assume in their eyes. I think about my registration confirmation for this event and can not help but smirk: does it make me a feminist and a woman? The lack of cis men in the audience humours my thought, however briefly.
It is evident I am not the only one experiencing a kind of cognitive discomfort. The questions of the members of the audience are concerned with when we should speak and when we should listen, how we can overcome differences and fight united, rather than tear each other apart. It seems to me that, although we are all sitting in a room of our own, the norms of this room and how to enter it are still being negotiated. I wonder what Sojourner Truth would have to say about this.
“One last question before we go to into the break”, prof. Liedeke Plate says, before the throwable microphone is almost playfully tossed to a woman who identifies herself as Dutch-Afghan. A common stereotype that women are bad at throwing unvoluntarily pops into my brain, but it is not being confirmed. How odd. Perhaps it is usually the presence of judgmental men that has women struggle with it. Or maybe gender is a construct?
The discussion on inclusion led and heard vastly by white women crumbles under the crushing weight of the question asked by the Dutch-Afghan audience member: if this event is inclusive, then are there any Black speakers today? No. There are not, and no one is able to give a reason why. The women’s convention of Akron, Ohio in 1851 is ahead of us here: Sojourner Truth was able to speak. There are no Black persons or people of colour sharing their experiences, knowledge, and insights with us today. After the break, at least one audience member is missing. Something I can not help but applaud.
The panel discussion following the break feels brief but interesting, nonetheless. It is able to include more diverse voices from around the world and facilitate a debate on how feminism can be more inclusive, also of those who dismiss and/or reject it. Nanette’s comment on making sure to include women with disabilities by providing (online) access to events like this is hardly given any thought, however: we are out of time. Of course, the irony of this remains unnoticed. To conclude the event of the morning, Dr. Katrine Smiet takes the stage to bring attention to tthe hreat of Dr. Susanne Täuber’s dismissal from her associate professor position at Groningen University. This possible dismissal resulting from her research and consequent criticism of the university’s diversity policies. As a protest, we all gather on stage, in front of a hashtag that reads #AmINext to signify the omnipresent concerns of outspoken feminists that openly criticizing institutions of power will get them into serious trouble. It is discussed whether we should smile or look serious for the image. Seriousness is the unanimous mood of choice. At least now men will be able to tell us we should smile more.
The event of the afternoon is exclusively in Dutch in a different location too far away for Nanette to walk. In the morning, a Dutch woman (rightfully) asked for audience questions to be translated briefly to Dutch to facilitate inclusion. This does not happen for English translation in the afternoon, but I guess no non-Dutch speaking person living in the Netherlands would have considered that a real possibility anyway. Still no public transport. Maybe it is assumed that people with disabilities do not have the stamina to join both the morning and the afternoon activities of this event so the two locations might as well be rather far apart? I drive Nanette to the event and park my car in a free parking zone, a small distance away from campus. I can use the fresh air though. The room of our own turned out to be rather stuffy.
Upon my arrival, my own bias hits me in the face like a brick, not unlike the heavy snowfall I just escaped. I am surrounded by women significantly older than me, and my thoughts immediately linger on our discussion of inclusion in the morning which were dominated by a majority of young people. It seems I automatically associate older women with a lack of reflection on what could be seen as exclusionary practices. With great effort, I push aside my fear that inclusion ends at the threshold of the lecture hall I am approaching. I need not have bothered.
“Vrouwen in de Spotlight” (Women in the spotlight) reads the presentation proudly displayed above the solid wooden speaker podium at the front of the room. This part of the day is organized by the Radboud Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogeleraren (Radboud Network of Female Lecturers) and gives women working at Radboud University the chance to speak about their own research or discuss topics related not only to feminism but also their own personal interests, followed by an award ceremony for exceptional women in research. Nanette turns to me, slightly but visibly concerned, and whispers: “look at how different the audience looks.” I guess I am not the only one that noticed.
The short opening speech emphasizes to the primarily female and white audience that we all ought to stand up against anti-woman sentiments and that women can do it all. I have a feeling that, luckily, we are all on the same page here. A woman with an infant joins the audience and I ponder how little you see mothers and their small children in workplaces, which a university also represents. Slightly hopeful that my concerns of a lack of inclusivity are unfounded, I focus my attention back on the introduction which is concluded shortly after and met with unanimous applause. The topics of the lectures that follow are diverse, unlike the audience: we learn about poverty and its relation to health, about nitrogen and wastewater, and motherhood, care tasks and careers. I personally learn that women working in academia can be a lot less reflective on contemporary discussions of feminism and inclusion than I would have, perhaps naively, expected.
Especially the first and last talk have my pulse quicken on multiple occasions. And not in a good way. Who knew the second talk given by prof. Laura van Niftrik, the one about nitrogen and wastewater, could function as a welcome break to me between discussions of issues of gender inequality. These topics usually fuel me and my desire to delve deeper. The first speaker, prof. Dr. Maria van den Muijsenbergh, who is a physician, explains to us the effects of poverty on health. She primarily lingers on the case of “Tamara” who is described as an obese and poor mother of a young boy. It is also implied that she is a little stupid. My discomfort of this description can not be overstated, and I wonder how Tamara would have felt, if she had been in the audience of this event by women for women. I wonder how much she would have felt as our equal. No one else seems to have an issue with the condescending scrutiny of a woman in a bad situation, but Maria makes sure we all realize it is not really Tamara’s fault that she is obese, as she can not afford to buy healthier foods and lacks the knowledge and intelligence to budget. We must meet poor people on eye level and with sympathy and understanding, she says.
Thankfully, we learn Tamara has met a man who is making her healthier. I sigh with relief: finally, a man coming to her rescue. Apparently, he takes her out for regular walks so Tamara is finally getting some exercise. “It is just a bit of a shame that they then often go out for food in the neighbourhood restaurant afterwards!”, Maria says with a small laugh. The audience joins her laughter. I am grateful we have been instructed to meet this Other, these poor people, on eye level and with kindness. This message would have certainly been lost otherwise. I want to speak up but choke because as a fat woman, I know from experience that my concerns will be dismissed as bitterness with my body. In the end, I regret my lack of bravery. Maybe women can’t do it all after all?
Prof. Dr. Natasha Wagner is the speaker for the presentation on motherhood, care tasks and career. I am looking forward to this one, given that I used to be a full-time caregiver and am well-versed in topics surrounding gender inequality in care. Natasha, to my disappointment but not surprise, only refers to tasks of motherhood by “care tasks”. Of course, the inequality surrounding childcare and its often-detrimental effects on women’s employment are as relevant as ever. However, mothers are well within the public eye, their struggles frequently debated, unlike those of (mostly female) caregivers. Women who can in fact also be mothers at the same time. After the talk I therefore ask why the choice was made to only focus on mothers and care tasks limited to motherhood, and not other informal caregivers/tasks. Natasha looks irritated by my question on exclusion. Condescendingly, she lets me know that mothers do not have a lobby and that people love to say “but what about these people who are suffering?”. I am being told this is not constructive. You can not always include everyone. My blood is boiling. “Thank you”, I hear myself saying, ever so polite in my exclusion and invisibility.
Awards are now being handed out, but I am fatigued from the pretentiousness around me. I hear Han van Krieken, Radboud’s rector magnificus, say that a workplace geared to fit men best is not the only reason women struggle to combine their childcare tasks with their careers but that they also have “a part to play”. However, at this point, all that is left in me is the air that escapes my lungs audible in a sigh of frustration. “I can not take you anywhere.”, Nanette tells me jokingly.
I watch the awards being handed out to Dr. Imke Lammertink (Faculty of Science), Dr. Katharine Mulrey (Faculty of Natural Sciences), and Dr. Saskia Glas (Faculty of Social Science). The presentation of each award is followed by a short presentation on their fascinating research. I enjoy this but also feel too drained to engage as actually deserved. Some energy returns to me when I see that the final award will be presented to Maria Luna-Velez, a wheelchair user. “Finally some diversity and inclusion”, I think, as she takes the stage. Her award acceptance speech is incredibly informative and interesting and given next to the shiny solid-wooden podium which can not be lowered to let Maria speak into the microphone attached to it. I choose to interpret Maria showing one of her TikToks of the podiums that can be lowered in the Maria Montessori building (the only other building on our huge campus named after a woman) as a small act of humoristic criticism. At last, the event is done and so am I. Time to withdraw back to a room of my own. On my way out of the lecture hall, I am told that Dr. Susanne Täuber was indeed fired by Groningen University. Maybe after this article, I am next.
In the conclusion of her speech, Sojourner Truth said: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” After my attendance of the International Women’s Day 2023 at Radboud University I have my doubts.
You can find the petition, crowdfunding and other links to support Dr. Susanne Täuber in her fight here: https://www.instagram.com/am.i.next.rug/ or https://linktr.ee/am_i_next