I could write on the multiple incidents of sexism, isolation, heterosexism and harassment that I’ve faced in the university setting; in particular, I have an archive of my interactions with my MA supervisor. However, I struggle to dwell upon how his actions, and the subsequent actions of my department and the bullying by my fellow coursemates when I spoke out, led to depression and anxiety that still affects me. Instead I’ll tell a story of strategic solidarity.
Fall term of my Master’s I felt lost. I didn’t know anyone. It was my first time in the postgraduate world, and I was “just” an MA student, only there for a year, temporary. I had a constant feeling of discomfort in my programme, linked to the sexist behaviour of my supervisor. Although many of women coursemates and I would confront him on his sexism in our classes and tutorials, I often felt isolated and alone in my frustration. My discomfort turned into deep depression and anxiety, effectively silencing me from speaking in class anymore. I began to question whether or not I had a place at graduate school, whether or not I belonged. I seriously considered leaving the university.
This all changed at the end of my first term when I attended an event on feminism at our university along with another woman on my course. I almost cried when one of the professors speaking addressed the issue of sexism on our campus. When she spoke about the silencing of women within the academy, I felt like she was speaking directly to me even though I had yet to meet her. Throughout the whole event my friend and I kept exchanging glances, smiling like fools, hearing someone recognise what we’d been through.
That night, I met multiple other women studying in my department; previously, I had not even known that there were female PhD students, having only met men at department events. These other women had faced the sexism and harassment for years, helping me understand that I was not alone and that there was a place for solidarity. I had finally found a space that allowed for hope. Hope that we could change our programme, hope that other women would not have to sit through our professor’s sexist rants.
In the end, I was able to speak up about the sexism I felt in my classroom through the encouragement and support of these women, helping to enact significant changes in my department and programme. Strategic solidarity, the recognition of each other and the issues we face within the university, can create a space for change. I am writing this in hopes that other women who have been systematically isolated will speak out about their struggles. You don’t have to confront the patriarchy alone.