By Alex Cupples
Over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of feminist societies in Durham.
The first feminist society to be set up was University College Feminists (UCF) in 2012 and Durham University Feminism Society was set up at the union shortly after. There are now eight active feminist societies in Durham, each of which deals with a wide variety of issues from international women’s issues to problems faced by women here in Durham.
There is definitely a focus on women’s experiences at university in all of these societies, in particular relating to lad culture. Although some argue that this is because lad culture is on the rise, the recent rise in media attention given to feminism has made students more aware that they can change attitudes towards women and encouraged them to take action.
All of Durham’s feminist societies are open to men, although they are mostly run and attended by women.
Some of the colleges without official feminist societies are still committed to feminist activism. Chad’s, for example, have held forums on sexism and sexual violence and are planning to hold consent workshops in the Summer. Van Mildert college have just had a feminist society ratified and Trevelyan are in the process of setting one up.
The trend for the feminist society at university is something that can be found across the country; from high profile stories such as the banning of an LSE Rugby team by the university feminist society to the involvement of feminist societies in running consent workshops at Oxford and Cambridge.
It is encouraging that there is feminist activism taking place at universities but it is also a sign of the problems facing women in this environment. University feminist societies are tackling these problems but they are just one step in working towards and equal society for men and women.
We asked some of the active feminist societies in Durham about what they do and their experiences of feminism in Durham.
Durham University Feminism Society
Why was the society established?
Our founder, Jola, felt that there needed to be a society that was accessible to everyone and had the backing of the union. That’s also why we’re necessary today- feminism needs to be represented at a uni-wide level.
What do you do?
We mostly do discussion meetings on a wide variety of topics- highlights this term included a discussion on fatphobia and a session on women in gaming. We also run several different campaigns each year which can be fundraising or activism based- this year we’re raising money for women’s aid, a domestic violence charity.
Have you had any negative responses?
Just search through last year’s Tab! We seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers among certain people in our first year as a society. Particular highlights included Godfrey Bloom’s wife claiming we needed our bottoms smacked. More seriously, when one of our committee members had a column there she was subject to all-out abuse in the comments section. It’s each to laugh at some people’s attitudes in a conservative place like Durham but sometimes it’s also deeply depressing and can make you feel completely unwelcome. On a more positive note, while the backlash has been surprising the amount of of goodwill has also taken us aback.
What’s your response to the increasing number of college feminist societies?
I think it’s fantastic! The more feminism in Durham the better. However, I think it is important that we all work together so we can make the most impact. I’ve reached out to the execs of all the college femsocs and I’m hoping to set up a meeting by the end of term to work out how we can all support each other going forward.
University College Feminists
Why was the society established? UCF was founded in response to the prevalent culture of sexism at university. It remains relevant today as there are still so many problems facing women in university life.
What do you do? We host talks, discussions and film screenings and take part in campaigns at both college and university level.
Have you had any negative responses? We did have some negative experiences around the debate over the title of Senior Man, however, it does feel like things are changing.
Why was the society established? We wanted to create a society where people felt comfortable debating tough themes in a comfortable, safe space.
What do you do? We meet once a week and we tend to have a theme for each meeting. We also have outings to other FemSoc meetings and interesting talks.
Have you had any negative responses? You do get the odd comment about the society; “Isn’t it for women only?” is one we get a lot. Sometime’s people will try to provoke you into an argument but on the whole it has been a positive experience.
Why was the society established? I thought a college society would be a good way to raise awareness of feminism at a more immediate level that the university society.
What do you do? Our society is mainly run online, sharing websites and news articles. We also have fortnightly meetings where we discuss current issues in feminism.
Have you had any negative responses? We encountered some problems at the initial ratification which was met with hostile murmurs but the reaction has been generally positive.
Why was the society established? I set up the society as a way of raising people’s awareness of women’s issues and to provide a space for people to work on their own opinions.
What do you do? We hold weekly meetings on a range of issues from ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ to ‘Lad Culture at university’. We’re also raising money for the White Shadow’s Initiative and the Rape Counselling Centre for Durham and Darlington.
Have you had any negative responses? There has been very little hostility towards the society, much less than I was expecting.
Why was the society established? I was surprised that Butler didn’t have a feminist society, especially given its namesake.
What do you do? We cover aspects of college that can be improved such as emergency contraception and sexual health advice. We’re also looking into raising money to sponsor women in the developing world.
Have you had any negative responses? My FemSoc has never had any negativity but I believe a similar society here a couple of years ago had quite a lot of hostility.
Why was the society established? We thought a feminist society would work well at a college level as a platform for discussion.
What do you do? We meet fortnightly in the bar and arrange one or two big events per term covering mostly topics specific to Durham.
Have you had any negative responses? So far we’ve not had any negative responses. We were worried that a discussion on lad culture might get a little heated but it was a productive and positive environment that most people enjoyed.
Why was the society established? We thought feminism would work well at a college level, especially for dealing with problems in college- such as there being so few women on the exec.
What do you do? Although we are in the early stages we hope to meet on a fortnightly basis discussing topical issues and bringing in speakers. However, we also believe we need to act upon these issues by getting involved in campaigns such as ‘Giving: Strings Attached’ as well as fundraising for charities.
Have you had any negative responses? On the whole we have had a very positive response. The odd guy has said to us that they wouldn’t want to go because it’s ‘for girls’ but we hope to change these attitudes.