Late spring, the late 1990s: I am sitting in a small conference room in Oxford University. I am nineteen years old. There are eleven students in our group, twice as many men as women. We are in our first year studying for a BA in English Literature.
The tutor enters. She is in her mid-fifties, tall and elegant, with salt-and-pepper hair and shrewd eyes. She sits down and informs us that she is standing in for this lesson because our usual tutor is absent. We are here to discuss feminist literary theory.
We all take a look at the photocopied extracts we have been given in preparation: an essay by Susan Gubar called The Blank Page and Issues of Female Creativity. She asks if we have any opinions on this. A silence follows. I feel uncomfortable; hesitant. I am one of the few people at my college from a working-class background. I still feel as though I am lucky to be at Oxford rather than someone who belongs there. Though I am confident when I pick up a pen and shape an essay, I am unpractised at translating my opinions into articulate speech. Many of the male students in my group have grown up being taught to debate at private school. Some look as though they wouldn’t be out of place in a Bullingdon Club photo. Usually they dominate the discussions, locking intellectual antlers. The silence feels conspiratorial: a pact of rejection.
And then one of the men mutters, ‘I think she’s got a clitoris problem,’ and a snigger ripples through the group. He gives the tutor a sidelong glance to emphasise that it is her particular clitoris that offends him.
I’m not sure if the tutor has heard him. She chooses to ignore him. She carries on with the lesson, but it is not a success. Every so often, a female student engages with her, but the men remain unusually quiet.
I feel bewildered by what I have witnessed. I have spent my teenage years studying at a girls’ school. I have grown up with brothers, in a household full of men who have treated me with respect. My experience of the male sex has been compartmentalized: I have danced with boys, dated them, got drunk with them, but I have not had to sit in a room with them and compete, nor deal with waspish remarks about female genitalia. My mother was discouraged from studying for a degree because her chauvinistic father said it was a waste of time and money, declaring she would only end up getting married and having kids. She has made it clear that I am different: I am from a privileged generation. I am under the illusion that I have prepared myself for my degree because I have spent my holidays industriously devouring the greats of English literature, from Beowulf to Chaucer to Austen to Eliot. I have not studied De Beauvoir, or Greer, or Wolf due to the idealistic assumption that times have evolved: we are living in a world that has undergone several waves of feminism and is now egalitarian.
Sitting in that room in Oxford, I felt as though I had been launched into a battlefield without armour, weaponry or training, to fight a war that I thought women of decades past had already won.
Whenever I retell this experience, people immediately assume that the chauvinist I am describing is a supercilious public school boy. But he had studied at a comprehensive, seemed down to earth, had a good sense of humour and was well liked.
In our next tutorial, he argued passionately against having to study feminist literary theory at all. The tutor pointed out that such a line of argument would mean there was also no point in studying postcolonialism, or having any interest in anyone beyond his own small sphere of experience. This did not seem to strike him as a problem.
If I were to see my chauvinist again – at a reunion, for example – I am sure that he would be deeply embarrassed about his remarks, just as I feel angry with my young self for staying silent. He is happily married now, a successful professional, and behaves in a respectful manner with his female colleagues. We were all intelligent students, but we were also naive teenagers. By the time I left Oxford, I was what I might describe as a feminist-in-the-making, still under-read and confused by a world that was not as egalitarian as I thought it, but ready to fight if need be.