University Feminists Are Betraying Their Movement’s Liberal Past

University Feminists Are Betraying Their Movement’s Liberal Past

Charlie Peters
Charlie Peters
4 min read

University feminists are tired of tolerance. Universities are banning anyone and anything their feminist professors and students take issue with. Cardiff banned Germaine Greer; apparently, she’s the wrong kind of feminist. Goldsmiths College banned Kate Smurthwaite; she’s the wrong kind of comedian. Oxford silenced a debate on abortion. For the architects of the safe space, nothing is safe from being added to the list of the unsafe. ‘Blurred Lines’ was banned for being the wrong kind of song. The Sun was banned for being the wrong kind of newspaper. What today’s feminists value, above all else, is diversity — except, of course, diversity of ideas.

Feminism wasn’t always this censorious. The university feminists of today do not reflect the motives of the classical past of their movement. The Swedish feminist — and personal heroine of mine — Margareta Momma wrote extensively in defence of tolerance during the age of Enlightenment. In her excellent essays she defends freedom of speech, freedom of religion and promotes the view that women are just as capable as men of discussing political and philosophical issues. So long as women enjoy the same fundamental liberties as men, Momma wrote, women will be able to deliver their cases against discrimination, and in turn, break free from the injustices holding them back.

In her writing, Momma trivialises the men who patronise women. She says they cannot handle discussing philosophy, politics, and contrarian views. Today’s patronisers of women, however, are not those old misogynistic men with illiberal standards; rather, they are the feminists who tell women what they can and cannot discuss, hear, and read. No longer are women encouraged to attack difficult and dangerous views; instead, feminists tell them to hide, avoid, censor and ban.

Unfortunately (and mysteriously), Momma had her last word — the last of her pioneering writing on social reform — with the publication of just her tenth volume. But now, with all of the academic and public freedoms Momma never had, university feminists are limiting themselves and others from the opportunity to debate and discuss pressing issues. How ashamed Momma would be if she could see this illiberal atmosphere of self-censorship for herself.

The infantilising and coddling nature of this regression is commonplace in most university feminist societies. At Oberlin College in the U.S., young women are welcomed to visit a “trigger dog,” should these students need to cuddle. At Oxford, women are invited to do finger-painting and cupcake baking sessions. And at Manchester, women are afforded a special, comfy “safe space” room, where they can gather without encountering any nasty voices. What is the female ideal these university feminists wish to promote? She will not be strong, she will not be resilient, but she will be girlish and unchallenged.

At Edinburgh, where I go to school, students who oppose campus censorship are shut out of the feminist society. For opposing the legalisation of the sex trade, dissident feminist Magdalen Berns has been banned from future feminist society events. Feminists on campus have treated her like a sub-human traitor to women. They don’t understand — surely in part due to their own unwillingness to hear and debate those who disagree with them — how someone could ever have the kinds of beliefs Magdalen has.

These regressives need to remove their intersectional lenses for a moment and see the world as it actually appears, not the world they’ve been taught to see — with its endless display of injustice. They should rise above their desperate sense of entitlement and demand for comfort to discuss real instances of injustice that affect women. If these regressives embrace a diversity of ideas, they just might develop a stronger understanding of the real challenges women face.

That doesn’t seem likely, though — despite the very serious and dangerous issues women worldwide face today, university feminists care most about their own feelings of ‘safety.’ This has led to some disturbing instances of avoidance and misplaced acts of solidarity. In December of last year, the Goldsmiths University LGBTQ Society announced their solidarity with the university’s Islamic Society following a talk by ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie. Members of the LGBTQ Society stood in solidarity with members of the Islamic Society, whose President described homosexuality as “a disease of the heart and mind.

This trend continues in online feminist forums. On university feminist society forums, criticising female genital mutilation (FGM) is often a cause for dismissal — it’s deemed to be an instance of islamophobic hatred. Standards of cultural relativism and censorship are pushing young women away from engaging these difficult topics.

Women don’t need to be protected from criticism, just as they don’t need to be protected from opposing views. What a sorry state feminism is in when, instead of empowering women to fight back against sexists and misogynists, feminists fight for their right to not have their feelings hurt.

The university feminists of today prevent women from solving real problems they’re likely to face because they ‘protect’ women from the kinds of spaces where these issues are raised — such as a debate with fiery back-and-forth and even outright derision. Instead of empowering women to influence these difficult conversations, university feminists tell women to steer clear of them — to value the fragile feelings of the few over the threats to moral autonomy and liberty so many women face worldwide.

Women — and indeed, many men — at university should look to one of the most famous symbols of the feminist movement for direction on this matter. Miller’s We Can Do It! depicts a woman with a stern glare and intense eyes, grasping her flexed bicep. The poster was used to inspire women to join the war effort, to seize the opportunity of empowerment, and to be just as productive and resilient as men. We must allow, and encourage women to do the same at university. If instead, feminists encourage women to retreat to safe spaces, where women don’t have to flex their moral and intellectual muscles, then all of us miss out on strong, robust public debate. With feminists in their safe spaces, we miss such potentially powerful voices.


Charlie Peters

Charlie Peters is a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh.