No it’s not her latest movie role – Angelina Jolie is to become ‘professor in practice’ at the London School of Economics. And this appointment illustrates the argument of my new book Reclaiming Feminism: Challenging Everyday Misogyny perfectly.
It is clear that female [celebrity] status is now enmeshed with academia in contradictory ways. Many have dismissed Jolie’s appointment as a visiting professor at the LSE from September 2017 as marketing and branding, arguing that it has nothing to do with scholarship, research or teaching. I think it is no accident that the appointment of a high profile female celebrity is to a course about women, gender equality and sexual violence. These gender questions have become causes célèbres of neoliberalism, although they do not change fundamental gender relations.
The film star’s many roles have led to her ‘teaching a course on the impact of war on women’. This will be part of a new MSc on Women, Peace and Security and the first of its kind. The aim is to develop ‘strategies to promote and enhance women’s economic, social and political participation and security’, with visiting professors giving lectures, participating in workshops and undertaking their own research (sic).’
Indeed, all of this sounds eminently laudable, especially developing international gender equality work, and putting violence against women and girls (VAWG) on the international political and higher education agenda. I argue in the book that this has been achieved by international waves of feminists in both academia and as activists, over the last fifty years.
In Reclaiming Feminism I take a careful look at how we as activist feminist academics have struggled to make the case for women’s or gender studies. Whilst these courses may now be on the agendas of colleges and universities, as a result of the long march of feminist activism, they remain marginal to the mainstream. More importantly, I also argue that feminism has been very empowering for the women who have engaged with the courses and wider political activities.
Nevertheless, what we, as socialist and radical feminists, named as patriarchy and what can now be called neo-patriarchy, sexism, or even misogyny, has really not changed. Male power remains firmly embedded in the economic, political and social structures of society. Neoliberalism – support for a free market, privatisation and deregulation – internationally has replaced forms of social democracy, transforming relations between individuals to become ever more competitive and fractious. One result is that there are differing and competing forms of feminism and gender equalities. There is a form of neoliberal feminism, arguing for gender equality in the current socio-political order.
Jolie has been absolutely sterling in the work that she has done in promoting women and girls’ education and equalities and arguing against VAWG. Her work for the United Nations began 15 years ago when she became a goodwill ambassador for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and more recently as a special envoy. Here she has focussed on the impact of war and violence on women.
This is similar to the work of other celebrities such as the young film star Emma Watson, who was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014, after winning a BAFTA. She helped launch the UN Women campaign HeForShe, which calls for men to advocate for gender equality. US First Lady Michele Obama and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also joined forces to promote girls’ education and equality in Africa.
Jolie was invited to work with the UK coalition government in 2012. The then Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague invited her to co-chair an international summit on ending sexual violence in war. This took place two years later in 2014. It was as a result of this action on VAWG that Jolie, together with the now ennobled Hague, have both been invited as visiting professors.
What is particularly ironic is that the monies spent on the summit far exceeded the funds given to deal with the actual problem of VAGW and war zones in particular. Another irony is that Jolie, unlike Lord Hague, has absolutely no educational credentials, not even an undergraduate degree. In what sense then can it be claimed that they are capable of teaching on a Masters course, particularly on the ticklish subject of sexual violence?
It seems to me that this illustrates the fact that gender equality has been taken over by neoliberalism, undermining all its radical potential and zeal.
On the one hand, the LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security is to be welcomed; but at the same time, the question of sexual violence and harassment remains a pressing problem not only abroad but also within colleges and universities in the UK. LSE was singled out two years ago, because its senior administration had to outlaw its student rugby club (for one academic year) because of its misogynistic rape culture. But the question of gender relations between students was barely addressed, and that of the relations within academic staff and management remains to be considered. President Obama has been more proactive in addressing sexual harassment on campus in the USA with his 2015 recommendations.
The Jolie-Hague example illustrates precisely how misogyny remains in the neoliberal academy with all the power still afforded to men as leaders in higher education. The feminism that is currently on the public agenda is a sanitised and watered down version of what we campaign for. Misogyny is an everyday occurrence, although we resist and are not engulfed by it.
Reclaiming Feminism: Challenging Everyday Misogyny by Miriam E David is published by Policy Press on 15 June.
Her book, A Feminist Manifesto for Education, is published by Polity Press.