Higher education, social work, and a career as a dangerous woman


Viv 2015Viv Cree is Professor of Social Work Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is a qualified social worker and community worker who worked in the voluntary and statutory sectors for 16 years before becoming a lecturer. She was written and published widely on social work and social work education, including 13 books and very many journal articles and book chapters. She is active on twitter as @VivCree and her web-page is here.


I have thought long and hard about what my contribution to this amazing blog might be, and have procrastinated more than a little!

But I’ve now decided that the best I can do is to tell my own story of being a dangerous woman in the one place in which I’ve spent more time than anywhere else in my adult life – higher education.

 

Beginnings

I first went to university in 1972 as one of the lucky generation that received a full grant – fees and maintenance – which was just as well, because I was also a ‘first-in-family to HE’ student, with little financial (but a lot of practical and emotional) support to draw on. I found myself in the strange world of an Scottish ancient university, with ‘Grace’ sung in Latin before dinner in the single-sex hall of residence, students wearing gowns at all times, and a general sense that I didn’t belong, intellectually, culturally, or socially. This feeling of displacement found its relief in student politics, and in a very diverse and exciting group of women students who formed the Student Women’s Action Group. We kicked over the traces in any way we could, taking part in pro-Abortion demonstrations, whistling at men on street corners and examining our insides with the help of speculums purchased for the occasion! And we experimented – nothing was off-bounds. I left university with what I regarded as a second-rate degree, but had learned a lot about what being a dangerous woman might mean.

 

Finding a language

It was the Open University and a degree in Sociology that gave me the language to explain what I was feeling – to understand fully how the individual and society are connected – how my own personal experiences and feelings were part of a bigger picture. I went on to do a PhD, part-time at first because I also had two small children at this time, and was working as a social worker. Not a lot of time to be dangerous, you might think, and yet I was dangerous, in my own way. My decision to get married reflected family wishes, but my decision not to change my name was a political one. And my partner and I chose to share child care as best we could. So a dangerous woman will find a way through regardless.

 

Returning to HE

When I started working as a Lecturer in Social Work, I was delighted. I had, quite literally, found my place, a place to which I could contribute all my passion and energy and learning, while working alongside generations of students who were on their own life journeys. What could be better? And it’s been a great place to be and to grow. But there have been times when my dangerousness has come to the fore, and it’s these I’d like to say a little more about now.

 

‘Surviving on the Inside. Reflections on being a Woman and a Feminist in a Male Academic Institution’

This was my first journal article, published in a social work education journal in 1997. Reading it now, I am reminded of all the mixed feelings I had at that time, as a staff member on a fixed-term contract (I had two part-time jobs in the same department), who was acutely aware of what I saw as ‘gender issues’ in the department and in the university. Women were much more likely to be at the bottom end of the career ladder, and they were much more likely to be carrying the nurturing and supporting roles. Almost 20 years later, some of this has changed, but we still have some way to go. When the article was published, while many colleagues supported me, some felt that I had gone too far – it wasn’t done to ‘wash your dirty linen in public’ – but that’s what a dangerous woman does, doesn’t she?

 

‘So you’re here to provide the glamour, are you?’

This is what a male senior member of staff asked me in 2004, when I joined him on a platform to give a presentation to new members of staff about the competing pressures of teaching, research and administration. I was totally caught off-guard and didn’t know how to respond, but at the end of the session, when the (male) chair asked if anyone had anything else they’d like to say, I took a deep breath and said something like, ‘I think it’s important that we acknowledge that there are always gender issues at play’ – and I told them what the male colleague had said. There was a deep intake of breath across the room, and then an incredible number of questions from women and men alike, about managing family life, career hierarchies etc. I was told by someone afterwards that I’d been “brave” – foolhardy, I thought – but a dangerous woman is meant to take risks, isn’t she?

 

Revisiting moral panics

I was involved in an academic project between 2012 and 2015 that really exposed me to the ‘dangerous woman’ accusation again. It started simply enough. It was going to be 40 years since the publication of Stan Cohen’s seminal study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, and I secured funding from the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) to run a seminar series on moral panics, questioning the relevance of the concept today. Then shortly after our work began, the so-called ‘Jimmy Savile’ story broke, and since then, the UK has been embroiled in a series of high-profile scandals affecting celebrities, churches, residential institutions, government etc. etc. It is not my intention to rehearse all this again now, but it is enough to say that I have been writing and speaking in public about everything from child abuse to child sexual exploitation, trafficking, pornography, on-line abuse and a whole series of other issues. In all of this work, I have tried to take a critical lens to what is incredibly emotional and difficult area. I have been on TV saying that we need to worry more about the closure of youth clubs across the UK than about child sexual exploitation; that it is poverty and austerity that are doing real harm to our children. These views are not always heard sympathetically. But then, what can a dangerous woman do?

 

Looking ahead

I am now in my early 60’s and reaching an age and stage where I will either be written off as a ‘silly old woman’, or given permission to be as outrageous as I might wish to me – I’m sure everyone has heard of Jenny Joseph’s poem, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”? Or maybe I should just retire to my garden? (I can hear my family and friends scoffing at that.) Reflecting on this, I think the best I can do now is to encourage the next generation of dangerous women. It is they who have to negotiate the mine-fields of work, family life and society as a whole, and it is their solutions that will matter, for them and their children.

But I haven’t given up my life-time project either. My next book, to be written with Ruth Phillips from Sydney Uni, is to be called Practising Feminism in Social Welfare. In this, we will want to make clear that feminism is always a theory and a practice, and that ‘doing feminism’ must be a political as well as personal act. This means that we need to find ways of interrogating feminism as well as society, because feminism has been (and is) implicated in processes that marginalise and stigmatise others. It is therefore a broader, critical, intersectional understanding that we will be bringing to our project, as we look to ways of building alliances and taking account of issues such as class and age and ethnicity and disability as well as gender.

And that, of course, can be interpreted as dangerous.

So be it.