My WomanTheory Story: Jessica Abrahams on Harriet Bradley, Diane Reay (and others)

harrietWhen I began to think about which female academic I would write this blog about I found myself stuck, unable to choose only one. This was frustrating yet comforting as I realised that I have been inspired and moulded by so many strong female theorists. I have never been one to stick to rules so have decided to be a rebel and write this about two women who personally and in their writing have supported and motivated me: Harriet Bradley and Diane Reay. I have chosen to start with Professor Harriet Bradley as this is where my academic journey began. I first came across Harriet’s work as an A Level sociology student learning about intersectionality. When I started my undergraduate in sociology at the University of Bristol I was star struck when Harriet gave a guest lecture on inequality.

I remember her putting up a graph on the screen showing the income distribution of the population. Knowing her audience she pointed to somewhere near the top of the graph and said “most of you will fall into this bracket” she continued by pointing to nearer the bottom and said “but most of the population live off of this much and believe it or not a lot of families survive off of this much” (at this point she was pointing to the £6,000 per year bracket). I turned to my (wealthy) friend and said “I definitely come into that category”, she replied “yeah me too… I’m a student so I have no income”. She totally missed the point! In my experience a lot of people are oblivious to the poverty many young people in the UK are growing up in thanks in part to the glamorisation of life on benefits (thanks Chanel 4) but also due to the frankly crap education we get on these issues. At the time I didn’t realise, as I do now, quite how important that lecture Harriet gave was; the majority of the people in that lecture theatre were reflected at the top of that graph and as such it is likely that they had been very sheltered from the reality of the poverty that many people in the UK experience. Harriet is a strong theorist who is completely ‘down for the cause’, always fighting for those with less power than herself. Standing up to the elite university is not always easy, but Harriet has always done this, resulting in her being treated with disrespect from white middle-class male professors in the academy consistently trying to block her.

I was next to come face to face with Harriet in my final year of my degree when she advertised for a research assistant for a project called ‘Paired Peers’. The study was following a cohort of undergrads from different social class backgrounds at the two Universities of Bristol for the duration of their degrees with the aim of exploring the extent to which inequality is still experienced once at university. I immediately fell in love with the project as I felt it was about me- having been a working-class student at the elite University of Bristol. After much encouragement from another great female thinker (Dr Maggie Studholme) I nervously approached Harriet and told her how much I wanted to be part of the project. Harriet employed me, giving me the chance that I needed to prove myself in this upper-class male dominated world. Through the three years I spent working for the project Harriet and Dr Nicola Ingram nurtured and supported me, they taught me more than I had ever learnt on my degree, I see them as my sociological mothers. It is important to recognise and praise the work these female theorists are doing outside of their writing. They really practice what they preach. Harriet has nurtured many young working-class female students and given them opportunities in an attempt to even out the inequalities in academia. Her actions are examples of true widening participation and I will forever be grateful for the step up she gave me.

reayWhilst working on the Paired Peers project I met Professor Diane Reay my next WomanTheory nomination. When I read Diane’s work I fell in love with her (as I think many people have) the way she powerfully and emotionally writes about inequality gets me every time. I particularly want to mention two of her pieces that have moved me: ‘They employ cleaners to do that: Habitus in the primary classroom’ (1995) and ‘Shaun’s Story: Troubling discourses of white working class masculinity’ (2002). Diane’s anger and openness about her past has helped me to realise that I can be myself in academia. When I was an undergraduate I was still very rowdy and would walk around in my tracksuit with my hair slicked up shouting at people and in particular all the ignorant snobs that penetrated my university like a plague. I was angry and open about this. A male lecturer once told me I needed to calm down. He said that someone had given him that advice when he started too. At the time I was hurt and even angrier. I felt that he was suggesting that I change myself to fit with the middle-class university. Regardless of whether that was what he meant it stuck with me until I met Diane. She made me realise that it is ok to be from a working-class background and be an academic; that we don’t need to change ourselves to try to fit in with them. She inspired me to rekindle my anger and reclaim my identity. I have decided that I need to un-give that lecturer the advice he was given and help him to reclaim his anger and rowdiness as it is necessary. We must be angry!

Black_Feminist_Thought_(Collins_book)At a conference recently, I heard a fascinating paper discussing the effect feminist theory had on students in sociology departments around the country. I pointed out that perhaps it was worth looking at the way feminism is taught in methodology classes, because this, for me, is the feminism that has had the most influence on my thinking. Feminist theory introduced me to the (crazy) idea that research can and should have emotion. That striving for objectivity is not only impossible but foolish as it prevents us from using our most powerful tool of all, our own personal histories, experiences and insights. Patricia Hill Collins introduced me to the concept of the outsider within something that has been invaluable in my work. Realising that through my position as a working-class woman from an ethnically diverse neighbourhood in a middle-class, white, male dominated arena I occupy a privileged position from which to both view the world and conduct research from. Realising this is empowering and I am grateful to all feminist thinkers for this but in particular to those mentioned in this blog: Harriet Bradley, Diane Reay, Maggie Studholme, Nicola Ingram and of course Patricia Hill Collins.

I would also like to mention my mum Shelly Abrahams, a wonderful, strong feminist who is the reason I am even here today writing this blog. She taught me about love and compassion but also about being angry and fighting for what I believe in. She showed me how to be confident, something that has proved invaluable to me. Thank you for always siding with me and not the middle-class teachers when I was in trouble. You are my inspiration and motivation.



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