In 1988 women were scarcely visible in German studies in the UK. In 1988 there was only one woman chair-holder in the whole of the British Isles and that was Eda Sagarra, Professor of Germanic Languages at Trinity College Dublin. The CUTG (Conference of University Teachers of German of Great Britain and Ireland) published a listing of members which showed that in 1988 exactly a third of all university German departments had no woman on their staff at all, though the student body was then, as now, largely female.
I was lucky enough to be taught by Eda Sagarra all the way through my TCD German degree. As well as being an impressive intellectual with a daunting understanding of the social roots of German and Austrian literature, Professor Sagarra had a breezy, steely attitude to the world at large, and modelled a fantastic feminism for her students. ‘Wir sind ja alle FeministInnen, nicht wahr?’ she would beam at a class of shy eighteen-year-olds, making feminism seem like the obvious position for anyone as intelligent as we nervous undergrads.
I started my studies in 1993, only five years after the dismal situation described by Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly in the history of WiGS linked above. As she says herself in her twenty-year celebratory post, the situation for women in German studies is considerably better now (although the situation for German studies as a whole may not be). In a situation where brilliant female professors are leading German Studies in the UK and Ireland, from Henrike Lähnemann to WiGS founder member Margaret Littler to Anne Fuchs to Sarah Colvin to Erica Carter to Karen Leeder to Eve Rosenhaft to Susanne Kord and many more, where part-time women are accepted as part of the mainstream German Studies community, where gender studies are taken seriously as part of the academic German Studies mainstream, why do we still need Women in German Studies? Why do we need WiGS at all, when we could all be PIGS?
The question as to whether feminism is needed any more, and indeed whether a particular gender-segregated kind of feminism in fact damaged the cause in the 1980s, echo far beyond the tiny world of German Studies. WiGS postgraduate representative Emily Spiers is doing research into these very feminism wars in Germany, in her thesis on pop German feminism. In the classroom, when approaching topics that focus on gender issues – from women in World War One to genderqueer cinema – students sometimes ask, ‘Why ghettoise women’s issues? Why don’t we just study people as people?’ And there have been Germanists who, during the past twenty-five years, have also regarded WiGS as a ghetto, a pointless self-marginalising clique. Germanists study the humanities; surely we should be humanists, not feminists?
The WIGS committee meeting was on Saturday, and we planned our fantastic conference programme for November in Sheffield. The number of papers offered for WiGS has dramatically increased in the past five years, from nine in 2006 to nineteen for Sheffield 2013. That in itself is proof, I think, that WIGS is doing something right! We’ve been able to offer themed panels for the past few years now, as well as needing parallel panels.
As well as the papers, though, WiGS also offers a postgraduate training session, something unique to us in the German Studies community. In the past, we’ve offered talks on academic careers and on translation. Our thoughts for the training session this year could easily have taken up another full day. What about academic mentoring for female colleagues? we thought. How about a talk on the academic career path for women, from an experienced WiG? How is the academic career path different for women, who are still more likely to be working part time, have caring responsibilities, or be less mobile throughout their careers? How is the current crisis in modern languages in particular, and higher education in general, affecting women? How are LBTQ women faring in German Studies, and how is WiGS supporting them?
Very practical questions. Very important questions. Questions that will take thought, and research, but that need to be followed up. ‘That’s what feminism is about!’ we agreed. Of course there are culture wars within feminism, about issues from make-up to porn to parenting, and that’s absolutely right – every movement needs debate and diversity to make sure that it’s intellectually alive. But for me, talking about practical questions that affect women in my own profession – that is the heart of what feminism is about. And as long as WiGS addresses these questions, I think, the future of feminism is safe.