Photso: Getty/AP
Show Hide image

Oprah Winfrey and Carrie Gracie can help turn outrage at gender inequality into wider change

Though both have the power to speak out, their messages are about acheving equality for all women.

Oprah Secedes from US, Forms Independent Nation of Cheesecake-Eating Housewives. There was a time when I found this headline, taken from satirical newspaper The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, highly amusing. Let’s all laugh at Oprah, daytime TV’s cheerleader for middle-aged women living dull, boring domestic lives!

The accompanying article describes “Ugogirl” as “a nurturing, supportive republic […] subject to a set of laws and provisions which prioritise access to healthy, low-fat recipes, creative home-decorating tips and inspirational stories of personal triumph over adversity”. Hilarious! A place, in short, in which serious concerns – male concerns – are side-lined and replaced by the fluffy trivialities and mawkish sob stories that constitute female experience.

It’s only now, two decades later and particularly in light of Winfrey’s stunning Golden Globes speech, that I can see the white privilege and misogyny behind this mockery. That a woman who’d grown up experiencing racism, poverty and sexual abuse had become rich and powerful, only to spend hours on air listening to mere mummies and housewives, was seen, not as admirable, but pathetic. It wasn’t that she’d chosen the wrong genre or target market – after all, Jerry Springer had done the same – but that she actually appeared to be taking these women’s lives seriously.

As #metoo has been reminding us, no amount of wealth and power makes a woman safe from misogyny. However, it’s one thing to express solidarity with women across all social strata, quite another to put this into practice. It’s notable that in her speech, Winfrey did more than ride the tide of righteous anger at Hollywood sexism. She took care to mention Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor and “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue”:

“They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”

They’re the women whose lives are all too often picked up and dropped again, considered unimportant – too “cheesecake-eating housewife-y” – the moment the drama isn’t deemed obvious enough for male-centric tastes.

Here in the UK, BBC China editor Carrie Gracie’s resignation over unequal pay may have lacked the same emotional punch, but it too is a call for gender equality that includes more than just the wealthiest women. In an open letter to BBC viewers, Gracie makes it clear that her original demand was not for more money for herself, but simply “for all the international editors to be paid the same amount”. She goes on to point out that “many of the women affected are not highly paid ‘stars’ but hard-working producers on modest salaries. Often women from ethnic minorities suffer wider pay gaps than the rest”.

While Gracie’s argument is less far-reaching than Winfrey’s – and certainly less engaged with questions of visibility and representation – it makes a crucial point about the difference between parity for some and equality for all. Yes, Gracie may be speaking out on her own behalf, but she is painfully aware of the cost of this and clearly conscious of being more able to bear it than others.

It’s been noted time and again that feminism does not represent all women unless it includes all women. It is not enough to have some women in positions of power; we also need to think about what they do with it. Admittedly, this argument is sometimes used to denigrate the idea that we need powerful women at all (why bother, when you could end up with another Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May?).

I don’t buy this particular line. There’s no equality in expecting women to be morally superior to men. However, we absolutely need there to be a clear, solid link between  the centre-stage rhetoric of women such as Winfrey and Gracie, and the day-to-day challenges most women face.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Susan Faludi discusses the problem of “harnessing the pure politics of personal outrage to the impure politics of society building”. Here, she differentiates between defeating the patriarch – the Harvey Weinstein of the day – and taking on the patriarchy itself:

“It’s easier to mobilise against a demon, as every military propagandist — and populist demagogue — knows. It’s harder, and less electrifying, to forge the terms of peace. Declaring war is thrilling. Nation building isn’t.”

It’s one thing to talk about BBC boardrooms and casting couches; another to talk about domestic chores, unpaid care work, male violence, Universal Credit, pregnancy discrimination, arbitrary distinctions between public and private economic concerns, all the little things Marilyn French captured as the “shit and string beans” side of female disempowerment. Right now, while there is momentum on both sides of the Atlantic, we need to be willing to get our hands dirty.

And as a figurehead for that, I can think of few women more suitable than Oprah Winfrey. A woman who’s had more than enough personal tragedy to offer up to those hungry for tales of “real” distress, she’s also been unafraid to deal with the less showy, more mundane side of female experience: diets, relationships, motherhood, friendships, women as human beings, not just bearers of pain. It’s all very well to bring the audience to tears, but there’s also work to be done in the aftermath.

Bring on the nation of cheesecake-eating housewives, I say. We’ve waited long enough. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Show Hide image

It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.