A version of this article will appear in the Summer 2016 edition of the St. Paul’s Girls’ School Review magazine.
Four years ago I found myself happily gestating my PhD research in art history at UCL, as well as my first child. What I didn’t expect was that one of the first universities to pioneer equal academic opportunities for women should in the twenty-first century provide so many obstacles to a new mother trying to obtain a higher degree. On the one hand these impediments were administrative and bureaucratic, for example any mothers who took a period of absence from research automatically fell into the category of ‘interruption of study’ as there was simply no option in the registry for ‘maternity leave’. This was despite the generous provisions for maternity pay by the bodies that fund doctoral research. The practical repercussions of this were devastating to my work- it meant a suspension of my UCL password and my rights to access the library, to consult on-line academic material, and even enter parts of the university. As a young mother it seemed that I was literally shut out of the ivory towers of the academy, but on an ideological basis it seemed that there was an even more urgent issue to confront, one of the apparent separation of the maternal and intellectual life and the implicit incompatibility of one to another that was suggested by the university’s discrimination. I was reminded of a since destroyed mural of ‘Modern Woman’ painted by Mary Cassatt in 1893 for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbina Exhibition and Fair in Chicago. It depicted contemporary women plucking fruit from the tree of knowledge and science and passing it on to a younger generation. This and the barriers I was encountering in the university system made me think about the responsibility women undertake in order to create the next generation, some of whom will be academics and leading researchers, and how in doing so they should not have to sacrifice their own place in the academy. Despite progress in gender equality it seemed that we were still daughters of Eve, bound by our reproductive role and seemingly punished for an appetite for knowledge.
Disillusioned and frustrated I reached out to find other women in a similar situation, who had become mothers during their postgraduate careers. The response was encouraging and together we formed a group called Motherhood and the Academy (MATA) to raise awareness and put pressure on the university to reconsider how they provided for, or discriminated against maternity. In one event we formed a sit-in with our children, another was a pop-up play area in an exhibition space. Once our voices were heard I am happy to say that necessary revisions to policy and access have been made but academia and the rituals of the academic career still have a long way to go before mothers and the family are truly welcome.