Reflecting on her career spanning from news-reading on BBC’s Newsnight, to reporting for Channel 4, ITN, and more recently her roles as political editor at the New Statesman and columnist for the Guardian, she gleamed gracefully and remarked, “journalism is great, and if you’re lucky, you can even find your better half”. Jackie Ashley, the recently appointed President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, encompasses the dynamism of a superwoman and the charm of a family-oriented mother and wife. A strong advocate of women’s rights, she joined me in exploring where women fit in today’s contemporary issues.
As the migrant crisis hits the shores of Europe with even greater force, changing socio-economic paradigms have resulted in a construed reality for women. On the one hand, migrant women, consisting of a third of all refugees coming to Europe, are particularly vulnerable due to poor health conditions, low employment opportunities and are disproportionate victims of harassment, abuse and violence. On the other hand, the Cologne attacks shed light on the existing threats to European women, exposed to a transforming culture of harassment and hostility. Critics have been quick to pick up the silence of the European feminists who remain baffled by the irony of it all.
Ashley notes, “any type of sexual attack should be condemned but the danger is pitting one group of disadvantaged people against another group of disadvantaged people” – referring to the growing dichotomy between Leftist migrant supporters and raging Feminist activists. Her arguments resonate with various so-called “intersectional feminists”, focusing on multi-dimensional barriers faced by women including race, class and identity. Despite the differences in women’s individual struggles, Ashley insists that “a global awareness of people’s struggles” exists – refuting pessimist claims of a growing divergence in women’s issues in developed and developing countries.
When challenged by the argument that there should be some leniency in applying “Western laws” to newly arrived migrants, she adds, “when people come to another country, it is important they observe the customs and norms that apply there. In Western cultures women like to walk around the streets wearing short skirts and have every right to do so”.
With increasing fractures in European society as a result of the migrant crisis, I asked Ashley what she made of claims made by Nigel Farage, UKIP (UK Independence Party) leader, that a Brexit would be safer for British women. She smiled calmly before assertively retorting “I simply don’t believe that the idea of a mass of marauding foreigners coming into our country and raping and pillaging our women is true. It’s a ridiculous story that’s being laid out!”
According to some preliminary polls, Ashley is not in the minority, as an early report by British Future highlights, merely 29% of women have indicated they will be voting “Out” in the upcoming ‘Brexit’ referendum. But how would she respond to criticisms leveled at various levels, from decline in health care quality to severe unemployment and housing shortages as a result of increasing immigrants in the EU?
“The economic benefits that we gain from the EU clearly outweigh that,” she quipped, “we can look at other European countries with better maternity care, better education… it helps us to be in an environment where we can look abroad and see how things are done; we can be more progressive with some of our policies”.
Ashley further discussed the benefits to women of “working time directives” and the influence of EU “workplace rights” in the UK, highlighting her experience of doing a “job-share” 30 years ago with another woman who had a young child. Overall, her outlook remains positive regarding European institutions’ capacity to deal with the migrant crisis, in particular whilst addressing paradoxes in the realm of women’s rights, asserting the UK will benefit on a macro-level.
Taking a step back, I asked her how changing trends in women’s issues today play out in her two realms of journalism and more recently, university life?
“I’m quite pleased that the feminist struggle has widened out”, she notes, “today’s students engage with wider range of inequalities like race, social status and sexuality”. At Cambridge, Ashley mentions she was particularly struck by identity politics as opposed to “class or simple male female politics”. When asked about growing trends such as men’s rights issues, she nods in agreement saying “better awareness of people’s identity problems would help everybody.” She is eager to address identity issues across the university by encouraging dialogue and advocating for better mental health provisions. Despite the diversity of inequality issues, she insists women’s colleges retain their place, arguing, “all men’s colleges is what we’ve had for centuries and I don’t think that has helped men’s consciousness”.
The world of journalism too is embracing various changes, with women taking one step closer to the glass-ceiling. Ashley proudly cites recent developments, like the appointment of Laura Kuenssberg, as the first female politics editor at the BBC, Katharine Viner, as the first woman national editor of a major UK newspaper and the Guardian’s first job-share political editor position, shared by two women. She acknowledges that thanks to technology, women might have it easier in journalism due to the “unusual hours” and flexibility of writing “wherever”. Moreover, once women have an established base of contacts, they can “take a career break to have children, but carry on writing stuff and come back later”.
Nonetheless, she acknowledges the downsides of starting off, especially in political journalism, where Westminster is often a “boy’s club” and women predominantly the “junior reporters”. The solution to this is increase in numbers, insists Ashley, who witnessed a change in the working culture under Tony Blair’s administration with a sudden increase in the number of women MPs. It’s on the basis on such progress that Ashley assures me, encouragingly, “journalism is one of the careers which is very good for women”.
My train of thoughts whizzed past while conversing with Ashley, and unfortunately, so did time. Ashley’s optimism spoke from her eyes, as it reflected in her words whilst discussing a wide range of contemporary issues. As a woman, who has spent the last 37 years of her life facing challenges from all facets of life, some may argue she epitomizes the dream of women ‘having it all’. “We are moving very fast and we need to maintain the momentum” she noted referring to the evolving role of women. Coming from an Asian female journalist, take it from yours truly in saying, indeed we do.