King's College Lawns - the site of the incidentLouis Ashworth with permission for Varisity

“If they catch you, you’ll get chucked out”, a presumably concerned student yells at someone posing for a photo on King’s College lawn. The student in question is clearly aware of the college’s “keep off the grass” policy, probably less aware of King’s exception for associate fellows, completed Ph.D. students and mature Master’s graduates.

“I belong here, my portrait hangs in the College Chapel”, Dr. Charlotte Proudman retorts, triumphantly tweeting (xeeting?) about the moment later that day.

But in Proudman’s account of the story, this was not just a case of “someone” and a “student”, but the tale of a woman and a man. Her argument that these comments “reflect male entitlement” may have some merit to them – I can’t imagine a woman presumptuously taking it upon herself to enforce the college rules in the same way. I certainly wouldn’t have. However, I might have looked over at her with some concerned glances, hoping she would catch onto the “keep off the lawn” sign before a porter caught onto her. If I did have such concerns they certainly wouldn’t have been stemming from a “deep-rooted belief that women”, like her and me, “don’t belong.”

Dr Charlotte Proudman turned to X (formerly Twitter) following the incident

Even if one presumes they’re coming from a good or justified place, it’s impossible to know whether there’s really a subconscious patriarchal hand pulling the lever. Sometimes there is, but sometimes there isn’t. The question to ask yourself is: would I have had the same reaction if it was a man? Proudman argues yes; in this instance, I think potentially no. Maybe a bespectacled man dressed in a gown pacing the lawns with ancient tomes in hand. But probably not a man posing before the building like an unsuspecting tourist. Despite Proudman’s certainty, we can’t know if the student would have reacted the same way. I tend to place my bets on the side of human kindness and assume he would: why antagonise an action that was probably coming from a place of goodwill? And yet, in all fairness to Proudman, it makes sense that once you’ve been burnt you would be more cautious of the fire. Especially when the heat is coming from familiar corners.

“I tend to place my bets on the side of human kindness”

As Proudman retweeted an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it’s clear where this flight or fight response is coming from: “he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and the Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.” However, this moment only serves as a patriarchal symbol in the context that Woolf herself could never become a Fellow or a Scholar due to her gender. Woolf goes on to express, “though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done”, not having any “charge” against the college but that it made her lose sight of the silver fish she was observing. A slightly different sentiment from the one Proudman expressed.


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I have witnessed sexism at this university and have experienced it myself. But the problem with playing the sexism card too often is that people (namely men) begin to take your more legitimate accusations less seriously. This trivialization has turned most malicious in the hands of the self-proclaimed girl-bosses I’ve encountered pulling the sexism card against their fellow women as a tool to keep them quiet in the face of conflict. Because obviously, any critique of a woman’s actions must be inherently sexist.

I was once accused of sexism myself after complaining that a fellow woman was difficult to work with – a very confusing turn of events for someone who has always considered herself an ardent feminist. I stand by the fact that I would have found her equally insufferable regardless of gender – probably more so if she had been a male. In fact, I probably would have Uno-reversed that sexism claim if a man had treated me the same way she did. But then again maybe that shows my hypocrisy: neither of us was coming from a place of gendered attack, we just disagreed.

“mistakenly flashing the sexism card too often certainly decreases its value”

The more I ponder over that situation, however, the more I understand why people are quick to make such accusations. Because so many issues do deserve it. Because so many times when I reflect on instances in my life, I know for certain I wouldn’t have received the same treatment if I was a man. Of course, this girl-on-girl attack was not what was happening in Proudman’s case. However, mistakenly flashing the sexism card too often certainly decreases its value. If a referee showed a red card to every allowable tackle, they wouldn’t be deemed fit to umpire the game.

I’m not saying that what Proudman experienced was or wasn’t a result of some “deep-rooted” subconscious sexism that the blinders of our historically patriarchal society make it too difficult for us to easily discern. Merely that I believe the student’s comment about walking on the grass came from a place of goodwill. And that trumping any and all conflict with the misogynistic ace isn’t going to help us triumph over the patriarchy any time soon, rather it might just lose us the game.